I-TEAM: New York State hiding discipline of police officers, firefighters

Buffalo police documents I-team
Posted at 4:00 AM, Jul 24, 2019

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — The 7 Eyewitness News I-Team is working to figure out how many police officers have been disciplined -- and what for-- since the first of the year. But New York State law stops any law enforcement agency from releasing that information, without consent from each officer.

We want to know how many of those police officers, who've been disciplined, are still on the job or still on the streets.

Four different freedom of information requests were sent to Buffalo police, Niagara Falls police, the Erie County Sheriff's Office and the Niagara County Sheriff's Office looking for that very information. Each request was denied.

Mickey Osterreicher, a media lawyer in Buffalo, said you would have to change the law to get that documentation.

"The whole idea is for the public to receive that information for them to be informed -- so they can make educated decisions about how government runs," Osterreicher said. "It basically just undermines that when so many of these requests are denied."

Open record laws impact real people. Take for instance what happened in Bakersfield, California. We're able to hear an officer's own admission, to sexting a woman he had just met on a call and masturbating while on-duty, in a patrol car. That tape was made available only after after reporters filed an official, open records request.

"I'd like to believe I'm a good officer and made a stupid choice," the officer said to an Internal Affairs officer.

He resigned as a result.

In Denver, a number of deputies lost ten percent of their tax-payer funded salaries for ten pay-periods, after they were tagged in photos taken in Las Vegas. They were supposed to be home on sick leave.

Jace Larson is the investigative reporter who broke that story.

"What we're asking for, is information after the case is concluded. We want to know, what did our officials do to investigate a case and then what's the outcome. The public is best served when they have the facts," Larson said.

So why doesn't New York State want you to know if someone you pay is doing something wrong?

State Civil law says, it's a personnel record and is "used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion..."

It's not just police officers. This same law applies to firefighters and corrections officers.

"It's unfortunate because I think it creates, rather than an air of openness and transparency, it creates "what are you hiding" ... what are you hiding that you don't want the public to know," Osterreicher said.

In last year's annual report, sent to Governor Cuomo and lawmakers in Albany, the State Committee on Open Government noted:

"It is ironic that public employees having the most authority over peoples' lives are the least accountable relative to disclosure of government records. This situation is untenable."

The I-Team asked, if these agencies aren't releasing these documents, who is providing the oversight. Osterreicher said, "It's pretty much the fox minding the hen house."

"I think it's really going to be a matter of the public saying, 'we've had enough. We want these laws changed... so there's an accountability.'"

In fairness, the I-Team reached out to each of the four agencies we sent official requests to. We asked for an on-camera interview about the civil law. The answer was either no, or there was no response.