Poughkeepsie activists lose legal battle with city over policing records

Courtesy of Alexius Horatius via Wikimedia Commons.

[Correction, April 22, 2021: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Rubin filed suit in June 2020. The suit was filed in January 2021.]

Over five months ago, Poughkeepsie resident and activist Bill Rubin filed what could have been a routine Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request with the City of Poughkeepsie Police Department (CPPD) on behalf of multiple local civil rights activist groups. But in a situation that proved to be anything but routine, Rubin ended up facing a three-month legal battle over policing data that held the potential to reshape standards of transparency and accountability within the city government. Mayor Rob Rolison was contacted by The Miscellany News for this story but said that he would let the judge’s ruling speak for itself, declining to comment further. 

Rubin’s suit traces back to June 2020, when Governor Andrew Cuomo signed Executive Order No. 203 in response to mass calls for police reform in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s deaths. The order required that each local police agency submit plans to “reform and reinvent” themselves according to the individualized needs of communities. In order to develop such a plan, the chief executive of each applicable local government had to meet with the chief of police and “stakeholders in the community.” 

Rubin sought the information within his FOIL request for use with both the End the New Jim Crow Action Network (ENJAN) and the Poughkeepsie Community Action Collaborative (PCAC), two of these aforementioned stakeholders who would be meeting with Rolison and Police Chief Thomas Pape to discuss plans for police reform. ENJAN is a Poughkeepsie-based criminal justice advocacy group, and “membership includes many inner city residents who are people of color with first-hand experience with the City of Poughkeepsie Police, as well as allies residing in neighboring towns.” The PCAC, made up of local organizations and nonprofits, was formed in response to Executive Order No. 203.

In this FOIL request, which Rubin submitted on Nov. 13, he sought CPPD records for the past decade on 10 items including crimes reported, arrests, disciplinary records and complaints lodged against the department. He also asked for records pertaining to current police training programs and protocol. 

Brian Robinson, a fellow PCAC member who worked with Rubin on the request, explained that obtaining this kind of data is especially important in communities such as Poughkeepsie, where an overwhelmingly white police force polices a majority Black and brown population. Robinson emphasized that data can elucidate the more qualitative measures necessary to evaluate the relationship between the police force and community. “The numbers represent lives, that is, lived experience. If you’re arrested for anything, that’s a lived experience, and when we’re talking about 1,500 arrests per year, that’s a lot of lived experience,” he said. “How much contact are the police having with the community? Can we ascertain from the data whether that is what many would consider largely unnecessary contact?”

Within a week of filing the request, Rubin had confirmed with the Deputy City Chamberlain Donna DeLuca that the requested records would be provided within 30 days and emphasized the urgent and timely nature of the request. But Police Administrative Sergeant Joseph Herring advised him on Nov. 23 that this request would require 90 days to process—a reversal that Rubin alleges was unlawful. When the original 30-day deadline passed and Rubin did not receive the requested documentation, he appealed what he deemed as a denial of his FOIL request to Rolison twice, on Dec. 17 and Jan. 5. In the latter appeal, he raised the prospect of taking legal action and underscored that the delay was limiting the community’s ability to participate in conversations stemming from Executive Order No. 203. Neither appeal received a response. 

On Jan. 13, Rubin filed a lawsuit in the Dutchess Supreme and County Court against the city and Rolison, asserting that CPPD constructively denied his FOIL request by: “Failing to produce responsive documents and by constructively denying a timely administrative appeal.” At the heart of the suit were questions regarding whether the change to a 90-day timeline was both lawful and reasonable, and whether the city’s unresponsiveness to Rubin’s multiple appeals constituted a denial of these appeals. 

The day after the suit was filed, CPPD provided Rubin with documentation partially satisfying the first part of his FOIL request, while requesting more information that was needed in order to fulfill the rest. The city’s legal defense asserted that Administrative Sergeant Herring had the authority to reverse the original 30-day deadline and that Rubin had addressed his appeals to the incorrect entity, therefore, those appeals were invalid. Additionally, the city stated that the city’s partial fulfillment of the request on Jan. 14 happened before Rubin filed his suit, despite the filing date of Jan. 13. 

Rubin subsequently disputed the city’s timeline while also noting that timestamps on the documents that he was provided by the city on Jan. 14 showed that the process of compiling these documents did not begin until after his second appeal was sent on Jan. 5—almost two months after his initial request. Thus, Rubin asserted that, in reality, the collection process only took nine days, and for that reason, the original 30-day deadline was plenty of time to fulfill his request and that the city had not made a good-faith effort to provide him with the requested documentation in a timely manner. 

In the end, Supreme Court Justice Christi Acker dismissed Rubin’s suit in a victory for Rolison and the city. Acker held that Rubin’s administrative appeals were defective, meaning that he had not actually exhausted administrative remedies, and cited the city’s timeline—wrongly stating that Rubin filed his suit after his request was partially fulfilled—to claim that he had no basis to file the suit in the first place. 

Rubin lamented that Acker ignored his argument that the 90-day deadline was unreasonable, as well as that the city only took nine days to compile this documentation in a process that seemingly began only after he raised the prospect of legal action. “The most blatant lapse is that the judge asserted as fact that I filed the lawsuit the day after receiving documents from the city, rather than the day before,” he said in a written statement, citing the proof that the original filing date of his suit occurred before the fulfillment of his request. 

Despite a disappointing result, Rubin believes that the city will be more responsive to future records requests. “The City went to a great deal of trouble to defend my lawsuit. The City may wish to avoid the expense and the time required of many City officials to prepare a defense. So ENJAN and other activist organizations may now be better positioned to obtain public records from the City of Poughkeepsie Police Department,” he explained. 

In an interview for Mid Hudson News, Mayor Rolison asserted that the city “takes our responsibility with FOIL requests very seriously. We do the very best we can with limited resources, especially because of the COVID-19 public health crisis. We respond to these in a quick manner, and I am appreciative the judge saw that and ruled in favor of the City of Poughkeepsie.”

At the end of the day, Robinson said, “Nobody should be proud of what happened here, no matter what side you’re on.”  

For Robinson, the case demonstrated a lack of commitment to transparency from the city. “I think the common council knows that, I think the mayor knows that, the police department knows that,” he explained. “And there have been verbal commitments of greater transparency. Now, there were also verbal commitments to greater transparency before and during all of this. Whether those commitments evaporate in the air or whether something actually comes of that is up to the city entirely.”

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