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NYCLU Sues Buffalo Police Department for Refusing to Open its Books

The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the Buffalo Police Department last evening after it refused to comply with a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request seeking basic information about how one of the largest police departments in the state functions. The NYCLU sought policies and data on a variety of policing tactics, such as the use of force, stops and temporary detentions, surveillance technologies and the enforcement of non-criminal offenses. After 10 months, the department has shown extraordinary resistance, providing complete information in only one-fourth of the 39 categories of records requested.

The NYCLU made the request as part of its Police Report Card Project, aimed at measuring and increasing the transparency and accountability of police departments statewide.

“The public has a right to know the answers to basic questions about how one of the largest police forces in the state operates,” said NYCLU Western Regional Office Director John A. Curr III. “Considering Buffalo Police Department’s troubling recent history of excessive force cases, this information is critical to rebuilding trust between the department and the community it is supposed to protect and serve.”

For the last several years, the Buffalo Police Department has come under scrutiny for its “culture of misconduct.” The Department of Justice has even brought federal charges against five Buffalo police officers for using excessive force in three separate incidents. In one case, the Department of Justice said an officer hit and kicked a man while he was handcuffed and complying with the officer’s orders. In another incident, an officer was accused of shooting a young man with a BB gun while he was handcuffed in the back of a police car. And in a third case, prosecutors said an officer pushed a man to the ground and then repeatedly struck his legs with a baton until another officer yelled at him to stop.

The department has also been dogged by allegations that its officers routinely conduct unjustified stops of public housing residents and, two years ago, protesters in Buffalo took to the streets in large numbers to highlight what they said was a pattern of racial profiling by the police.

The NYCLU’s FOIL request sought 39 categories of records including the use of force, stops and temporary detentions, enforcement of three non-criminal offenses, complaints regarding alleged misconduct, various surveillance technologies, bias-based policing and racial profiling. After nearly a year, the department handed over very little, even citing a law that protects officers’ personnel records to claim a blanket exemption for reports on uses of force and shootings by Buffalo police officers.

“Government agencies are obligated under freedom of information laws to be transparent about how they operate, and the Buffalo Police Department is no exception,” said Alexis Karteron, supervising senior staff attorney at the NYCLU. “Without transparency, the people of Buffalo cannot ensure that their police department is operating in a safe, fair and sensible manner and that officers are being held accountable when misconduct arises.”

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