WKBW, 26 other media outlets pushing to keep police records public

Police union filed lawsuit challenging disclosure
Posted at 5:24 PM, Aug 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-27 16:55:56-04

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Every media organization in Buffalo, including 7 Eyewitness News, as well as The New York Times and more than 20 other national journalism organizations are urging a state judge to keep police disciplinary records open to the public.

The news organizations this month filed an amicus curiae brief in State Supreme Court in a lawsuit brought by the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association. The lawsuit filed by the police union seeks to shield certain police misconduct records from public view, despite recent police reforms that have opened those records to the public.

“These are the people that we entrust our safety to. Without the public having access to these records, it's hard to see what is going on,” said Karim A. Abdulla, an attorney with the firm of Finnerty, Osterreicher and Abdulla. “We can only as a society fix problems when we know what the problems are.”

Abdulla is representing 7 Eyewitness News, who along with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 25 other media organizations has filed a legal brief urging State Supreme Court Justice Frank A. Sedita III to keep the disciplinary records accessible to the public.

In June, the State Legislature repealed Civil Rights Law 50-a, which since it was enacted in the 1970s shielded police personnel records from public view.

But in July, the Buffalo Police union filed a lawsuit seeking to block the release of misconduct complaints that are pending or have not been sustained by police internal investigations, arguing that the release of these records would “destroy the reputation and privacy (and imperil the safety) of many of those police officers” and their families.

Attorney John J. Gilmour, who filed the suit on behalf of the police union, did not respond to a message seeking comment for this story.

But lawyers for 7 Eyewitness News and the University at Buffalo’s Civil Rights & Transparency Clinic argue that the disclosure of those records “makes possible powerful investigative reporting that can serve as a catalyst for important community dialogues and reform efforts.”

Lawyers for the police union have also argued that disclosure of certain records would violate their union agreements with the city. They also oppose the release of information about settlements city taxpayers paid after allegations of police brutality.

“The public's right to know cannot be bargained away by a private contract,” Abdulla said. “So, if the city or a public agency is spending the public's money to settle a lawsuit, in our view, we believe that the public has a right to know how its taxpayer dollars are being spent.”

Click here to read the brief filed by 7 Eyewitness News' lawyers and click here to read the original lawsuit filed by the police union.