City of Troy stonewalls over police department’s relationship with RPI

October 1, 2018

The City of Troy, in upstate New York, prefers the silent treatment to sharing records that might reveal how its police department came to videotape peaceful student demonstrators, and then share their tape with a private college’s administrators.

It’s been almost a year since FIRE was first alerted to the fact that peaceful RPI student demonstrators at RPI — critics of RPI’s handling of its student union — defied administrators’ attempts to prevent a peaceful demonstration outside of a black-tie fundraiser held by RPI’s president. Those student protesters were met with a fence stretched across campus and a phalanx of local police officers who videotaped them.

Having a camera available to record criminal activity is one thing, but it is another altogether to record peaceful demonstrators. Worse, the City of Troy’s police department provided its video to RPI, a private institution whose administrators used the video to identify and charge the demonstrators — charges it later dropped as unfounded. This rightly earned both RPI and the City of Troy criticism from the Times-Union, which said the “wholly inappropriate use of police work” merited a response from the City of Troy and “soul-searching” on the part of RPI.

We wanted to know more about how the relationship between RPI and the city police functions. Using New York’s Freedom of Information Law, we asked the City of Troy for records about its police department’s relationship with RPI — one of the largest employers in the area — in November 2017. After initially balking, the City of Troy released the surveillance video.

But the video wasn’t the only record we asked for. We also wanted to know more about the relationship between the police department and RPI, and the circumstances of how a city’s police department was hired to stand guard against students protesting outside of a black-tie fundraiser on a private campus. So, our records request also sought correspondence between police and RPI, agreements memorializing the arrangement, and other relevant documents.

The City of Troy’s legal counsel, James Caruso, claimed that the city’s public records officer had concluded that there were no records whatsoever, so there was nothing to share.

But that doesn’t appear to be true.

For example, students at RPI posted an invoice signed by Troy’s police chief which they obtained, showing that RPI was billed $10,213.98 for the officers’ presence at the fundraiser. The City of Troy confirmed that the invoice was real. Its existence is a pretty strong sign that the City of Troy hadn’t adequately searched for records responsive to our request; if they had, they should have turned over the invoice. So, we issued a second records request, asking the city to share records documenting that they actually searched for records responsive to our first request.

When the City of Troy didn’t respond to our second request, we appealed. Troy’s lawyer asked us for a copy of our first request — which we didn’t have because it was only available on the website the City of Troy used to submit records requests, and the City of Troy had shut its website down. In other words, only the City of Troy had a copy of the request, but wanted us to find it for them. So, the only way we could get a copy of our request for records about an earlier request for records would be to issue a third request for records.

That’s about the last we’ve heard from the City of Troy. Perhaps they didn’t like our joke about the absurdity that we might have to go even deeper with yet another records request:

In August, after the city stopped responding altogether to our efforts to resolve the issue, we sent a letter — embedded below — to Troy’s mayor, Patrick Madden, explaining that the city ghosted us and was in stark breach of New York’s Freedom of Information Law.

This, of course, won’t be the end of our effort with the City of Troy — or with RPI. Stay tuned.

Schools:  Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute