As the public becomes increasingly concerned with police accountability, news organizations play a crucial role in providing information about recent police misconduct-related incidents, from the use of excessive force to stop-and-frisk practices. Yet even as the public demands greater transparency, the New York Police Department refuses to disclose the disciplinary outcomes when complaints of police misconduct are substantiated. The NYPD recently appealed a New York Supreme Court’s order to grant the New York City Liberties Union (NYCLU) access to those documents.
On October 7, MFIA filed an amicus brief on behalf of a coalition of ten news organizations in support of NYCLU’s right to access NYPD disciplinary decisions. The brief advanced two main arguments. First, news organizations require access to the final decisions of NYPD disciplinary proceedings to report on matters of public concern within the police department. Recent polls reveal that many Americans do not trust police, especially when it comes to holding officers accountable for misconduct. This is perhaps unsurprising given the leniency NYPD has tended to show its officers when civilian complaints against them are substantiated. For the majority of cases substantiated by the independent Civilian Complaint Review Board, NYPD has departed downward from the review board’s disciplinary recommendations. As long as NYPD continues to withhold the reasoning and outcome of such disciplinary decisions, it is unlikely that this public mistrust can be remedied. News organizations can help inform the public understanding of police accountability by revealing whether the NYPD’s disciplinary system is functioning effectively.
Our second argument used a news organization’s perspective to respond more directly to the arguments advanced by the NYPD in its brief. NYPD argued for an expansive interpretation of section 50-a of the New York State Civil Rights Law, a provision on personnel confidentiality, to categorically exempt disciplinary decisions from mandatory disclosures under New York’s Freedom of Information Law, Pub. Off. L. §§ 84 et seq (FOIL). We argued that such an interpretation would improperly deny access to information that news organizations need to furnish a full public accounting of NYPD’s disciplinary process. News organizations have relied on FOIL to report on issues ranging from the costs of settlement for every civil-rights lawsuit brought against the NYPD since 2009 to the locations where the most civilian complaints have been filed. NYPD’s proposed limitation severely limits journalists’ ability to use FOIL, undercutting the statute’s broad transparency mandate.
NYPD filed its reply brief on October 14, 2016. In today’s climate of tense civilian-police relations, the court’s decision may have important consequences not only for the newspapers who report on NYPD proceedings, but also for the broader public who rely on such reporting in evaluating police performance.