Why we're publishing police disciplinary records and fighting for more
Today, every USA TODAY Network news organization in New York state proudly publishes a searchable database of police disciplinary records we've obtained from departments across the state under the state's Freedom of Information laws.
These are documents from which you can learn much about the quality of policing in your city, village or town.
They pave the way for you and your neighbors to speak up and lobby for improvements in your police department, if needed.
And the very fact of you reading the discipline reports can help prevent future abuses by police officers whose job it is to serve and protect your community, not cause harm. These documents also send a signal to victims of police violence or other misconduct that their experiences should be known, their voices finally heard.
Go ahead, take a look. You can find the records at data.democratandchronicle.com/new-york-police-disciplinary-records.
Sadly, a significant number of police departments large and small have failed to follow the law and release their disciplinary records. Only 90 police departments out of several hundred have taken steps to fulfill their legal obligations and share these documents.
To those departments that haven't complied, we pledge to join other parties in making the legal case for disclosure of the documents as the law intends. When police disciplinary records see the light of day, it is an affirmation that no public agency is above the law, including law-enforcement entities that enforce the law.
Toward that end, we urge our readers to join us in pressing your police chief to share officers' disciplinary records so we can post them in the database and you can study and learn from them.
Make no mistake: Today's publication of the database is but a first step, and not the last word, in shedding light on police misconduct and accountability in New York state.
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What's in the New York police disciplinary records we've obtained
What you'll find in our database are details about accusations of misconduct against police officers and how those cases were resolved by the agencies for which they work. You'll be seeing a rare sight; it was a remarkably unusual occurrence for members of the public to view these records before June 2020.
That's when a bill became law repealing Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights Law, which had served for decades to keep police disciplinary records out of public view. The state Legislature acted following the killing of George Floyd while being restrained by Minneapolis police in spring 2020.
The treasure trove of records made public to date reveal everything from how a small-town officer in the Finger Lakes community of Penn Yan misused police equipment and flouted departmental rules to the fact Dutchess County police officers disproportionately use force against persons of color whom they encounter in the Hudson Valley county.
Expect new details and real-world impact as more records are disclosed and reviewed by the public. In California, where a more extensive set of public disclosure laws have been passed in recent years, some revelations have led to the dropping of charges against individuals who had been falsely accused by officers of crimes.
The California experience to date is a sterling reminder of how disclosure of these records is a vital step for improved government transparency and safer communities.
President Biden has also backed legislation that would create, under the George Floyd Justice Policing Act, a federal database of misconduct complaints against police and any disciplinary action they faced. The legislation is stalled in the Senate, USA Today reported.
Passage of such laws, and our publication of the documents released because of those laws, is not an "anti-police" action. Rather, these steps occur in the very same spirit that led our nation's founders to promote a government "of the people, by the people, for the people" that would actually serve the people's interests and provide a curb on abusive behavior by agencies and officials.
More directly relevant to you is the fact you may now know the truth about how your community's police department operates and whether or not it appears to condone poor behavior by officers. The information in these records can empower you to press for the highest possible standards in local policing, something that's necessary to protect all members of the public effectively.
Indeed, these records can play a role in building trust between members of marginalized communities and the officers whose role it is to protect them. Too often, police have abused their power in dealing with Black men across New York state and the nation, resulting in fraught police-community relationships that put everyone involved at risk.
With revelation of the extent of abuses as described in disciplinary records, however, law-enforcement agencies should rightly face new pressure to end such misconduct knowing details about it will be made public.
Police departments resist; we persist in pursuing disciplinary records
We would like to say that police departments are all on board with disclosing the disciplinary records, but that is far from the case. A few hundred have not responded as required for one reason or another.
Some police departments refuse to disclose the documents citing their incorrect belief that disclosure is not warranted of disciplinary records created before mid-2020. Others resist making public cases in which the allegations made against a police officer were determined to be unfounded.
Still other departments are seeking to charge exorbitant amounts for the documents. And an uncomfortably high number haven't responded to records requests at all, flouting provisions in New York's half-century-old Freedom of Information Law.
USA TODAY Network New York sites aren't letting the matter sit. We persist in seeking records from every police department, with our reporters and our legal counsel reminding police chiefs of their responsibilities under the law. On Nov. 22, Gannett Company Inc., parent company of the Herkimer Times Telegram, took legal action against the village of Herkimer to obtain access to Herkimer Police Department’s disciplinary records.
This followed a FOIL filed June 17, 2020, with the Herkimer Police Department that went unanswered for nearly a year, despite multiple reminders. We took the step to take the department to court only after all other opportunities had been fully exhausted.
Unfortunately, the public’s right to know is often only functional when requesters have the time and resources to battle recalcitrant agencies, which is why we have taken on this challenge. This is no journalistic vanity project. It is, rather, a commitment to putting the people's right (and need) to know at the center of our reporting work.
State laws on release of public information are clear. It shouldn't come to a court case brought by a newspaper in Herkimer for police departments to follow those laws. That it has is a pointed reminder of how little recourse any New York resident anywhere possesses in grappling with their police departments to hold officers accountable for misconduct.
A thank-you to our partners at MuckRock and elsewhere
Our path toward publishing the police disciplinary records database began within days of the 50-a repeal measure being signed into law in Albany.
In June 2020, MuckRock, a nonprofit news organization committed to revealing government secrets, made many hundreds of requests to police departments across the state. We extend enormous gratitude for making and tracking all those requests to freedom of information law expert Beryl Lipton, then MuckRock's project editor and now police data coordinator for USA TODAY Network New York; she's been instrumental in keeping this project on track.
A partnership quickly emerged between MuckRock and our news sites, one that also includes students and professors at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at University of Florida.
Most recently, we have partnered with the University at Buffalo School of Law Civil Rights & Transparency Clinic, whose law students are reminding certain police departments of the requirements of the law. Also central to such efforts is our outside legal counsel Greenberg Traurig of Albany, which is pursuing the Herkimer legal action and preparing other cases against departments that have resisted making public their records.
Among others ensuring the database would launch are USA TODAY Network developer Yoonserk Pyun, Rochester reporter and data expert Sean Lahman and Rochester special projects and investigations editor Matthew Leonard.
In a larger sense, we're indebted to those journalists from other news organizations and to groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union and to First Amendment attorneys who have been fighting the good fight to bring into public view these police disciplinary records.
Similarly, we recognize the victims of police violence and police misconduct who have suffered for many years in darkness without public acknowledgement of the abuses they faced.
Why the publication of the police discipline data truly matters:
- When the public can see something, our democracy is far more likely to work as intended.
- When the public can see something, it becomes empowered to act.
- When the public can see something, elected and appointed officials are far more likely themselves to act to fix things.
Today, the public can see hundreds of police disciplinary records, with many more still to come.
These records-access battles are far from won, but we will prevail, and our communities and our state will be much the better for it.
Michael Kilian is New York state editor for the USA TODAY Network. Reach him at email@example.com.