NYPD Claims Secrecy For Its Freedom of Information Request Criteria


Franz Golhen / Wikimedia

The New York Police Department has earned a notoriously poor reputation for transparency. According to a report unveiled last year by former New York City Public Advocate and current mayor, Bill de Blasio, about a third of information requests are ignored. When agency representatives do respond, they habitually deny access to material, often citing questionable problems with the requests. To make matters worse, all requests must be made by postal mail. Hoping to dig to the root of this, Shawn Musgrave submitted an information request for the accept-or-reject criteria for an information request. The request was rejected on the grounds that the information is a "privileged attorney-client work-product."

Citizens can submit Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests to any New York state agency to promote government transparency and accountability. Agencies are required to respond to requests, but there are several exemptions intended to protect safety, privacy, national security, and other concerns. But Boing Boing argues that the NYPD has "invented its own, extra-legal system of 'classified' documents that it has unilaterally decided it doesn't have to provide to the public."

In officer Jonathan David's reply to Musgrave, David argues that the requested records "reflect confidential communications between members of the FOIL unit and their attorneys" and "preparation of these records called upon attorneys to apply the skills and talents of an attorney, making these records attorney work product."

Musgrave, editor of MuckRock, a website that facilitates FOIL request submissions, explains in a blog post, "That a lawyer reviewed or even drafted these documents does not make them exempt from disclosure." Musgrave continues:

Handbooks and training materials hardly qualify as 'confidential communications,' particularly when the subject matter is transparency itself.

Brand new reports paint an unsettling portrait of transparency requests at the federal level. The Associated Press determined, based on U.S. federal FOIA data, that last year, the "most transparent administration ever" censored or denied access to more information than ever before. In another report compiled by the Center for Effective Government (CEG), 15 agencies were ranked on an A-F grading scale based on their performance in handling FOIA requests—eight passed. Of the eight, four received D's. Perhaps the NYPD is simply a particularly egregious cluster caught in a web of wider unaccountability.