The New York Civil Liberties Union has launched an online database of policies from a number of police departments across the state. The idea is to bring internal policies and data to the public, along with accountability and transparency.
The NYCLU’s resource is called Behind the Badge. Wednesday’s launch contains information from seven police departments, among the largest — Albany, Buffalo, Nassau, Rochester, Suffolk, Syracuse and White Plains. New York City is not included. NYCLU lead policy counsel Michael Sisitzky says the site will include 16 additional departments by the fall.
“So the NYCLU filed these 23 identical FOIL requests in the summer of 2015. And it’s taken us this long to get a lot of the documents coming in to fully go through and analyze and see what was there, what was missing,” says Sisitzky. “In 22 of the 23 instances, we actually had to file either an administrative appeal or a lawsuit to get the departments to come along and actually produce information.”
As such, there are policies and other information that are not up to date, and NYCLU will meet with police department officials to go over what’s in the database and see what has changed since. Sisitzky says the NYCLU will be posting updates. The NYCLU requested policies across 39 categories, such as stops and low-level arrests and surveillance technology, like the use of body cameras. Sisitzky says, in general, policies were all over the map. And there was a unifying theme.
“These departments, when left on their own to craft these policies, some are doing okay in terms of just having policies in place, but a lot of them just aren’t giving useful guidance to officers,” Sisitzky says. “We saw that a lot, in particular, on use of force policies. And many of these departments just had general information, not real useful guidance to officers on what the limits of their authority actually are and what steps they can take to avoid using force. It really doesn’t go into a lot of ways for officers de-escalate these encounters, which was a common theme throughout.”
After combing through tens of thousands of pages of information, Sisitzky found another commen thread among police departments.
“We also, in our request, included a request for data on how many stops were taking place; how many use of force incidents took place; how many arrests were made for certain categories of offenses,” Sisitzky says. “And, in particular, we were interested in the demographic breakdown to see if there were racial disparities in enforcement. And the responses that we got from departments, a lot of them had basic data, some of them shared overall numbers, but there were differences in whether or not they were tracking the demographics of the people who were subjects of law enforcement encounters.
As for the Albany Police Department, Sisitzky says there was no information on policies governing stops. But, he says, Albany had a more developed policy for interacting with people with disabilities. In addition:
“So the Albany Police Department searched for but didn’t produce any policy on interacting with people with limited English proficiency, which is a core policy to have if you want to be a police force that is working towards building trust with immigrant communities,” says Sisitzky.
Apparently by coincidence, 24 hours before the NYCLU database went live, Albany’s Police Department launched a Police Data Portal, which shares the city’s police data with the public in an interactive online format, with data on such topics as arrests by neighborhood, reported crimes, traffic citations and officer’s use of force. Acting Albany Police Chief Robert Sears tells WAMC about his city’s new portal and some of what it contains.
“So uses of force, how many times our officers are using force in any situation,” Sears says. “We have some significant internal reporting mechanisms that we do. And we can’t divulge all of the information because some of it is confidential, but what we try to do is at least say you can look at all these from a multi perspective and see how many there are — Taser deployments, how many civilian complaints that we get. Those are all things that I think will help us build, show that we have nothing to hide.”
Joseph Giacalone is an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former NYPD Detective Sergeant.
“One of the things that always pops out at me is about diversity and policing. And I’ve been a strong proponent of that from the very beginning, and I think police departments should match the communities they serve,” Giacalone says. “And, from just some of the information that I’ve been looking at, some of these departments are kind of behind that, the eight ball so to speak. I don’t know about recruitment, selection, or what they’re doing, but if you look at Albany, their police department is overwhelmingly white and they have a large people of color population between black and Hispanics, and they need to do a better job with that.”
Sisitzky says in the Hudson Valley, there is information posted for one department, White Plains, in Westchester County.
“The White Plains Police Department gave us a copy of the form that they use for recording low-level encounters or stops, things that they call field interviews, in White Plains,” says Sisitzky. “And, on that form, they capture demographic information, things like race, sex age, but, when we asked for data on stops, they just gave us total number broken down by month. They didn’t report any of the demographic information.”
The White Plains public safety commissioner did not return a request for comment. Sisitzky says the NYCLU has information from police departments in Mount Vernon, Newburgh and Ramapo, which will be posted by year’s end. Policies and data for Schenectady, Troy and Utica also will be up by then. Sisitzky, in part, sees the database as a call for statewide reform, to standardize the collection and reporting of data from police departments.