NYCLU Sues Buffalo Police Department for Withholding Officer Misconduct Records

lawsuit against the Buffalo Police Department for unlawfully denying the NYCLU’s requests
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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Today, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) with pro bono counsel from Shearman & Sterling LLP, filed a lawsuit against the Buffalo Police Department for unlawfully denying the NYCLU’s requests for the full slate of records related to police misconduct authorized to be disclosed following the repeal of 50-a.

NYCLU submitted a FOIL request seeking a large array of public records specifically authorized to be disclosed under state FOIL after the repeal of 50-a, a statute of the state civil rights code that had been used for years to bar the disclosure of police misconduct. The Buffalo Police Department has responded to the request, which sought a wide array of disclosable documents related to disciplinary records, use of force, stops, civilian complaints, policies, investigative reports, diversity, trainings, and collective bargaining agreements, by providing one single file.

“The Buffalo Police Department cannot withhold disciplinary records to which the public is now legally entitled after the repeal of 50-a. Police transparency is now codified into law, and police departments can no longer respond to an investigation into pervasive patterns of discrimination with foot-dragging delays or by arguing that the police must be trusted to police themselves, immune from public scrutiny,” said Bobby Hodgson, senior staff attorney at the NYCLU. “Buffalo residents have waited long enough—they have a right to know the extent of police misconduct that occurs in their communities.”

The proceeding is part of a statewide police transparency campaign in which the NYCLU and pro bono counsel filed state FOIL requests with twelve New York police departments and the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. As part of this campaign, NYCLU has filed lawsuits against the Rochester Police Department and Syracuse Police Department for withholding public records subject to state FOIL. Following NYCLU intervention, a State Supreme Court Judge in Schenectady reaffirmed that the repeal of 50-a means that all complaints—not just complaints that result in discipline—must be produced under FOIL, and that FOIL’s privacy exemption cannot re-establish 50-a under another name.

“Amid the nationwide reckoning with police brutality and racial injustice following the killing of George Floyd, Daniel Prude, and countless others, the Buffalo Police Department remains steadfast in ignoring requests for public records made on behalf of the constituents they have sworn to protect and serve,” said Lisa Laplace, senior staff attorney and counsel for pro bono at the NYCLU. “With the support and collaboration of our pro-bono partners, we will ensure no police department or corrections and community supervision department continues to hide the scale of their misconduct in New York State.”

“Those who enforce the law must also obey it. It is laughable to believe that only a single officer’s disciplinary file is discoverable, and if the Buffalo Police Department continues to obstruct the public’s right to transparency and accountability of public officers, we are confident that the court will quickly educate them as to their error,” said Philip Urofsky, Partner at Shearman & Sterling LLP. “The Police Department’s lack of response is in direct contrast to the New York State Legislature’s goal in repealing 50-a of ‘helping the public to regain trust that law enforcement officers and agencies may be held accountable for misconduct.’”

You can find case materials here.

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