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FOILed by the Freedom of Information Law

March 13th, 2005 · No Comments

If you haven’t already seen it, there was an incredible article about New York’s Freedom of Information Law in the Journal News today. Not surprisingly, it seems that almost every organization audited by the Rockland Journal News denied the otherwise legal FOIL requests without due justification. Screwing around with your constituents that are merely trying to exercise their rights breeds contempt. I feel like making a few requests myself now. On that note, I’d like to request any information that they may have on me. I’d be curious to see if anything that is permisibly requestable is on file at any of these agencies. Also, I hope that the condescending desk sergeants at these departments get their face spit in by FOIL related lawsuits (no matter how unlikely). When I am rich, I’m going to be an advocate for these causes. In the meantime, I can’t really afford a lawyer to fight for these causes. Neither can anyone else, and such is the game that the law can be ignored by those that enforce the law. If the law disrespcts the people, the people should disrespect the law. Law is not a tool for control, it is a tool for peacekeeping and conflict resolution. We are not at war with drugs or with terror, we are at war with ourselves.

Here is a copy of the article, with my emphasis added.

Hunt for facts meets resistance from policeBy RICHARD LIEBSON

Call them the secret police.

A Journal News audit of how local police departments comply with the state Freedom of Information Law revealed that most don’t.

On Feb. 8, reporters went to 27 Westchester, Rockland and Putnam police departments seeking the names, addresses and charges against everyone arrested in the previous 72 hours. The reporters did not identify themselves unless they were asked. Although the information is public under the law, only 11 departments eventually provided it, and only two made it available the same day.

“In this country we do not have secret arrests,” said Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government. “The kind of information you requested is routine, and in my opinion should have been released without hesitation.”

Few in the police departments appeared familiar with the law, as evidenced by the confident ignorance they displayed in denying requests.

“You’re not privileged to get that information,” a Kent police dispatcher told the reporter who asked for arrest data. “Someone who’s arrested could, but we can’t as an agency, by law, give you that information.”

Nevertheless, the dispatcher provided a request form to fill out, and 30 minutes later a police sergeant called to provide the information.

Other departments were less responsive.

A state trooper in Somers said the records were “public information, but not general information.” He took the reporter’s telephone number and said a sergeant would call to schedule an appointment to view the records. The newspaper is still waiting for that call.

A Clarkstown police officer just said no, repeating several times that “arrest reports are not public record,” before telling a reporter not to bother filling out a Freedom of Information request because it would be rejected.

In Cortlandt, a state trooper said the request had to be made in Albany, but he did not know to which office. A Carmel police dispatcher would not show a reporter arrest information but suggested that he check the newspaper.

“The newspaper has a police blotter,” she said. “I don’t know what you’re looking for, but you might find it there.”

In the Haverstraw town police records office, a woman said arrest records were released only by subpoena, adding under her breath that the requester “must be crazy.” After speaking to a dispatcher, a sergeant and two lieutenants, the reporter was told to put the request in writing. Six business days later, the reporter received a fax containing information on the arrest of a 17-year-old.

Of the 27 departments audited, 17 required written requests. Although the law states that such requests must be acknowledged within five business days, eight of the police departments still have not replied. Of the nine that did, two denied the requests, fourcomplied, and three released general arrest information but did not provide the names and addresses of suspects.

Twelve of the police departments visited are accredited as meeting a series of standards established by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. Accredited departments are supposed to have policies for FOI requests that comply with New York Fair Trial/Free Press guidelines, which say that arrest information is public. Only fiveof the accredited departments filled the newspaper’s information request.

“I’m not surprised,” said Brian Nickerson, director of Pace University’s Michaelian Institute for Public Policy and Management. “The initial reaction by police to any public request for information tends to be negative. It’s probably a combination of policy and ignorance.”

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, he said, “Police have used the terror threat as a way to get around releasing information. … They’re overly suspicious of public requests for information and overly cautious about how they deal with those requests.”

Harrison Police Chief David Hall agreed that “there’s a lack of awareness,” when he was informed that his desk sergeant had told a reporter arrest information could be obtained only by filing a FOI request “directed to the state, or at least the county.”

Hall said that if the request had reached him, he would have released the information.

“Obviously, our guys should know what the law is,” he said. “If you’re telling me that they don’t, I guess I’ll have to do a better job training them.”

Dobbs Ferry Police Chief George Longworth, attorney for the Westchester police chiefs association, said the Journal News audit “will certainly be a topic at our next meeting.”

Greenburgh Police Chief John Kapica, whose department provided arrest data, said he makes it a point to keep up with the FOI Law.

“We believe in giving the information out if it’s legally permissible,” Kapica said. “People do have a right to know who has been arrested in their community.”

Nickerson, of the Michaelian Institute, said change must come from the top.

“I think that police departments will continue to be overly cautious about releasing information unless they have leadership that emphasizes a more open policy and back that up with training,” he said.

Tags: Government & Politics · Police, Law, & Justice · Scary Stuff

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