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Nassau County Police fined for failing to turn over documents

Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder speaks as Bruce Blakeman, the newly sworn-in county executive, looks on.
Charles Lane
WSHU Public Radio
Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder speaks as Bruce Blakeman, the newly sworn-in county executive, looks on.

A Nassau County judge has ruled that Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder violated open records laws when he refused to turn over his work calendars. Taxpayers will have to cover the $17,292 in attorney fees related to the case — one of several Nassau Police are currently fighting to keep department records secret.

WSHU requested Ryder’s work calendars during last year’s police reform meetings. Police denied the request, saying that releasing them would reveal investigative techniques.

The judge ruled last month that police violated New York’s Freedom of Information Law and should have released the documents without the need for a lawyer. He said because of that police, and ultimately taxpayers, should pay the station’s attorney fees in the case.

“Work calendars usually should be considered public records, particularly if they are for high ranking or semi-high ranking public officials,” said Alia Smith, a media attorney representing Newsday in a different public records lawsuit against the department.

The work calendar sought by WSHU covered a three month time period when Police Commissioner Ryder told lawmakers he was meeting advocates to draft a state-mandated police reform plan. The calendar WSHU receivedwas heavily redacted so it’s difficult to say how much Ryder participated in this reform process.

State law requires governments to produce any documents requested by journalists or members of the public unless they fall into specific exemptions.

Nassau Police are currently fighting a number of cases to keep records private. Susan Gottehrer, the regional director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, which is also suing Nassau police for disciplinary records, said transparency makes police more accountable, and secrecy undermines that effort.

“Through all of this, the common thread is we don’t know because there is a transparency and accountability problem with the Nassau County Police Department,” Gottehrer said.

Joseph Giacalone, a former New York Police Detective Sergeant who is now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, said Ryder’s claim that sharing his calendar might reveal investigative techniques seems questionable, since a police commissioner rarely investigates cases.

“It’s a public record. Everyone knows it can be subpoenaed or in this case a FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) request made for it,” he said.

He said the department’s efforts to keep disciplinary records secret makes more sense. Police may claim that accusations of misconduct should be kept private if they are unsubstantiated, since the vast majority of them are never proven.

In 2020, state lawmakers repealed a law known as 50-a, giving the public its first look at many police misconduct records.

In the Newsday suit, the newspaper requested police disciplinary records. Police turned over some records, but they were heavily redacted, and the paper contested those redactions in court. In that case, the judge sided with police, saying that privacy concerns outweigh transparency claims, especially in relation to unsubstantiated police disciplinary records. Newsday is appealing the ruling.

Both Nassau police and the county attorney’s office declined comment to WSHU.

Smith, the Newsday lawyer, said Nassau’s efforts to withhold records are unusual.

“All police departments fought this to some extent, but ultimately New York City did give disciplinary record information,” Smith said. “Suffolk County has at least provided some information. Nassau County has produced pretty much nothing.”

Nassau police are also fighting off demands for the disciplinary records related to 143 drunk driving cases in District Court. After Judge Andrew Engel ordered prosecutors to hand over the records, Police Commissioner Ryder took the unusual step of suing to stop him.

According to his calendar, Ryder appears to have missed at least eight of the 16 police reform meetings during the requested time period. Because of the redactions, it is not clear what he was doing while the meetings were taking place.

Nearly a dozen members of Nassau County’s police reform task force resigned in protest, saying Ryder drafted the reform plan without meeting with them.

Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including an IRE award, three SPJ Public Service Awards, and a National Murrow. He was also a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and Third Coast Director’s Choice Award.