The news organization BuzzFeed sued the New York City Police Department late Tuesday over claims the department is inappropriately restricting access to officer disciplinary trial transcripts and other information, despite substantial state and federal court precedent establishing a clear right of access to such material.
“The NYPD imposes a level of secrecy on disciplinary hearings that is unheard of in most government proceedings—including the military’s. It’s also unconstitutional,” BuzzFeed spokesman Matt Mittenthal said in a statement. “That’s why we are asking the court to recognize the right of journalists to monitor and observe how law enforcement handles misconduct within its own ranks. The public has a right to know.”
According to the suit filed in state Supreme Court in Manhattan, BuzzFeed investigative reporter Kendall Taggart attended a hearing in April in the department’s case against Officer Shanturah Brathwaite. Brathwaite claims she has been the target of discriminatory actions by the department in the wake of her husband’s separate lawsuit against the city for false arrest. The department charged her with failing to safeguard a police placard, failing to work overtime the night her husband was arrested and other “prejudicial conduct” during her husband’s arrest.
According to BuzzFeed’s attorneys, Taggart essentially stumbled on the department’s proceedings against Brathwaite. Despite being technically open to the public and operating as “close cousins of traditional adjudicatory proceedings,” “any related dockets, transcripts and judicial records are closely guarded” by the department.
Taggart found herself in the middle of a trial that she couldn’t stay through to the end. When she asked a police official at the hearing if she could get access to transcripts of the proceedings in Brathwaite’s trial, she was told the department, through its public information office, does not give out transcripts, according to the suit.
BuzzFeed’s counsel state in the complaint that numerous attempts to communicate with the department to gain access to the transcripts were met largely with deflection and, ultimately, silence. At one point, the department unilaterally turned the request for transcripts into a Freedom of Information Act request, which BuzzFeed’s counsel argued applies an entirely different standard than the First Amendment basis for being provided access.
It’s not just that there’s a presumption of openness to police disciplinary proceedings, for which BuzzFeed provides a host of case law citings. It’s also that courts, according to the complaint, have made it clear that openness protection extends to such things as transcripts. From the U.S. Supreme Court down to numerous rulings in the state appellate departments, BuzzFeed asserts the outcomes from the courts have reached the same position: “Since the departmental trials here are subject to the right of access, so too are the transcripts.”
The complaint noted that, as of the suit’s filing, the department has “failed to point to anything specific in the transcript” that would allow it to claim a compelling interest in denying the release of the transcripts.
A department spokesman did not response to a request for comment