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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.”
It's not just reporters who've noticed. New York City Public Advocate and mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio gave the police department a failing grade in an April report based on its dismal response rate to Freedom of Information requests. By de Blasio’s analysis, nearly a third of requests submitted to NYPD go unanswered.
I shudder to think how the department's grades would tank if de Blasio had waded into the requests that its records officers do answer.
Take, for instance, one request for NYPD’s weapons discharge reports—a standard request, submitted this past March by a reporter via the MuckRock request system. Strangely, NYPD Records Access Officer Richard Mantellino determined that the request was too vague. By Mantellino’s estimation, the request did not “reasonably describe a record in a manner that would enable a search to be conducted.”
The reporter asked for a form required by virtually every police department in the country. He provided a precise six-month timeframe for the search. He even cited a case in 2011 where the NYPD was forced to release these exact reports to the New York Civil Liberties Union.
It is baffling to think that someone whose sole job it is to guard NYPD records should be unable to track down discharge reports with a few mouse clicks. But NYPD’s bureaucratic funhouse has a couple more corridors.
In April, I requested a list of all handgun and concealed carry permits issued within NYC for the past five years. This is a controversial request, particularly after a Westchester, New York paper published the names and addresses of pistol permit-holders, so I expected some pushback from the city on privacy or public safety grounds.
But Lieutenant Mantellino did not broach any of those issues. Once again, he apparently was unable to track down the records. After a month of silence, Mantellino sent a letter identical to the one he issued for the weapons discharge permits. My request, apparently, did not “reasonably describe a record.”
Whether it’s “losing” letters or rejecting standard requests, the NYPD's information gatekeepers have demonstrated the direct extent to which they’ve lost sight of transparency principles.
Again, a basic online search leads you to the precise forms that NYPD requires for handgun permits. 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. Government documents are the public’s by right, and we must continue to demand them.