How do the police police themselves?

It’s a simple question, but when the NYCLU asked police departments across the state, we got wildly different answers.

Over three years ago, we filed Freedom of Information Law requests to 23 police departments asking for their policies on high-stakes interactions with the public, like uses of force, who they stop and why, and how they train their officers. For more than two years, departments ignored legal deadlines, excessively redacted documents, had inadequate staff to facilitate disclosure, and blamed deficient recordkeeping.

It took a lot of back and forth, and a couple lawsuits, but in the end we received more than 15,600 pages of documents – much of which the public has never seen­.

All this trouble wasn’t about paperwork; it was about how police work. Pouring over tens of thousands of pages, we were able to piece together a comprehensive understanding of what rules govern police actions. And this week we publicly released all of the documents for seven of the largest departments, as well as our analysis of what we uncovered, in a first-of-its-kind resource we’re calling Behind the Badge.

There, New Yorkers can see the documents for themselves, as well as what we have to say about them.

What we found paints a disturbing picture. Officers are being sent onto the streets without meaningful guidance on when it’s appropriate to use force, departments are using military-grade technology to spy on New Yorkers, and there are glaring differences in the rates that people of color are stopped by officers.

After pouring over tens of thousands of pages, it’s clear that departments have very few rules in place to govern how police operate.

Syracuse Police have training materials to deter officer hesitation, blaming “endless lawsuits, media persecution, and headlines,” and, in reference to police encounters with civilians encouraging officers to “hit them back first!” Numerous times Rochester Police have secretly used Stingrays, cellphone capture devices, when they didn’t have legal clearance. White Plains police can basically turn their body cameras on or off as they like. Suffolk police are instructed to ask people for their country of birth when stopped, a practice that targets immigrants. And Nassau County Police have used what appears to be a racially insensitive coding system, with a “Y” for “Yellow” in reference to Asian officers.

But just as troubling is what we didn’t find. After pouring over tens of thousands of pages, it’s clear that departments have very few rules in place to govern how police operate.

The Albany Police Department couldn’t produce any policy on stops. The Nassau Police Department said they were unable to provide basic information on how many people its officers stopped or arrested. Buffalo had no provisions for transgender people in its strip search policy, and no policy to address bias or profiling by its officers. And the Syracuse Police Department had no meaningful guidance on using force, except for their Taser policy, which only exists as a result of a settlement with the NYCLU.

In short: there are very few policies in place that police the police.

Without policies, officers are left guessing, police interactions are less safe, the public doesn’t know what to expect and can’t weigh in, and departments become islands onto themselves. That’s why we need to hold the police accountable, to ensure that officers in our neighborhoods have clear, fair, and transparent policies – and to make sure that departments are following them.

What can all of us do? A few things: We can contact our local departments and demand they work directly with the communities they serve to update—or in many cases, create—policies and procedures for their officers, instead of writing rules behind closed doors. We can call on state lawmakers to pass the Police Statistics and Transparency (STAT) Act, which requires uniform data collection and reporting on low-level law enforcement as well as deaths in police custody. We can also ask them to repeal civil rights law 50-a, a narrow state provision limiting public disclosure of personnel records, but which has been misused to shield disclosure of officer misconduct.

Accountability and transparency are vital to the trust between law enforcement officials and the communities they serve. We hope you will learn more about your department, get involved, join us as we go Behind the Badge.

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The New York Civil Liberties Union is a state affiliate of the ACLU

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