Even NYPD releases documents from time to time… just make sure they’re legible

Request process often yields heavily redacted documents and no appeal recourse
edited by Michael Morisy

Every once in awhile, even the notoriously opaque NYPD breaks down and releases documents. If you’re persistent, you may even be able to read them.

GIF

Before and after: NYPD unusual occurrence reports at first and second release.


MuckRock has highlighted the New York City Police Department’s resistance to public records requests. In the most recent and highly symbolic instance, NYPD’s Freedom of Information Law unit rejected a request for its freedom of information handbook.

In the week since issuing that handbook rejection, NYPD has, in turns, plead inability to track down travel approval forms, claimed that another form listed on its Intranet is “no longer used,” and sidestepped a third request with language disturbingly close to “neither confirm nor deny.”

But it’s not all rejections from NYPD. MuckRock has gotten back a few documents from the department in the past week, too. And even if we had to scrap to get remotely legible copies, that’s something.

On October 30, I requested five unusual occurrence reports, NYPD form number PD 370-152. On November 22, NYPD Lt. Richard Mantellino, the department’s chief transparency gatekeeper, rejected my request, claiming that I had failed to “reasonably describe a record in a manner that would allow retrieval of the documents.”

My appeal was relatively short, since I had (again, rather reasonably) included the department’s own form number. NYPD counsel Jonathan David upheld my appeal on December 13, and ordered the records office to produce the documents.

More than a month later, on January 25, NYPD finally mailed us the sloppily photocopied reports and demanded payment of $1.25.



Beyond being heavily redacted, entire sections of the released reports were smudged or blurred beyond legibility. I wrote back to NYPD that I did not consider the request fulfilled, and asked the FOIL office to send decent, legible copies.

And so it is, dear readers, that after nearly four months, two appeals and a check for $1.25 that we have at last obtained five blacked-out-but-clearly-so copies of NYPD unusual occurrence reports.



Life is about the small victories.

The thing is, even though I can now clearly make out what portions of the documents have been withheld intentionally, NYPD's process has left me without any recourse to challenge the redactions, save filing suit. By denying my request up front and then granting documents upon appeal, NYPD has bypassed my right to appeal redactions that I would have retained if its FOIL team had conducted an adequate search from the start. This is the same case that has played out in a number of recent requests. Unless I litigate in each of these cases, I cannot challenge the withholding of such basic information as the date, time and precinct in which reported incidents took place.

Small, blurry victories.

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