The Topic of Police Reform

Remains In the Spotlight

States continue to discuss the public’s access to police misconduct and disciplinary records as police reforms remain in the spotlight.

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Legislation

New York Judge temporarily blocks release of police disciplinary records

A federal judge temporarily blocked the release of police disciplinary records in New York state, a month after elected officials repealed a law that would allow for greater transparency.

Judge Katherine Polk Failla made the ruling [on the evening of Wednesday, July 22], blocking the release of the records made possible by the repeal of 50-a until police unions who are suing to block the reform can make arguments in their case on Aug. 18.

The NYPD’s Police Benevolent Association brought the suit earlier [in July] to block Mayor Bill de Blasio from posting a database of police misconduct complaints online.

In her ruling [July 22], Failla also barred the New York American Civil Liberties Union from releasing records it had already obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request after the 50-a law was repealed.

The NY ACLU slammed the decision in a statement after it was handed down Wednesday [July 22] night.

“It is inconceivable that a court would block us from making it public. We vehemently disagree with the court’s order, and will contest it immediately,” the organization said.

“For too long, New Yorkers have remained in the dark about officers accused of misconduct, the outcomes of investigations, and what discipline officers faced if any,” he added. “It is imperative that this information is released as soon as possible, and we will continue to fight in court until it is.”

In their suit, police and firefighter unions said they hope to shield their members from baseless complaints being made public.

Read More | New York Post 

Connecticut House passes police reform bill reducing immunity protection for officers

The Connecticut House of Representatives passed a police reform bill Friday [July 24] after an all-night debate that would reduce legal immunity protections for officers.

The House voted 86-58 in favor of the legislation, which is now pending in the state Senate.

The legislation would call for a reform of police practices and training – which states across the nation have been weighing in recent weeks in the wake of the killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd while in police custody in May.

The bill also includes the appointment of a new inspector general who would be tasked with probing police use-of-force cases, periodic mental health screenings for officers, limits on circumstances on which deadly use of force is justified, and mandatory body cameras for all state and local officers. The bill also includes mandatory training for officers on implicit bias.

The section that prompted hours of overnight debate was a change to state law that would allow civil lawsuits against police officers when they violate an individual’s civil rights. Under the legislation, officers would not be allowed to claim government immunity as a defense to the lawsuits, unless they had an “objectively good faith belief” that the conduct did not violate the law.

According to the bill, municipalities and police departments, not police officers, would have to pay legal awards, but officers would be held personally liable if their conduct was found to be “malicious, wanton or willful.”

That provision in the legislation was opposed by police and municipal leaders, who have said it would prompt officers to resign or retire early, while also deterring future police officers from joining the force.

Read More | Fox News

Wisconsin Department of Justice records request on protests denied due to “ongoing” investigations

The Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) has denied the Wisconsin Examiner’s request for public records pertaining to police action against protesters in Milwaukee.

The requests, made on June 26, were denied because the records “concern an investigation that is continuing at this time,” according to the DOJ’s July 15 letter in response.

The Examiner first made the open records request to the Wisconsin Statewide Intelligence Center (WSIC), a hub for law enforcement intelligence across the state known as a Fusion Center. Within days, WSIC forwarded the request to the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ).

The Examiner requested documents around protests in Milwaukee that began on May 29, following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The request sought incident overviews and recommendations or directives for police action on the ground against protesters and organizers.

It’s normal for law enforcement agencies not to release details about ongoing investigations. A state DOJ spokeswoman was also unable to comment due to the status of the unspecified investigations of protesters. The denial of the request is the first time DOJ has acknowledged it has investigatory documents on the protests.

Read More | Wisconsin Examiner

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Legislation

Michigan Supreme Court rules forces disclosure in resident records case

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled Friday [July 24] that a city attorney’s correspondence with a consulting firm was subject to the state’s open records law despite the documents being kept in the attorney’s own files and not the city’s.

The ruling is “faithful” to Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, which provides “broad rights” to residents to obtain public records, said Justice Stephen Markman, a Republican nominee who wrote the majority opinion.

But Justice David Viviano, a GOP nominee, said the decision would bring a “radical expansion” of the transparency law to affect “many thousands of local officers.”

“The majority’s mangling of the meaning of ‘body’ and ‘office’ will, I am afraid, have many serious consequences beyond this case,” Vivano wrote.

The 6-1 decision was spurred by a 2015 public records request in Clarkston, where Susan Bisio sought correspondence between Clarkston’s city attorney — a private attorney who contracted with the city — and a consultant over a development deal.

The Oakland County city refused to release certain documents contained in the files of the city attorney off premises, arguing that the city attorney wasn’t a “public body” that would have to release records under FOIA. So Bisio sued.

The trial court and the state Court of Appeals agreed with Clarkston’s interpretation of the law. But the Michigan Supreme Court reversed the lower courts, saying the city attorney was a city “office” under the city’s charter so the documents would have to be released. 

Four justices signed onto Markman’s opinion. 

Viviano was the lone dissenter. He said under the majority’s opinion, “any legal authority creating an officer position ipso facto creates an office subject to FOIA.”

“The majority’s holding today portends a radical expansion of the definition of ‘public body’ under FOIA such that it will now encompass all local officers,” Viviano added.

But Markman rejected the argument that the ruling marked a “radical expansion” of FOIA, a law that already requires city officials, like mayors, to release records prepared in the performance of “an official function” with some exceptions.

Read More | The Detroit News

Peer Resources

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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 peers@govqa.com.

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