Shearman & Sterling in partnership with the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a motion to intervene in the Buffalo police and firefighter union’s lawsuit against the city, challenging the city’s obligation to release complaints made to the Buffalo Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division in its role as defendant against the unions.
“The release of police misconduct reports is an important interest to the people of Buffalo, and we’re not confident in the City of Buffalo’s ability to adequately represent that interest,” said Phil Desgranges, senior staff attorney at the NYCLU. “The city has a long history of non-cooperation with requests for information on police misconduct and a flawed understanding of the law as applied to 50-a and police transparency. Without intervention, the history of officers accused of abuse and misconduct will almost certainly remain secret.”
The lawsuit, Buffalo PBA et al v. Brown et al, was brought by the unions in response to a request from members of the Buffalo Common Council for information on Buffalo police officers’ complaint history. When the Common Council sought the information in July, they requested the information immediately and no later than September 2020.
The unions filed their lawsuit on July 22 to prevent the release of public records specifically authorized to be disclosed under the state Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) after the repeal of 50-a, a statute of the state civil rights code that was misinterpreted for years to bar the disclosure of police misconduct. The repeal of 50-a made vast amounts of records and data related to police accountability publicly available, including records of unsubstantiated and pending allegations against officers.
“The Buffalo Police Department has a long, troubling history of excessive force, and we have a right to know the level of accountability and oversight taking place,” said NYCLU Western Regional Office Director John A. Curr III. “The repeal of 50-a provides an opportunity to shed light on this and yield information critical to rebuilding trust between the department and the community it is supposed to protect and serve. That’s even more necessary after the department’s conduct at the protests in June.”
The NYCLU has a long history of seeking information from the Buffalo Police Department related to officer conduct. In response to a 2015 FOIL request seeking 39 items from the Buffalo Police Department, the department denied 27 items including those regarding the use of force and firearms by officers. With the information received from this FOIL and others statewide, the NYCLU published two reports, Taking Cover, How New York Police Departments Resist Transparency and Behind the Badge, Western Region Buffalo.
“Shearman & Sterling is proud to be representing the NYCLU in this important matter,” said Shearman & Sterling partner Philip Urofsky. “As we note in our motion, many years ago Justice Brandeis wrote, ‘Sunshine is said to be the best of disinfectants.’ Today we continue the fight to resist efforts to keep information in the dark – information that the legislature has recently and unambiguously recognized to be critical to the public accountability of our law enforcement public servants.”
The Shearman & Sterling team below also included associate Keisha James.