Schenectady

With shroud lifted, FOIL remains default for accessing police disciplinary records

Currently, public must file for information
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Categories: News, Schenectady County

SCHENECTADY — Advocates for police accountability won a major victory last month with the repeal of a longstanding state law shielding police disciplinary records from the public.

Now what?

The city of Utica is beginning to post records online, including those of the chief and deputy chief, pledging to eventually provide all personnel records in an “effort to maintain transparency.”

The Daily Gazette asked five local police departments if they would work to get records online and if not, how they would comply with making those documents available to the public.

None have immediate plans to get records online .

The Schenectady Police Department is still in the review stage.

“[Public Safety] Commissioner [Michael] Eidens is currently reviewing the repeal of 50-a and we will be discussing our plans once he has completed his research,” said city Police Chief Eric Clifford.


At present, the department will comply with any Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests, Clifford said, referring to the procedure used to obtain public records from government agencies.

The chief said he’s aware of Utica’s approach and will discuss the concept with Eidens.

The Schenectady County Sheriff’s Department also will release documents through the standard FOIL process.

“Once received, the Sheriff’s Office will ensure that the FOIL request is properly fulfilled in accordance with the recent repeal of 50-a signed by the governor,” said county Sheriff Dominic D’Agostino.

The process for obtaining documents is murkier in Saratoga Springs, where city Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton declined comment.

The Albany and Amsterdam police departments did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a package of police reforms last month following sustained protests sparked by the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody.

Advocates, including the Legal Aid Society and the New York Civil Liberties Union, have long pushed for repeal for what’s known as state Civil Rights Law Section 50-a, contending localities used the statute to hide police misconduct.

The push for repeal accelerated in 2014 following the death of Eric Garner while in the custody of Daniel Pantaleo, an NYPD officer whose disciplinary record was kept private.

Garner’s survivors and the mothers of other Black men killed by police said they should have records of any misconduct.

Police unions strongly opposed repeal, claiming the release of records would allow a vengeful public to target officers and their families.

Personal information, including home addresses, personal phone numbers and email addresses, will be redacted from the documents ahead of their release.

Getting records online is the next step, said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany.

He urged the state to work with local law enforcement agencies to build platforms for publishing information on open data portals.

“The state should be providing training, best practices and open data training,” Kaehny said.

The platform makes it easier for elected officials, reporters and advocates to analyze data, said Kaehny, who pointed at Cincinnati’s city-run site and portals in Chicago and New York City as models to emulate.
 

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Each use different data sets to paint portraits of overall policing in those jurisdictions.

Cincinnati’s site allows members of the public to analyze numbers of complaints filed, which officers were involved and in which neighborhoods the incidents happened.

Chicago’s Citizens Police Data Project has made public hundreds of thousands of police disciplinary records and complaints.

And the Legal Aid Society’s CAPstat has published payroll information, details from federal lawsuits and New York Police Department disciplinary records made public following a 2018 FOIL request by BuzzFeed News.

Each website balances privacy with transparency, Kaehny said.

“They address a lot of the concerns out there about potential over-transparency that police have about officers being doxxed or harassed, which is just not the case in Chicago, Cincinnati or New York City where extensive data is out,” Kaehny said.

The Legal Aid Society says taking a proactive approach to releasing data is more efficient than fulfilling FOIL requests on a case-by-case basis, a process which can often be bureaucratic, drawn-out and “hyper-technical,” said Molly Griffard, legal fellow at the Legal Aid Society’s Cop Accountability Project.

“It can be a really lengthy, difficult process that takes resources both from the person asking for the records but also for the city government processing and potentially fighting the request,” Griffard said in an appearance on the Capitol Pressroom.


Repeal of 50-a is just one of the reforms Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law last month, including cementing the right to film police activity and banning chokeholds.  

Cuomo also signed an executive order requiring departments to modernize strategies with community feedback at the risk of losing state funding, and has pushed activists to channel their energy into that effort. 

 

“What change, what reform do you want?” Cuomo said last month. “And how do we do it? That’s the intelligent progression of this moment towards action. And this moment without action is a wasted moment.”

Clifford said the department is in the early stages of handling that process.

“We are in the process of forming a leadership working group to hold community conversations regarding the Police Department and what the community as a whole would like to see in the form of changes,” Clifford said. “We will not be making any changes until after those conversations are held.”

Policies will eventually be posted online once the department completes its state accreditation process.

“I anticipate all policies being online by early fall in addition to the accreditation process being completed,” Clifford said.

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