The city of Rochester will post all police disciplinary files into an online database before the end of the year, City Hall officials announced Tuesday.
In June, state lawmakers repealed section 50a of the civil service law, which kept police and firefighter personnel records confidential. Those records will generally be available via a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request.
City spokesperson Justin Roj said the online database was the easiest method to meet the demand for records.
“We have already received a number of FOILs asking for such records, including one for all RPD disciplinary records,” Roj said, in a statement. “This new database will allow everyone to access these records without the delay of processing a FOIL request.”
Roj said the city plans to have the database up and running by the end of the year.
Rochester has joined a growing roster of cities taking a proactive approach of posting police personnel records online.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, for instance, announced all of his city’s 1,100 active police misconduct cases, as well as past cases and judgements, would be uploaded into a public online database.
Utica pledged a similar plan and has already begun posting files. So far on the city’s website, the records of Chief Mark Williams, Deputy Chief Ed Noonan and four officers are available.
Rochester City Council Member Mary Lupien and Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart had called for the Rochester Police Department and Monroe County Sheriff's Office to take a similar tack to the police departments in New York City and Utica.
“Posting disciplinary records online makes them accessible to the public,” Lupien said Tuesday. “This proactive step would go a long way in holding law enforcement accountable and building trust with the community.”
Requests for police personnel files under FOIL can be made by anybody. But waiting for them can be time consuming, and a request containing vague language could plausibly be denied. Barnhart said putting the burden on the people to file FOILs is a barrier to transparency.
“Telling people to file a FOIL isn’t the right approach,” Barnhart said. “The open records law allows governments to drag their feet for weeks or months. The process can be hard for people to navigate.”
President of the Rochester Police Locust Michael Mazzeo had not learned of the planned public database until reading news reports Tuesday morning. He said he has concerns about privacy, and that he would like to have a hand in determining what potentially sensitive information is made available.
"I really think there's some out there that think we have, like, serial killers, and it's going to come out," Mazzeo said, at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. "It's not going to come out, so let's not be afraid of it, let's engage in it, but let's protect certain parts of privacy."
Mazzeo also referred to making complete personnel files available to the public "very dangerous."
"Would you want all of your personnel files out there so your next door neighbor could look at them? Or have them just posted on social media for whatever reason?" Mazzeo said. "How does someone get a fair due process when you're involved in a certain incident that no one has the full facts of? They just paint a certain picture."
The Monroe County Sheriff's Office is creating a system for handling the demand for 50a files, according to a statement released by the agency Tuesday. But the office did not specify whether that meant putting all files into an online database.
"While we are reviewing those requests, MCSO is in the process of building the most efficient business model, to include technologies, that will allow our agency to comply with the law in the most efficient manner possible," the statement reads.