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NYCLU sues Freeport police

Claims department has illegally withheld disciplinary records

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The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the Freeport Police Department May 6 for allegedly denying the NYCLU’s requests for the full slate of records related to police misconduct in the department.

According to the lawsuit, filed in Nassau County Supreme Court, the NYCLU submitted a Freedom of Information request last year seeking public records from the Police Department after the repeal in June of Section 50-a of the state’s Civil Rights Law, a statute that had previously shielded police departments’ disciplinary records from scrutiny by the public.

The NYCLU sought to review records of police misconduct complaints that resulted in either an officer’s discipline or no disciplinary action being taken. 

The NYCLU said the FPD denied requests for records in cases where there was no disciplinary action taken against an officer. 

“Freeport PD’s argument that it can shield unsubstantiated misconduct complaints from public scrutiny has been rejected by multiple courts that have considered it, because courts recognize that these records are key to accountability,” said Bobby Hodgson, senior staff attorney at the NYCLU. “Being able to compare when the Freeport Police Department did impose discipline as the result of a complaint against when and why it did not is vital to vindicating the public’s right to complete information about the police misconduct that takes place in their communities.”     

Village Attorney Howard Col-ton refuted the lawsuit’s claims  and said the village complied with all of the NYCLU’s re-quests when it was required by law to do so. “There are no grounds for this lawsuit, and the village will fight the case,” Colton said, adding that he was confident the courts would find the suit “frivolous in nature.” 

Court documents show that the NYCLU’s request was denied, with Freeport Deputy Chief Mike Williams writing that disclosing the additional records that the NYCLU requested “would be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy under the Public Officers Law.” Williams added that releasing the records could endanger the life or safety of those named in the records, so the department was within its rights to withhold those types of records.  

The NYCLU and its consulting partners rejected that argument. 

NYCLU officials said State Supreme Court Judge Mark Powers’s decision to disclose all disciplinary records concerning Schenectady Police Officer Brian Pommer last December reaffirmed that all complaints — not only those that result in discipline — must be produced under a FOIL request. 

The NYCLU’s lawsuit is part of a statewide police transparency campaign targeting 12 police departments that the NYCLU argues have gone against the 50-a repeal. The NYCLU has already filed additional suits against the Rochester, Syracuse and Buffalo police departments.  

“New Yorkers stood up, spoke out and demanded change. The Freeport Police Department cannot ignore the fact that 50-a was repealed, and police transparency is essential to police accountability,” said Susan Gottehrer, Nassau County chapter director for the NYCLU. “We will continue to take action to ensure 50-a is repealed in theory and practice across New York state by obtaining full documentation of misconduct long withheld from the public.”

“Milbank is proud to partner with the NYCLU to ensure that New Yorkers benefit from the repeal of 50-a by seeking court intervention to prevent Freeport from continuing to hide its misconduct records from public scrutiny,” said Errol Taylor, consulting partner at Milbank LLP, who helped file the suit.

State Justice R. Bruce Cozzens will review the case, with an appearance date set for June 1.