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Police must release personnel records to journalists

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  1. Freedom of Information
NEW YORK--Names of Schenectady police officers who were disciplined for throwing eggs at a car during an officer's bachelor party…

NEW YORK–Names of Schenectady police officers who were disciplined for throwing eggs at a car during an officer’s bachelor party must be released to The (Schenectady) Daily Gazette and the Albany Times Union, a divided panel of the Supreme Court, Appellate Division in Albany ruled in early June.

The court, a mid-level appellate court, held 3-2 that an exemption in the state Freedom of Information Law for performance evaluations in police officers’ personnel records is inapplicable when the information is sought by the media to report news rather than in connection with potential litigation against officers.

Relying on the exemption’s legislative history and a case decided by New York’s highest court, the appeals court found that the exemption was enacted to prevent “vexatious” use of personnel records in the context of civil or criminal litigation.

Because the officers have “not established, in any convincing way, that the information sought would be used in existing or potential litigation,” the court ordered the names of the officers and their respective punishments released.

Two dissenting justices asserted that the majority’s reliance on a “litigation/nonlitigaton” distinction “lifts the cloak of secrecy afforded by statute and usurps legislative function.”

In May 1997, 18 off-duty Schenectady police officers chartered a bus for an officer’s bachelor party. During a tour of local night spots, some of police officers on the bus threw eggs at a car and one of its occupants. The officers were later disciplined by the police chief.

The newspapers then filed a Freedom of Information Law request, seeking the names of the officers and their respective punishments. The newspapers did not dispute that the information was contained in personnel records and could be used for performance evaluations. The city records officer and the mayor denied the requests and the newspapers filed suit in district court in Schenectady. The lower court also denied the request and the newspapers appealed. (In the Matter of Daily Gazette Company v. City of Schenectady; Media Counsel: Andrew Rose and Michael Grygiel, Albany)