FOIL'd Again: Why Doesn't the NYPD Want You to Know Anything?


It was hard to feign much surprise last month when the New York Times slapped New York's finest with a lawsuit, accusing the department of habitually withholding information and flouting government transparency laws. In fact, as any reporter would certainly know, one of the city's toughest agencies to crack for information -- even information it's obliged, by law, to cough up -- might be New York's boys in blue.

Freedom of Information Law requests (or "FOIL requests," as they're known) are supposed to be a useful tool for the public; immigrants applying for citizenship use them to collect documentation, inmates use them to prove their innocence, reporters use them to uncover wrongdoing, and advocacy groups have used them to gather a breadth of data on subjects like political surveillance, school performance, racial profiling and homelessness.

But ask anyone who's filed a FOIL, and they'll tell you that prying loose information isn't always so simple. Especially, it seems, from the NYPD.

"In general," said Leonard Levitt, a longtime police reporter at Newsday who now writes the online NYPD Confidential, "it's virtually impossible to get anything from them through FOIL requests."

In New York, anyone can use the FOIL to request pretty much anything from most government agencies except courts and the state legislature. That includes e-mails, payroll information, reports -- you name it. Barring some specific records that the law says are exempt from disclosure (documents that might endanger someone's safety or violate their privacy, for instance), the assumption is: it's public.

When a request is filed, government agencies have five days to acknowledge it. They then have 20 days to decide whether to deny access or hand the record over. If the agency can't make up its mind within those 20 days, it must give you a specific date by which it will make a decision and if it still fails to comply in time, you get 30 days to bring an appeal to an agency supervisor. If your appeal fails, you have one option left: take 'em to court.

But when a government body is stingy with information, it's not uncommon -- even in the face of litigation -- for it to drag out the FOIL process as long as possible.

"The one thing that's consistent across all of the states' [open records laws]," said David Ardia, director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, "is the fact that they are rarely complied with."

"The exception is an agency that meets its obligations within the time period called for by the relevant open records statute," he said. "In fact, most government agencies know that they can get away with dragging their feet or outright ignore the requirements with very little risk to them."

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