The New York Civil Liberties Union expects to receive more than 1,000 reports on police shootings next month following a lengthy freedom of information battle with the New York City Police Department.
The reports, which date from 1997 to present, contain detailed information about every time that a New York City police officer fired at a civilian. In 2009, the NYCLU filed a lawsuit in the State Supreme Court in Manhattan claiming that the documents are public records. The police department argued that the reports are exempt from disclosure because they contain confidential information that is “too intertwined” with non-confidential information and could interfere with law enforcement investigations.
The court ruled in favor of the NYCLU earlier this year, holding that the police department could redact confidential information, such as officer, victim and witness names. “Blanket exemptions” run counter to the state Freedom of Information Law goal of giving the public “maximum access to government documents,” the court held.
The police department filed an appeal, but dropped it last month because it lost a similar case against the NYCLU.
"Since another court rejected the City's arguments in a related case, we believe it is in the best interest of the taxpayers to not prolong the litigation and provide redacted copies of the reports," the city's law department spokeswoman Connie Pankratz said in a statement.
In that case, the NYCLU sought data regarding race from annual police department statistical reports. The court there held that the police department did not qualify for a FOIL exemption because it could redact confidential information.
These cases show how difficult it is for organizations such as newspapers to get records from the police department unless litigation is involved, NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn said.
“For the most part, news organizations won’t sue the NYPD, but, for the most part, that’s why they get very few documents from them,” Dunn said.
New York Daily News police bureau chief Rocco Parascandola said that filing a FOIL request can be like “spitting in the ocean,” and that public information lawsuits can be unrealistic for papers like his, as finances have forced cuts on legal services.
With the ruling, New York City will just release reports from the nearly 15-year span at issue, but organizations should have an easier time getting records from new shootings as they would not need to litigate, Dunn said. The documents include more than 1,400 pages of incident reports that the NYPD prepared within 24 hours and 90 days after each shooting.
Bill Lewinski, spokesperson for the International Union of Police Associations, said he is uncomfortable with widespread distribution of the documents.
“Use of force situations, when analyzed by someone with no training in the use of force, will be misinterpreted,” Lewinski said. “Therefore, any conclusions they come up with are going to be flawed, and that is a serious problem for us.”
The NYCLU, which will make the reports freely available, filed the suit to get information on such topics as internal police department investigations and the role of race in the shootings. It chose the 15-year time span because it wanted to date back to the five years before New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly started his tenure, Dunn said.
The reports include such well-known cases as the deaths of Amadou Diallo in February 1999 and of Sean Bell, who police shot in November 2006 on the morning of his wedding.