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Court Orders Schenectady To Disclose Police Records In NYCLU Lawsuit

New York State’s highest court has ruled that the City of Schenectady must produce in Court its police records regarding the use of force. The documents had been requested by the New York Civil Liberties Union and more than a dozen media organizations. They include instances where officers have used force against civilians. The 7-0 decision by the Court of Appeals orders Schenectady to turn over the records requested by the NYCLU, saying, “the runaround must end.”

“We are pleased with this decision,” said Melanie Trimble, Executive Director of the Capital Region of the NYCLU. “However, the City of Schenectady must improve its policing through better training and by enacting laws concerning use of force reports by the police.”

The NYCLU made a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request of Schenectady in 2000 following citizen complaints of use of force by police when making arrests. Such complaints have also led to a Justice Department investigation of criminal behavior in the Schenectady police force. That ongoing investigation has since resulted in several arrests and convictions.

Initially, the City of Schenectady contended that its police records were exempted from FOIL disclosure under the Public Officers Law. Two lower court rulings affirmed this assertion. However, three years into the appeals process when the City argued its case before the State’s highest court, it informed the Court it had discovered “a misunderstanding of the record.” It was revealed that Schenectady had no “use of force” forms that are differentiated from standard incident and arrest reports by police. In some instances, these documents might include descriptions regarding the use of force.

The Court of Appeals, citing the “muddled history of this case,” ruled the pertinent records must be released for judicial review in State Supreme Court. Although the City sought relief from the Court, arguing that searching for the documents would place “a considerable burden on [the Police] department,” the Court decided the “’runaround’ must end.” It directed the City to produce the pertinent documents under guidance of the Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals decision warns the City that in providing the records, there will be a presumption of openness and the City must articulate a specific and particular reason not to disclose the document.

In addition, 13 media organizations backed the NYCLU’s position requesting the release of the information, citing the need for the public to know what police are up to. They joined the NYCLU in calling for a reconsidering of a 1982 Court of Appeals ruling which shielded “use of force” documents by the Rochester police from FOIL requests. The Court this time decided not to address this issue, calling the matter “academic.”

A 2003 Justice Department report recommended several changes to the City concerning police practices, but “they’ve done nothing to fix the ills in the Schenectady police department,” said Trimble. The Justice Department continues its investigation of the Schenectady Police Department.

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