NYPD Decides To Ape FBI's Tactics And Cite The 'Mosaic Theory' As The Reason It Won't Disclose Budget Data

from the NYPD-forces-NYC-to-secede-from-nation,-run-as-martial-state dept

The NYPD apparently feels it's one of the Big Boys. Presiding over a city of 8 million citizens and given free rein to operate outside the confines of the Constitution (while being tirelessly defended by the mayor and police chief) has given the department an outsized sense of self-worth. Now, it's deploying fed-level talking points to further deny access to public records via freedom of information requests.

The New York City Police Department is invoking a concept frequently employed by intelligence agencies like the FBI and CIA to deny a request for financial records on the unit that surveils Muslim communities.

Even to release a budget for the secretive Zone Assessment Unit, the NYPD claimed in a letter to HuffPost, would allow someone to "form a mosaic that depicts covert public safety activities that would be jeopardized."
Observers will note this is the same excuse given by the FBI to turn down perfectly legal FOIA requests from Ryan Shapiro, a former punk rocker turned animal rights activist. Shapiro utilized privacy waivers to make multiple requests for the same documents. Multiple versions of the same documents uncovered anomalies in the redactions, allowing Shapiro to access info that he wouldn't have received with a single request. The FBI's argument was basically that it sucked at consistent censoring, therefore Shapiro shouldn't be allowed to receive any documents as the result of FOIA requests.

As Matt Sledge at the Huffington Post points out, this "mosaic theory" has been deployed by administrations as far back as Reagan's in order to avoid complying with FOIA requests. But this is the first time a local law enforcement agency has used the theory to block access to public documents.
[Bob] Freeman, one of the state's leading authorities on FOIL law, said he has never seen a local law enforcement agency deny a records request on the basis of the mosaic theory. Nor has Jeffrey Light, a lawyer who litigates both federal FOIA lawsuits relating to intelligence agencies and Washington, D.C., police public records requests.

The NYPD also denied HuffPost's requests for information on policies relating to its cooperation with foreign governments under the International Liaison Program, which has placed NYPD officers in a dozen foreign countries to report on terror attacks. The NYPD stated that it had no records of such policies. The department also rejected requests for records on financial support from the New York City Police Foundation and federal agencies like the White House's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program. The Associated Press revealed last year that White House funds had been used to pay for Zone Assessment Unit vehicles and computers.

In addition to the mosaic theory, the NYPD also cited a slew of reasons why it couldn't release the records, ranging from the fear that they might reveal confidential sources and information, to ongoing litigation against NYPD spying, to a public records law exemption for intra-agency privilege. It did not cite which exemptions were being applied to which records requests.
The first issue here is the "mosaic theory" itself. The fear that dedicated requesters could piece together classified information by requesting multiple documents is an indictment of the system itself. Routine overclassification has made it impossible for those charged with vetting and releasing requested documents to do their job effectively. The bar for declaring something classified has been set so low that its use is almost entirely subjective. Instead of having verifiable standards that span each agency, every FOIA request is turned over to a variety of fiefdoms. Classified info leaks because there's no standard being applied. Everyone deploys the black marker differently, largely based on self-interest.

The other issue is the NYPD itself, which has been described as worse than the CIA, FBI and NSA when it comes to responding to FOIA requests. The department deploys every tactic possible to refuse requests and that's often following weeks of stonewalling. Just recently, the department went so far as to refuse public access to precinct police blotters, a staple of public information that it has shared without issue for decades. And this latest affront to open government and accountability is over budget documents of all things, and yet the PD claims it will expose methods and operational data.

Freedom of Information laws are specifically in place to thwart government agencies' natural tendency to obscure and obfuscate. The NYPD has never been much for sharing info with the public, dating all the way back to Giuliani's mayoral reign. Under Chief Kelly, the antagonistic attitude towards the public has only increased, along with the NYPD's secretiveness. Now, it's deloying the sort of anti-FOIA rhetoric normally reserved for federal investigative agencies and presidential administrations. New York City may be the largest city in the nation, but this is still a police department -- albeit one that insists on punching above its weight.

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Filed Under: fbi, freedom of information, mosaic theory, new york, nypd


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  1. identicon
    Varsil, 3 Jan 2014 @ 9:37pm

    How to defeat the "mosaic problem".

    This one is simple--you just take every FOIPed document and put it publicly available online, unless it's a document that would only be available to a particular individual (their own file, etc).

    When you get a second request for the same document, you just point out it's already available.

    Now you don't have the problem of differing redacted versions, because you only ever need to make one version.

    You also happen to make your organization vastly more transparent in the process.

    Three guesses as to why the various organizations won't implement this method...

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