Police reforms accompanied by lawsuits
Public Record lawsuits are on the rise as states face push-back following recent police reform bills.
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The ACLU of Louisiana on Monday [Aug. 10] filed a public records lawsuit in the 19th Judicial District Court in East Baton Rouge Parish against the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (DOC) over their failure to turn over information regarding a now-suspended furlough review panel, which was established in April to review prisoners for possible release in order to reduce the risk of coronavirus spreading throughout the state’s jails and prisons.
The DOC has said they are working on gathering the information, and has told the ACLU it will be available on or before August 21.
But the ACLU, which has been critical of the review panel since its inception, characterizing it as an insufficient response to the threat of coronavirus in jails and prisons, says that the department has been “stonewalling” them since they filed the request on May 6, and called the delay “unreasonable and unjustified.”
The review panel met behind closed doors, claiming they were “administrative reviews” and not subject to open meetings laws.
The complaint alleges that the DOC has violated the state’s Public Records Act by taking too long to respond to their request, failing to notify them in the legally required time-frame that part of their request was exempt from disclosure as a public record, and did not provide sufficient legal justification for the exemption.
Louisiana law requires government agencies to provide any public records requested immediately if not in active use or within three days if in active use.
Read More | The Lens
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The Connecticut State Police Union sued the state Tuesday [Aug. 11] over the portion of the new police accountability law that contradicts their current contract by making some internal reports subject to open records laws.
The contract, which is valid until 2022, protects against the release of information in a trooper’s personnel file when the officer thinks disclosing it would be an invasion of privacy. It also holds that internal affairs investigations that are dropped or deemed unfounded cannot be released.
The bill Gov. Ned Lamont signed into law at the end of [July] overrides this section of the union’s collective bargaining agreement, allowing for disclosure of the documents under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Disciplinary matters and alleged misconduct, even if deemed unsustained or unfounded, can be publicly disclosed, the law says.
The union says in the lawsuit that there are already pending Freedom of Information requests for personnel files and internal affairs investigations, and that the law enforcement officials will “suffer immediate and irreparable harm” if that information is released.
The suit, which alleges that the new law violates the U.S. Constitution’s contractual protections, is attempting to get an injunction to prohibit the release of reports when internal affairs clears a trooper, or finds the claim is unfounded, in line with the current contract.
Read More | The CT Mirror
The ACLU of Massachusetts today filed a lawsuit against the Boston Police Department (BPD) and the City of Boston, demanding information about police use of force against, and surveillance of, people in Massachusetts.
Over the last seventeen months, the ACLU and its client have submitted nine public records requests related to BPD practices and potential City communications with federal law enforcement. According to the new complaint, the BPD and the City of Boston have regularly responded with months of silence and delay. All nine requests are well past-due—including four that have been pending for seven months or more.
“Transparency is at the heart of accountability,” said Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “The public has the right to know what the police are doing in their name and with their tax dollars. Indeed, this information has taken on new urgency in the wake of nationwide protests against police violence and statewide conversations about police reform.”
The new lawsuit responds to a longstanding pattern of delay that violates the Massachusetts Public Records Law, which generally requires municipalities to produce responsive records within 10 business days of a request. The BPD and the City of Boston have repeatedly failed to produce records weeks and months past production deadlines without meaningfully engaging requesters about the existence of the records, their efforts to obtain them, or alternative production schedules.
Read More | ACLU Massachusetts
The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) filed a motion Friday [Aug. 14] to intervene in the lawsuit by the unions representing Buffalo police and firefighters against the City of Buffalo. The unions are challenging the city’s commitment to releasing misconduct reports.
The NYCLU filed the motion in partnership with Shearman & Sterling LLP. Without intervention, the NYCLU believes reports will continue to remain secret.
“The release of police misconduct reports is an important interest to the people of Buffalo, and we’re not confident in the City of Buffalo’s ability to adequately represent that interest,” said Phil Desgranges, senior staff attorney at the NYCLU. “The city has a long history of non-cooperation with requests for information on police misconduct and a flawed understanding of the law as applied to 50-a and police transparency. Without intervention, the history of officers accused of abuse and misconduct will almost certainly remain secret.”
State Supreme Court Justice Frank A. Sedita III issued a temporary restraining order on the City of Buffalo in July putting a temporary block on the public release of disciplinary records that are pending, unsubstantiated, or have resulted in a “not guilty” finding.
In court filings, the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association and Buffalo Professional Firefighters Association argue that the release of all disciplinary records could do irreparable harm to the officers or firefighters and their families because some of the records are unsubstantiated.
Read More | WKBW Buffalo
What are some best practices for fulfilling Public Records Requests?
The following 12 best practices may help reduce public records request response times and shed light on the workings of government and the official acts of public officers and employees to support an informed electorate.
In most states, public records are presumed to be open to inspection and copying. Exceptions to this rule — defined as specific exemptions — also exist in most states; and records retention periods define when records are past their usefulness and should be destroyed. Note that some states exempt certain branches of the government; others include all branches: legislative (laws and regulation), judicial (courts), and executive (governor’s office). Public records law does not require agencies to provide records if no responsive records exist — plus there are specific exemptions for each agency. New records do not need to be created in order to fulfill requests; and requests can be refused if your agency doesn’t currently compile data in the format being requested.
Read More | GovQA
The Peers in Public Records Newsletter (formerly FOIA News) is a bi-monthly e-newsletter brought to you by GovQA. It is a collection of the latest trends in public record requests and government transparency initiatives, shared stories, informative case studies, and actionable knowledge that will help you calm the chaos and keep your organization compliant. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.