Eric Garner’s high-profile death has led to an increase in police transparency due to the New York City Police Department agreeing to settle a freedom of information request lawsuit.
Garner was selling loose cigarettes on Staten Island when Officer Daniel Pantaleo used a chokehold that killed Garner.
“The department’s approach to transparency had been under public scrutiny. … There has long been a vigorous debate about how much control the Police Department exercises over information that could reveal its inner workings,” reported the New York Times.
“Police departments in 13 of the 25 largest U.S. cities did not post their (operating and use-of-force) procedures online,” asserted C.J. Ciaramella in the May 2017 Reason magazine.
The 35,000-strong New York City Police Department is “one of the most stubbornly opaque law enforcement agencies in the country,” stressed Reason magazine.
An important tool available to encourage transparency is Freedom of Information Laws (FOIL).
Nationally, some 64,000 Americans died from overdose last year, up 86 percent from 2006, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: “Friends of Overdose Victims Become Prosecutor’s Targets” Dec. 18, 2017
“FOIL is a mechanism the public can use to hold the NYPD accountable to their own policies,” said Keegan Stephan, a Cardozo Law School student whose lawsuit settlement forced the NYPD to release police records related to the use of a powerful sound cannon during a 2014 protest in Midtown Manhattan following Garner’s death.
The NYPD agreed to accept and handle record requests by email and create written descriptions of its procedures for doing so, reported the New York Times.
“We hope this will be a real tool for increased transparency,” said Elena L. Cohen, a lawyer in the case.
The source of this tenacious defense tends to be police unions that seek to define working conditions “in the broadest possible terms,” wrote James Surowiecki in The New Yorker magazine.
A 2016 study of big-city police unions by Campaign Zero “found that agreements routinely guarantee that officers aren’t interrogated immediately after use-of-force incidents and often ensure that disciplinary records are purged after three to five years.”
A “culture of impunity” exists in many police departments, Samuel Walker, an emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha told The New Yorker. “Knowing that it’s hard to be punished for misconduct fosters an attitude where you think you don’t have to answer for your behavior,” Walker said.
A prime example of this lack of transparency is the inability of the news media to confirm the exact number of recent fatal police shootings in America. As reported in The Washington Post and The Guardian, the FBI reported 444 fatal shooting by police in 2014, but the actual number was likely more than 1,000.
According to a January survey by Pew Trust, only 14 percent of police officers said they thought the general public understood the risks they face on the job, Reason noted.
“The inconsistent and gap-filled data that result, and the lack of any meaningful punishment for such official insolence, are a serious roadblock to understanding how policing works and doesn’t work in America.” Writer C.J. Ciaramella concluded, “If police departments want to earn back some of the trust they’ve lost, they need to embrace transparency.”
California Public Records Act (CPRA)
GOVT. CODE §§ 6250 – 6276.48
The fundamental precept of the CPRA is that governmental records shall be disclosed to the public, upon request, unless there is a specific reason not to do so. Most of the reasons for withholding disclosure of a record are set forth in specific exemptions contained in the CPRA. (§ 6253). Specific exceptions to disclosure are listed in sections 6253.2, 6253.5, 6253.6, 6254, 6254.1-6254.22, 6255, 6267, 6268, 6276.02-6276.48; to ensure maximum access, these exceptions are read narrowly. The agency always bears the burden of justifying nondisclosure, and “any reasonably segregable portion . . . shall be available for inspection…after deletion of the portions which are exempt.” (§ 6253(a))
In enacting the CPRA, the Legislature stated that access to information concerning the conduct of the public’s business is a fundamental and necessary right for every person in the state and the CPRA’s primary purpose is to give the public an opportunity to monitor the functioning of their government. U.S. Dept. of Justice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of Press (1989) 489 U.S. 749; Times Mirror Co. v. Superior Court (1991) 53 Cal.3d 1325; CBS, Inc. v. Block (1986) 42 Cal.3d 646.
WHO’S COVERED: All state and local agencies, including: (1) any officer, bureau or department; (2) any “board, commission or agency” created by the agency (including advisory boards); and (3) nonprofit entities that are legislative bodies of a local agency. (§ 6252(a), (b)). Many state and regional agencies are required to have written public record policies. A list appears in § 6253.4.
WHO’S NOT COVERED: Courts (except itemized statements of total expenditures and disbursement) (§§6252(a), 6261).The Legislature. (§ 6252) See Legislative Open
Records Act, Govt. Code §§ 9070-9080.
TO MAKE A REQUEST OF THE CDCR
Write to: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
1515 S St., Suite 314S
Sacramento, CA 94283-0001
The CDCR charges $.12 per page for Public Records Act requests, plus actual postage. If the documents can be emailed, the postage would be waived.
FOR MORE INFORMATION OR HELP:
FIRST AMENDMENT PROJECT……………..510/208-7744
California First Amendment Coalition……….415/460-5060
For the Top 10 Points to Remember about Making a California Public Records Act Request or Top 10 Points to Remember about Exemptions from the California Public Records Act, please send a request to:
The Center for Public Forum Rights
2218 Homewood Way
Carmichael, CA 95608 www.calaware.org