On October 14, I submitted two Freedom of Information Law requests to NYPD regarding the arrest of Chad Washington, a Columbia University football player arrested last May for aggravated harassment as a hate crime against an Asian student. I requested his arrest report and his mugshots.
One month later, on November 14, NYPD Lieutenant Richard Mantellino of the FOIL Unit rejected both requests. In both cases, Mantellino insisted via form letter that releasing the documents “would interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings.” Both Washington’s arrest record and mugshots were thus “exempt from disclosure” in his view.
Both of Mantellino’s blanket rejections are untenable if not somewhat expected (particularly given NYPD’s dismal FOIL record). As it happens, New York State’s Committee on Open Government has advisory opinions in two cases nearly identical to these, when law enforcement denied requesters arrest records and mugshots.
In both cases, the COOG directed that records should be released in the interest of public disclosure. FOIL offers a “presumption of access,” the Committee reminded NYPD. Regarding arrest reports, they wrote that blanket denial by the NYPD was “a categorical denial of access to records is inconsistent with the requirements of the Freedom of Information Law.” Redacting particular portions of an arrest report is allowed, but NYPD cannot flatly refuse to release it in whole without substantiating that move.
Regarding mugshots, the Committee also urged that “unless cases against individuals charged are considered to have been terminated in their favor, in which instances the mugshots would be sealed, we believe that mugshots maintained by New York State or local agencies must be disclosed pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law.” Chad Washington’s case has not been terminated in his favor, nor has NYPD provided any supporting information for their rejections beyond its typical form letters. Accordingly, I have appealed both determinations, citing the Committee on Open Government’s clear guidance. If these appeals fail, I will request an advisory opinion from the Committee regarding these cases.
The dismal transparency record of NYPD has not gone unnoticed. As public advocate, mayor-elect Bill de Blasio published a report grading all city agencies on their responsiveness to public records requests. He gave the NYPD an F. With de Blasio’s swearing in just weeks away, open government advocates and the press eagerly await reforms in NYPD toward disclosure.