Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner O’Neill should seize the opportunity to change the NYPD culture

We have a new police commissioner in NYC, James O’Neill – a native New Yorker (which is always nice), a seasoned professional, not a psychopath, and seemingly still in touch with his own humanity.  These are all good things.  Could he change certain negative aspects of the NYPD culture?

Firing the murderer Pantaleo would be a great shout out to the citizens of New York.  Then he should fire John Miller (and probably all his hires) and Jonathan David (the head of the NYPD legal bureau and chief blocker of Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests of the NYPD, which he treats with utter contempt.  He’s held this position through administrations.).

Internal cultures can only be changed by finding the internal pillars of that culture and exiting them from the organization.  Character can’t be changed but consequences for behavior can, and that’s good enough.

This contempt of the law by too many in the department has got to go.  They need to be bound by the laws and the constitution.  Every officer involved in stop and frisks knows they are unconstitutional (judicial rulings unnecessary), so naturally they think they are above the law, or even wardens in an open air prison.  The same with the FOIL process, transparency and legality is considered a joke by too many.

Some changes would have to come from the mayor of course, I’d suggest requiring all officers to sign a waiver of the right to lie in court under oath (Briscoe v. Lahue) as a necessity for employment.

Our new commissioner is in the honeymoon period with the citizens of New York.  We all hope for the best.

From the Village Voice: “FOILed Again: Freedom of Information Laws Are Just That — Laws. So Why Does the NYPD Get to Keep Breaking Them?”

Indeed.  The Freedom of Information Law is very clear.  It is intended to be an administrative process, not a legal process in court.  However the NYPD is having none of that.  Basically they slough off FOIL requests any way they can and wait for the courts to force them comply with the law.  For the NYPD the FOIL law is only what a particular judge says in a particular case.  They treat the FOIL process with total contempt.  Why the courts do not find a way to penalize the NYPD for consuming court time with matters that should be handled administratively I do not know.

From the Voice:

Talk to open-government advocates or journalists or lawyers, virtually anyone who’s ever filed a FOIL request with the NYPD, and you’ll hear the same stories. Delays that stretch for months, if not forever. Exorbitant fees, like the $36,000 the department is demanding from NY1 in exchange for some video footage. Just getting through to the NYPD can be an impossible task. Try calling certain records officers and you’ll get a voicemail too full to accept more messages. Try emailing a request and you’ll be told that’s not allowed, even though the courts have ruled — unequivocally — that it is. Requests for even innocuous information are met with reflexive secrecy. Robert Freeman, director of the state’s Commission on Open Government, remembers fielding a call from a guy who wanted to know the length of the Queens Midtown Tunnel. He FOILed the NYPD, and was told the information was too sensitive to release. (It’s listed on Wikipedia as 6,414 feet, if you were wondering.) When the New York World and MuckRock designed a test of FOIL responsiveness last year, sending identical requests for a list of employees to various state and local agencies, the NYPD took three months to reply that it had no such list.

. . .

In October, the Voice filed what should have been an easy request. We asked for every FOIL letter the department had received, and every response it had sent out, for a two-month period. It’s the sort of request that’s routinely fulfilled elsewhere; at the federal level, this kind of information is periodically released by official ombudsmen as a matter of course.

What did we get from our request? Fifty-six pages of nothing. A series of meaningless index numbers stripped even of the names of requesters, with no explanation for the effective denial. It would have been easier to write [F*CK] YOU on our letter and send it back by return mail.

It’s impossible to assess the scope of the NYPD’s FOIL dysfunction — that would require the department to comply with FOIL — but it’s a real and apparently worsening problem. “The department, when it comes to the timing and scope of its FOIL responses, is awful. Infamously awful,” says Gideon Oliver, a civil rights attorney who’s tangled with the NYPD over FOIL for years, especially on cases involving political activists. “There are so many systemic problems that many people I talk to just don’t even bother trying to FOIL the police department anymore.”

“It has more than a chilling effect,” agrees Norman Siegel, another civil rights attorney, of the NYPD’s brazen stonewalling. “It has a frozen effect.” And he doesn’t think it’s an accident. “I think its part of a deliberate strategy. Nobody likes someone second-guessing them.”

Even longstanding civil rights organizations face the same problems from the department. Chris Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union says his organization is routinely forced to sue for NYPD records. “I can’t think of any agency that we have more trouble with than the NYPD,” he says. “It’s the culture of the NYPD, and that culture is completely contrary to the spirit of FOIL.”

FOIL and the laws like it passed in every state, mostly in the reform-minded 1970s, weren’t designed just for crybaby journalists, but for every citizen. They’re the laws that allow you — in theory at least — to pry open the black box of government. They are the laws that keep you informed about what your government does in your name. And it’s impossible to overstate their importance; FOIL laws have helped to expose corrupt policing, inadequate government oversight, deadly boondoggles, and graft of all kinds.

The effect of this kind of obstruction isn’t just a problem for government watchdogs or lawyers or the press. If well-funded, savvy requesters can’t make the law work, what chance do average citizens have, people without the time or wherewithal to badger public officials into complying with the law?

. . .

The NYPD isn’t doing anyone a favor when it deigns to comply with the law, and its moaning about resources wouldn’t be tolerated in any other context. If the mayor permitted sexual harassment in his offices because eliminating it would be too much work, he’d be tossed out of office, and rightly so. FOIL isn’t a second-rate law, or a law with an asterisk: It’s the law. Simple as that.

The department’s protestations also ignore the fact that federal agencies like the FBI, or even local ones like the Los Angeles Police Department, are able to handle FOIL requests with infinitely more professionalism than Commissioner Bill Bratton’s NYPD. No government agency is perfect, but many perform far better than our city’s police department. It’s the height of arrogance to suggest that the NYPD is somehow special.

. . .

[. . .] maybe the solution has been staring us in the face all along.If the NYPD wants to go to war on FOIL — if they want to go to war on us — why not make it a war of attrition? Gather an army of like-minded attorneys, suit up, and sue.

If Mayor DeBlasio wants to change the culture of the NYPD (the above-the-law, we-are-the-law, the out-of-civilian-control culture of too many in the department) then forcing the NYPD to obey the Freedom of Information Law is a place to start.  He could fire the internal pillars of resistance to the FOIL (the internal pillars of the undesired culture) and hire people with respect for democracy, the constitution and the law.