The New York City Police Department’s policies dealing with Freedom of Information records requests are being kept secret. The handbook that guides the NYPD, and would inform the public, regarding operating policies and procedures is kept closed and unavailable based on certain regulations that forbid exposing.
A reporter, Shawn Musgrave, tired to see the NYPD’s handbook and was denied access. The New York State Freedom of Information Law allows for the release of certain public records. Musgrave’s request was apparently lawful under state law. Musgrave says the letter he received included this the explanation the records officer refused disclosure due to statues which prohibited revealing information of an attorney-client privilege. The letter, which Musgrave received February 28, was in response to a request submitted in December 2013.
In 2013, reporters found that the NYPD has stamped “secret” on departmental records that it wanted to keep from being released to the public. Arbitrarily stamping a document with a secret classification is not legally binding in New York State.
Sources say that the NYPD has consistently lost court battles over the issue of avoiding simple records requests. The requests have been filed by many groups including reporters, activists and citizens. Some of the more famous battles the NYPD has lost happened when a judge compelled the department to provide statistics on the city’s unconstitutional stop-and-frisk law, handgun applications and hate crimes.
The executive director of the advocacy group, NY Committee on Open Government, Robert Freeman, called the handbook in question a “basic material” which the police department has no justification to hide from public reading.
“It is in the public’s interest to know how the NYPD functions,” Freeman said. “If this guide represents the policy of the department, it is not privileged.”
With his request for information turned down again, Musgrave intends to pursue litigation. Before being elected mayor last year, Bill de Blasio gave the department an “F” for their ignoring requests under the Freedom of Information Law. Only one other agency did as bad on the Public Advocate’s Transparency Report Card.
While encouraging agencies to post frequently requested information online, de Blasio also said that said that agencies that flagrantly fail to follow the law should be fined. De Blasio’s path to the mayor’s office last year was paved with transparency demands. Since being elected, de Blasio has been criticized by advocacy groups for not living up to his openness pledge. During his first month as mayor, de Blasio was taken to task by some groups for meeting behind closed doors with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful lobbying group in the city. De Blasio has also had closed door meetings with developers and federal government staff causing some grief for transparency advocates.
Newly appointed NYPD commissioner, Bill Bratton, has spoken in favor of transparency. Bratton stated that he would ensure collaboration between police and the public to a level “unlike anything” that the city has seen.
“There should be no secrets in the NYPD,” he said in front of the Citizens Crime Commission in February. “We’re going to do more to open up the organization.”
In the autumn of 2013, the NYPD brass ordered precincts to stop giving out crime data to the media. The precincts were told to redirect reports to a central public information officer.
Some see the overall policy as being further indication of the department’s antagonism towards public accountability.
Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said during the waning days of Mayor Bloomberg’s administration that he expected to see the department take a new approach to transparency. Pointing forward to January when de Blasio would take office, Dunn said the new policy would benefit the press and public in general.