The New York Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against the Village of Freeport and its police department for refusing to release police misconduct records made public last year amid the outrage over the police killing of George Floyd.
The NYCLU’s petition filed late Thursday in State Supreme Court seeks to compel Freeport police to provide all of its officer misconduct records dating back to 2000, in response to a broad public records request the NYCLU filed in September. The lawsuit also seeks attorney’s fees and litigation costs.
"The requested records — which include civilian complaints against law enforcement officers — are of immense public importance," the lawsuit reads. "The NYCLU seeks these records, not only to inform significant ongoing public policy discussions about how FPD’s policies and practices affect the Freeport community, but also to ensure the community’s right to prompt access to public records and increased police department transparency."
Village attorney Howard Colton in a statement Friday said: "The Village of Freeport fulfilled the NYCLU’s Freedom of Information request in accordance with the spirit and the letter of the law. While it is policy to not comment on pending litigation, the claim filed against the Village is categorically without merit."
The legal action is part of an NYCLU effort to push for more police transparency following the repeal of Civil Rights Law 50-a, which had prohibited the public release of police misconduct and disciplinary records. The State Legislature repealed 50-a last June, despite protest by politically powerful police unions across the state, in response to the May 2020 killing of Floyd, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes.
The NYCLU then filed requests under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, to 12 police departments across the state, including Nassau, Suffolk, Hempstead and Freeport, in September for a variety of records including misconduct allegations. The NYCLU has already sued other police departments in Rochester, Syracuse and Buffalo over its records requests.
Freeport police denied the request for disciplinary records on allegations that had not been substantiated, citing officer privacy, and provided 25 documents in cases in which the department had implemented discipline against an officer, according to NYCLU senior staff attorney Bobby Hodgson.
"Being able to see the full picture, the full universe of the complaints about police misconduct and to compare when the Freeport Police Department did impose discipline and when it did not; That is vital," said Hodgson. "You can’t just look at the handful of instances where a police department is investigating itself, and say I understand this process and I now have enough knowledge to judge whether police accountability is happening in my community."
In 2019, Freeport police officers were accused of brutality when officers were captured on camera punching, kicking and using a Taser gun on 45-year-old Akbar Rogers.
Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas later said that the evidence did not support prosecuting the officers, though she urged internal police department discipline. The results of any disciplinary action taken have not been released.
The NYCLU, in its suit against Freeport, touted previous favorable rulings on the issue from New York courts, which have mostly ruled against the wholesale withholding of police disciplinary records based on privacy concerns. The Court of Appeals recently ruled that police departments are not permitted to "refuse to produce the whole record simply because some of it may be exempt from disclosure."
But the NYCLU was dealt a setback on Wednesday, when a judge in the Syracuse case ruled that the repeal of 50-a doesn't require the release of documents on unsubstantiated misconduct claims, writing: "The public interest in the release of unsubstantiated claims do not outweigh the privacy concerns of individual officers."
Hodgson, in a statement, said: "This decision is an outlier we intend to appeal."
In February, Newsday filed suit against the Nassau County Police Department on similar grounds. Newsday had put in a FOIL request for police discipline records and the department provided only 43 pages of records, with the majority of the material redacted. That suit is pending.
In addition to the repeal of 50-a, Floyd’s death led to state-mandated police reforms including plans to equip patrol cops in Nassau and Suffolk with body cameras.
A Newsday examination earlier this year found that Long Island’s two big police departments were among just three of the nation’s largest that were not using the technology.
Freeport police have had body cameras since 2015.