In an effort to shed more light on the NYPD’s use of deadly force against civilians, the New York Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit in state court challenging the Department’s refusal to disclose basic facts about individual police shootings.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday, seeks access to two types of reports the NYPD creates after police officers fire their weapons at civilians: an initial investigatory report filed 24 hours after the incident, and a more detailed report completed 90 days after the shooting. These reports are essential for the public to understand and assess the NYPD’s shooting practices.

In January, the NYCLU filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request for access to these reports on every police shooting since 1997. The NYPD denied the NYCLU’s FOIL request in its entirety, withholding as much as thousands of pages of basic facts about police shootings.

“Once again, the NYPD has chosen secrecy over sunshine,” said Christopher Dunn, NYCLU associate legal director and lead counsel in the lawsuit. “Police shootings raise critically important issues, and the public has a right to know the facts about these incidents.”

The NYCLU began a concerted effort to obtain information on police shootings after NYPD officers shot and killed an unarmed Sean Bell in November 2006. In October 2007, it filed a FOIL request seeking access to the NYPD’s annual statistical reports on police shootings from 1996 through 2006 as well as data about the race of civilians shot at by police.

The NYPD produced the annual statistical reports, but it denied the NYCLU’s request for racial data. The Department stopped including information about race in its annual shooting report in 1998, after four NYPD police officers shot and killed an unarmed Amadou Diallo. The annual reports released in 1996 and 1997 show that 89.5 percent of shooting victims during those two years were black or Latino.

The NYCLU filed a lawsuit in August 2008 to obtain the racial data on police shooting victims. That lawsuit is pending. The NYCLU has also sued for access to the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk database and information about the Department’s multi-million dollar surveillance system. The NYCLU currently has more than a dozen outstanding FOIL requests that the Police Department is either dragging its heels on or that are already in litigation.

“The Police Department has a pattern of stonewalling the public and refusing to divulge even the most basic information about its activities. When the public doesn’t have basic information, it’s easy for the NYPD to selectively release data that gives the appearance of facts, but is not based on the truth,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “The issue of police shootings is literally one of life and death. The information we’ve obtained thus far paints a troubling, but vastly incomplete, picture of the NYPD’s shooting practices. New Yorkers have a right to the full story, not the NYPD’s spin.”

In May 2008, the NYCLU released an analysis on NYPD shootings based on documents from which the Department redacted race information.

That analysis revealed 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.

In June 2008, the RAND Corporation release a study the NYPD commissioned following the Bell shooting on the Department’s shooting practices. The study, based on the same information the NYPD refuses to disclose publicly, uncovered many instances when police may have fired unnecessarily at civilians. It concluded that the NYPD does not adequately scrutinize its shooting practices.

Concerned by the NYPD’s lack of transparency, in January the City Council voted unanimously to require the NYPD to release annual reports of detailed statistics about police shootings, including the race of civilians shot at by officers. The law does not require reporting about the facts of individual shooting incidents.

In addition to Dunn, lawyers on the case are Alyssa Bell, Mindy Friedman and Rachel Presa, students in the Civil Rights Clinic of the New York University School of Law.