In the era of fake news and government surveillance, the Freedom of Information Law can be a valuable tool for people who want answers. Passed in the 1970s, New York State’s FOIL is supposed to allow the public access to public records.
That, of course, makes perfect sense, but many local government agencies aren’t fond of heightened transparency, often carving out exceptions to FOIL requests — which can now be emailed after NYC settled a lawsuit last year. When the city complies, it sometimes releases highly redacted documents. A recent example is the “agents of the city” emails that the city was forced to turn over to news outlets that had sued for communications between the mayor and outside advisers.
One high-stakes issue cloaked in secrecy is the city’s gang enforcement strategy. Recent comments by President Donald Trump describing alleged immigrant gang members as “animals” raised concerns about how officials classify someone as a gang member. The NYPD is secretive about its gang database. So far, the department has been coy about tactics, but perhaps the FOIL could shed some light.
Am I on the database? After all, I have tattoos, live in a “gang area” and have known people who are current or former gang members — some of the criteria past FOIL requests indicate police use to designate gang membership.
The Legal Aid Society’s Community Justice Unit launched a do-it-yourself FOIL campaign that encourages residents to make requests of the NYPD to see whether they’re on the gang database. Legal Aid provided me a FOIL request in writing, but it also has a website from which anyone can submit a FOIL request.
The NYPD denied my request, citing an exemption on the grounds that telling me whether I’m on the database would “reveal criminal investigative techniques or procedures.” What is the NYPD hiding? Am I on a secret list? Are you?
I will appeal the decision, but anyone who might be uncomfortable with the idea that he or she is in the database should contact Legal Aid, and FOIL the NYPD so we can all work toward transparency around the department’s gang tactics.
The City Council will hold hearings on Monday on the NYPD’s gang strategy. Perhaps the NYPD will be forced to answer questions. If not, let’s work to get answers ourselves.
Josmar Trujillo is a trainer, writer and activist with the Coalition to End Broken Windows.