NYCLU seeks strategies to improve police transparency and accountability in Syracuse
***EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to include a response from the City of Syracuse.
The New York Civil Liberties Union is trying to find the most effective ways to improve police accountability in Syracuse. Senior organizer Victoria Coit helped organized a discussion Tuesday evening with panelists who are on the ground every day observing and de-escalating interactions with police. She says information about those interactions is mostly anecdotal.
“There is a steadiness of aggression and when it comes to policing," Coit said. "There's a steadiness in folks feeling targeted, as some of the data shows, in certain neighborhoods, certain ZIP codes. That is something that I have not seen go down whether I was in this role or just growing up in Syracuse.”
Very little is known about interactions that rise to the level of a complaint by a resident or any disciplinary action taken. The Syracuse Police Department has refused for years to comply with a state law, and now a court order, to release certain disciplinary records sought by the NYCLU. Supervising attorney Bobby Hodgson says the city won’t publicize any documents until fall of 2025.
“We are in that fight in the Court and we're really hopeful that we'll get something faster," Hodgson said. "But right now, Syracuse is not turning over a single thing, and has told us point blank that it won't do so for two more years. So it's a very frustrating situation and it's denying the people of Syracuse the opportunity to understand what police accountability looks like in their community.”
Syracuse does have a Citizen Review Board, which investigates complaints of police misconduct. But many residents might not know it exists. Plus, Victoria Coit says the CRB has limited funding, staff, and investigative capabilities to hold officers accountable.
“There is still not the ability for the investigator in the CRB to actually interview the officer that is being investigated," Coit said. "So when we talk about empowering these organizations and getting information, it's not what you do, it's how you do it. So, being able to actually have a conversation that is the meat and potatoes of this investigation.”
Coit says Mayor Ben Walsh and his administration could easily decide to increase the CRB’s oversight and authority. She says he could also decide to require the police department to release the requested disciplinary records.
In a statement, The City of Syracuse explains the reasoning behind the lengthy period needed to release the records. Here's an excerpt:
"The City has identified over 1,000 disciplinary records responsive to the request, requiring the review of more than 28,000 pages. Of those, the City previously released over 300 substantiated disciplinary records consisting of almost 6,000 pages.
"To determine what records or portions thereof may be redacted or withheld from disclosure, the City must individually review each disciplinary record. This is in fact what is required by the decision. [The review must consider factors including, juvenile matters, personally identifying details of civilians such as driver’s license number, medical records or condition, information that would interfere with a law enforcement investigation, draft disciplinary reports, and personal information such as medical records, home address, email or phone number.]
"[Additionally, the NYCLU requests] the production [of]…Stops, Temporary Detentions, and Field Interviews data for the period 2014 through 2020….[which will] require the production of every police report for every stop conducted by SPD for the period of 2014 through 2020. The City estimates the number of police reports responsive to this portion of the request to be approximately 70,000. To retrieve [the] reports responsive to this portion of the request, an individual at SPD with appropriate clearance will have to manually input each of the…report numbers.
"In consideration of the above [and the considerations addressed in the Feb. 10, 2023 response to Latham & Watkins LLP], the City finds the date[s] for review and production of…Disciplinary Records [September 30, 2025]…and Stops Reports [October 29, 2027] to be reasonable under the attendant facts and circumstances.”