Police, fire unions' legal bid to protect certain personnel records denied
State Supreme Court Justice Frank Sedita denied a request Tuesday by police and fire unions to protect certain disciplinary records from public release.
The unions representing Buffalo police officers, Buffalo firefighters, and Town of Tonawanda police officers argued that allowing the release of records of unsubstantiated or pending accusations would be a violation of the constitutional rights of those accused.
In his ruling, Sedita determined that previously enacted Freedom of Information Law reforms allow the police and fire records in question to be released.
John Evans, president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, expressed his disappointment following the ruling and told WBFO he does not anticipate an appeal.
"Our hope is though, going forward, that the records that are released are accurate," he said. "I know they haven't been in the past, and it's caused quite a bit of trouble or turmoil for our members."
The judge acknowledged the concern of plaintiffs regarding the potential damage to reputations and even safety of those merely accused without merit, stating that in the age of social media, "all you need to ruin a life is a keyboard, an audience and an accusation." Sedita also acknowledged the arguments that such protections exist in many other professions, including his own.
Darius Charney, a senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City, offered his opinion as to why police personnel records should be handled differently.
"Unlike those other professions, police officers are given the power and authority to deprive people of their liberty, and frankly their lives in some circumstances, which is obviously a really awesome power," he explained. "What's the old saying, with great power comes great responsibility and, frankly, accountability. I think that's what makes police officers different."
Charney also contends that allowing records of unsubstantiated claims to be released will allow the public to learn more about how a police department's internal affairs operation conduct its investigations.
Sedita, upon his ruling, lifted the temporary restraining order imposed to allow the lawsuit to be heard. He also stated that his decision does not mean municipalities will automatically release all personnel records. He noted that certain regulations must be followed regarding FOIL requests.
Submitting arguments to dismiss the lawsuit was attorney Stephanie Adams. Her client, James Kistner, is pursuing legal action against the Buffalo Police Department in a case of alleged officer misconduct in 2017. His search for more information to build his case was put on hold, until today.
“Transparency and access to law enforcement disciplinary records are critical to addressing concerns with law enforcement and building trust in our community,” Adams said in a written statement. "My client Jim Kistner knows, first-hand, how important it is for Buffalo residents to have faith in our police, and to access law enforcement records when that faith is shaken.”