The New York Civil Liberties Union has once again been forced to sue the NYPD for access to public information, this time challenging the Department’s refusal to disclose information about the role of race in police shootings.

In October 2007, the NYCLU filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the NYPD for records identifying the race of everyone shot by police officers since January 1997. After months of stalling, the NYPD ultimately denied the request in May 2008, forcing the NYCLU to file its lawsuit today in State Supreme Court.

“The NYPD’s growing obsession with secrecy is unacceptable and incompatible with open government,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director. “Safe streets require mutual trust between the police and the community, yet the NYPD insists on hiding the most basic and important information from the public. The role of race in police shootings is a source of deep concern – and outrage – for many New Yorkers. Hiding this information doesn’t make this concern go away – it just further frays New York’s ability to trust its police department.”

NYPD shooting reports released in 1996 and 1997 show that 89.5 percent of shooting victims during those two years were black or Latino. The Department stopped reporting information about race in police shootings in 1998, after four white NYPD police officers killed Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man, in a hail of 41 bullets. At the same time, the Department started reporting the breed of dogs that officers shot.

The issue of race in police shootings reemerged in November 2006 after Department officers fired 50 bullets at Sean Bell, an unarmed black man, killing him just hours before he was to get married. The NYCLU filed its FOIL request as part of an effort to determine if race is playing an inappropriate role in police shootings.

“The NYPD cannot shroud its shooting practices in a veil of secrecy,” said Christopher Dunn, NYCLU associate legal director and lead counsel on the case. “If the police department will not voluntarily release the information needed to independently study the role of race in police shootings, we are confident that the courts will require it do so.”

While the NYPD refuses to disclose to New Yorkers information about race in police shootings, it recently provided the race of shooting victims between 2004 and 2006 to the California-based Rand Corporation. Rand was hired by the Department under the auspices of examining the Bell shooting, but its report, released in June, did not discuss that incident and disclosed no information about the role of race in police shootings.

In May, a Supreme Court judge ordered the NYPD to turn over its electronic database detailing police stops of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, most of whom were black and Latino. That ruling was the result of a lawsuit the NYCLU filed after the Department refused a FOIL request for access to the database. The NYPD is appealing the decision.

Also in May, the NYCLU released the results of an analysis it conducted on NYPD shootings based on documents from which the Department redacted race information.

Of note in that analysis, provided to the City Council, is that:

  • In 77 percent of the incidents where officers fired their weapons at civilians between 1999 and 2006, the officers were the only ones shooting, with officers often shooting at unarmed civilians.
  • In 2006 (the most recent year for which there is information), police officers fired an average of five shots per incident when they were the only ones shooting, which is the highest number for the entire eight years for which these figures have been reported.