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NYCLU Brings Rochester Ruling Against Police Transparency to Appellate Court

Rochester proceeding marks the second Appellate Division appeal of NY police transparency rulings since the repeal of 50-a

ROCHESTER – Today, the New York Civil Liberties Union, in partnership with Shearman & Sterling LLP, appealed a Monroe County ruling against police transparency to the Appellate Division Fourth Department. In an August 2021 ruling, the lower court permitted the Rochester Police Department to continue withholding the vast majority of its police misconduct complaint records from the public, despite the repeal of Section 50-a. Specifically, the court permitted Rochester to shield all RPD records of police misconduct complaints that predate June 2020, and all complaints that did not result in officer discipline created after June 2020.

“For too long, Rochester residents have remained in the dark about officers accused of misconduct, the outcomes of investigations, and what discipline officers faced, if any. With the repeal of section 50-a, the state legislature meant for these documents to become public, and we will continue to fight in court until they are,” said Bobby Hodgson, supervising attorney at the NYCLU. “Being able to access complaint records from the years leading up to 2020—and being able to compare when the Rochester Police Department did impose discipline against when and why it did not—remains vital to vindicating the public’s right to complete information about the police misconduct that takes place in their communities. We will fight resistance to accountability wherever we see it and continue working to obtain full documentation of police misconduct long withheld from the public.”

Amid the nationwide reckoning with police brutality and racial injustice following the killing of George Floyd, Daniel Prude, and countless others, the Rochester Police Department initially ignored the NYCLU’s September 2020 requests for the full slate of records related to police misconduct authorized to be disclosed following the repeal of 50-a. In December 2020, the NYCLU, with pro bono counsel from Shearman & Sterling LLP, filed a lawsuit challenging the RPD’s failure to produce a single record. The RPD responded to the lawsuit by producing some documents, but they continued to withhold all documents that predate June 2020, arguing that 50-a still applies to those records. They also withheld all documents associated with post-June-2020 complaints that did not result in discipline, arguing that releasing them would violate officers’ privacy.

“We are proud to be working alongside the NYCLU and other firms to create greater transparency and accountability for police departments in New York,” said Philip Urofsky, Partner at Shearman & Sterling LLP.  “We would expect the Rochester Police Department would welcome transparency into its department and the conduct of its officers, but unfortunately that has not been the case.  We look forward to continuing to advocate for the public release of these files, which was plainly contemplated by the legislature in its repeal of section 50-a.”

The proceeding is part of a statewide police transparency campaign in which the NYCLU and pro bono counsel filed state FOIL requests with twelve police departments statewide and the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. As part of this campaign, the NYCLU has filed lawsuits against police departments in Rochester, Syracuse, Freeport, Troy, Buffalo, and Nassau County for withholding public records subject to state FOIL. Courts statewide have rejected the vast majority of efforts to thwart accountability and disclosure following the repeal of 50-a, including in Schenectady following the NYCLU’s intervention. In November, the NYCLU appealed a similar ruling in Onondaga County.

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