I don’t know if anyone will be surprised that the New York Police Department is a flash point of lawlessness and secrecy, but it is nice to have someone put together the evidence. At the Motherboard website, Shawn Musgrave write,
The New York Police Department’s records office is notorious among reporters for being about as transparent as a bank vault. It’s storied history of non-disclosure includes an overeager rejection stamp and a convenient tendency to “not receive” letters in time.
Having submitted my share of records requests to cops and military across the country, I have few illusions of chipper customer service from police clerks. But the NYPD takes it to a whole new level.
Reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman, who shared a Pulitzer last year as part of the Associated Press team covering the NYPD’s surveillance activity, have summed it up perfectly: The NYPD doesn’t answer document requests.
“For the most part, they don’t respond,” Apuzzo told the Huffington Post. “Even the NSA responds.”
Journalists are not the only people who testify to the lock-box nature of NYPD information or records. New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio claims that “nearly a third” of the FOIA requests go unanswered. Those are just the requests that get completely ignored and doesn’t count the requests that are refused by what some consider creative reasons.
One way that NYPD gives itself the latitude to ignore FOIA requests is by demanding that all such requests be mailed to them via the United States Post Office. When Musgrave made one request for public record concealed carry permits, after a month of nothing he was treated to a standard NYPD non-reply, that “the request did not ‘reasonably describe a record in a manner that would enable a search to be conducted.’” (I don’t believe those records should be public, but since they are, the case still shows us an instance of NYPD tactics for evading the law.)
Having received NYPD’s rejection on May 17, I mailed back my appeal letter on May 29. My letter outlined my objections to Mantellino’s apparent lack of familiarity with his own system or his obligations under New York law. Four months and a follow-up letter later, NYPD mailed their response, which amounted to: Sorry, we never got your letter. But we would have rejected it, anyway.
That’s the thing about handling matters solely by postal mail, as the NYPD insists on doing. Since my appeal “never arrived” within the 60-day window, the department didn’t even have to respond. Moreover, NYPD Records Access Appeals Officer Jonathan David continued, “Had your appeal been timely, your appeal would be denied.” David cobbled together a variety of justifications for not attaching a spreadsheet—in flagrant contradiction to a state advisory opinion published in June that outlined why these records are indeed public.
One way or another, the NYPD is determined to avoid releasing information. Whether it’s “losing” letters or rejecting standard requests, the police department’s information gatekeepers have demonstrated the direct extent to which they’ve lost sight of transparency principles.
There is no way to legally justify what is effectively a self-given right to secrecy in government. But if no one is ever punished then that is essentially what the NYPD has done.