The NYPD has entered into a stipulation and judicial order that commits the department to complying with requirements of New York’s Freedom of Information Law that it has systematically flouted for more than a decade.
Since 2006, state FOIL law has required government agencies to “accept requests for records submitted in the form of electronic mail and [to] respond to such requests by electronic mail,” if requested to do so; to provide responsive records when it’s reasonably able; and to publish on their websites an email address to which records requests can be sent. For more than a decade, the NYPD has operated in violation of each of these provisions of state law. But in settling a lawsuit brought by Keegan Stephan, a law student and activist, the NYPD has committed itself to finally bringing itself into compliance.
Stephan’s lawsuit stems from a Freedom of Information request he made to the NYPD about its use of Long Range Acoustic Devices, or LRADS, which police deployed as a crowd-control weapon against Black Lives Matter protesters in 2014. Stephan (who is also party to a federal civil rights lawsuit against the NYPD by protesters who were subjected to the LRAD) filed a records request seeking what policies, guidelines, and training materials the department has governing the use of these powerful devices. Throughout the long chain of FOIL requests, denials, and administrative appeals, the NYPD refused to receive FOIL communications by email or to respond by email, as Stephan had requested and as the law requires.
For those who concern themselves with government transparency, the NYPD’s intransigence is hardly surprising. The department has a long history of cultivating opacity and violating state open records law.
“The NYPD has been in so many ways hostile to freedom of information law,” said Bob Freeman, who helped draft New York’s sunlight laws, which went into effect in 1974, and has served as executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government in the decades since. “It’s unfortunate that a government agency has simply ignored a provision of law that has been in effect for more than a decade — and that goes double for a law enforcement agency! It should never have taken a lawsuit to encourage the government to conform with the law.”
If Freeman sounds a little heated on the subject, it’s because he is. “I get angry when a government agency, for no good reason, chooses to ignore the law,” he said. “In my opinion, when that occurs, people lose respect for the government.”
For his part, Stephan said he is pleased with the outcome of his FOIL lawsuit. “The Freedom of Information Law is a tool for the public to make our police transparent and accountable,” he said. “It’s an imperfect tool for a lot of reasons, but the more we can hold them accountable, the better it is for everyone. This case is proof of that.”
Gideon Oliver, who with Elena Cohen represented Stephan in his FOIL lawsuit, said the stipulation will contribute to police accountability. “We need the department to follow FOIL so we can follow what the police are doing,” he said. “New Yorkers and their City Council and others need basic information if there is going to be any kind of oversight over the police department.”
The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.
Image via Huseyin/Flickr