Police Departments Across New York Are Being Run Like Secret Clubs

Do you have any idea how your local police department works? Do they have policies or practices that might affect how they interact with you or your family or the people you care about?

It may be harder than you think to find out.

Over the past two years, the NYCLU sent Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests to 23 police departments around the state seeking information about their policies and practices. We asked for basic information about issues that are important to people who come into contact with police—and to everyone—including the use of force, stops and detentions, complaints about alleged misconduct, racial profiling, and the use of surveillance technologies.

We got back, well, a lot of red tape.

Under FOIL, departments are required to respond quickly and comprehensively to requests for information, and all records are supposed to be open to the public unless they fall under a very narrow set of exemptions — like records that would expose confidential personal information or put someone in danger. Instead, departments around the state often reacted with a lack of awareness about their responsibilities, with apologies that they didn’t have the staff resources to answer our emails or with knee-jerk denials that left us scratching our heads. A few were wonderfully helpful, but some were bafflingly secretive.

If you don’t have information about how your police department works, then there’s no way to figure out if it works well.

In Ramapo, for example, the department initially blacked out all the sections of its deadly force and firearms policies that described when officers should use deadly force against people. When we asked why these sections were redacted, they told us that, for safety reasons, they didn’t want people who encounter the police to know how to “tailor their behavior” in response to the policy. While such a concern might make sense in the context of other police tactics—you wouldn’t want a reckless driver to know where the police place every speed trap —here the implication was that they didn’t want people to tailor their behavior to avoid being killed or shot by the police.

This was worrisome, to say the least.

Providing the public with clear information on how to behave in a way that should not lead to officer use of deadly force is something that can only increase — not decrease — safety for all involved. We eventually sued and got unredacted versions of that policy when Ramapo’s lawyers agreed with us on that point.

It’s pretty obvious why police complying with FOIL is so important: If you don’t have information about how your police department works, then there’s no way to figure out if it works well. Communities cannot analyze records that aren’t released, and they can’t propose policy reforms when they can’t access the policies that govern how they are policed. That’s why we FOILed so many departments — in urban, suburban and rural communities — and documented our findings regarding the transparency and accountability of police departments statewide in our recently released report, “Taking Cover.” We also offer a number of recommendations for how to fix what is clearly a very broken FOIL system.

If you’re interested in how your police department stacks up, you can read about all of the missed deadlines, over-redacted documents, and wildly variable record keeping here.

The next step, of course, is to turn over all of the information that we gathered—hundreds of thousands of pages so far — to you, so that the public can analyze the policies and practices of New York’s police departments when they’re held up against model policies and best practices from experts around the country.

In other words: stay tuned.

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Anonymous

Well, when you force a group of people into a “them” vs “us” situation then they will create their safe spaces.

Anonymous

Nobody is "forcing" police into an "us vs them" situation. That's how they've chosen to approach policing in poor communities...treating everyone like a suspect. They are the professionals. It's their responsibility to make the first move to improve community relations. Instead they are doing exactly the WRONG thing by becoming insular. It doesn't make them safer.

Anonymous

Police departments create a them vs. us situation when they murder. It doesn't help when prosecutors, judges and the police departments protect these bad individuals. You remember when the catholic church protected pedophile priests? It is the same. Police departments have no business hiring trained killers (combat veterans). The criminal justice courses provided are too broad. There needs to be a mandatory 4year program specifically for police officers. With accreditation and certification and a requirement that the certification be kept current. Courses need to include intensive training on how to handle deaf, mentally ill, suicide etc. etc. If the first thing a cop thinks of is the gun, she/he does not belong on the force.

Anonymous

Characterizing men and women who served their country in the military as "trained killers" is going a bit too far, and anyone who does serve their country should certainly be allowed to compete in the job market as police officers. Stereotyping ex military personnel does not serve anyone's best interests.

Deanna

Another Commentor has dealt with your combat veteran foolishness, so I'll just say I concur with those remarks.

'Better training' is a good idea. Four years? Who pays for that? No one, and that's why their training doesn't last any longer than it does. Continuing education will have to fill that gap. Unfortunately, that's very expensive also.

Police departments are moving to certifications. That IS important, you're right. But other ideas are cuckoo.

Anonymous

Actually more schooling isnt going to help. Its the supervision and city council/commissioner that is going to curtail the behaviors of police officers. But if regular people dont get out of their iphones and into city hall to make sure city hall brings proper discipline to the departments, nothing will happen. The system will not discipline itself. People that live there have to make it happen. The reason this is happening across america is because people dont want to interrupt their "busy schedule" to gather at city hall to talk to city officials and make demands. The feds arent going to do this for us, we have to do it ourselves.

Anonymous

Frankly I'd rather have trained killers than what we have on the police force. Untrained killers are far more dangerous.

Anonymous

ROE for military in combat zones are far more restrictive than for cops in our neighborhoods.

This is sad, destructive, wrong. If cops are not citizens first, with a special job, then they are an occupying army.

Kinda why we did that 1776 thing...

hellboy

Brilliant, concise and right on!!! Thank you...

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