An expert on Freedom of Information Law is saying the City of Buffalo has more to gain in complying with a Freedom of Information Law request than a defendant has to lose in a federal civil rights case.
This assessment comes in the same week the Buffalo News reported that the City of Buffalo Police Department denied a Freedom of Information request for the release of videos said to show a city jail attendant attacking a handcuffed inmate.
The attendant, Matthew Jaskula, 26, faces a federal complaint charging him with deprivation of rights under color of law. The charge is a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda is refusing to release the videos at this time, in compliance with a request from U.S. Attorney William Hochul to ensure Jaskula receives a fair trial.
“In consideration of how much the public already knows, it’s difficult for me to envision how disclosure would either interfere with an investigation or deprive a person of a right to a fair trial, which ordinarily would be the case,” said Robert Freeman, Executive Director of the New York State Committee on Open Government.
Freeman said the city has the right to refuse disclosure, but also has an obligation to state Freedom of Information Laws.
“If, for example, the City of Buffalo is challenged in court regarding disclosure, it has the burden of proof,” said Freeman.
With so much information already available, Freeman said it has become increasingly difficult to meet that burden of proof.
According to Freeman, the question to be asked in a situation where freedom of information is involved is, “What would happen if the government disclosed?”
The answer is debatable, but Freeman offered a public perspective.
“The citizens of Buffalo are aware of this situation and we hear the term transparency all the time. Is this not the kind of situation in which it may be in the interest of the City of Buffalo to disclose and say, ‘Look, we know that something went wrong. We’re being honest with the citizens. We want to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,’” said Freeman.
Freeman said there are exceptions in the law that defend against unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, but he also pointed out that public employees like Jaskula are usually held to a higher standard. He noted that information on salary, job performance and disciplinary action of public employees are normally available.
City officials have said they will release the video following Jaskula’s court case. Freeman said that whether or not the video is made public during the case as evidence, afterwards as promised, or at all may not be something in the city’s control, depending on how the case proceeds.
Details of the U.S. Attorney's case against Jaskula are available here.