The NYPD Apparently Doesn't Have Any Rules Governing Its In-House Classification Of Documents

from the a-secret-interpretation-of-a-'SECRET'-stamp? dept

The NYPD's internal classification system -- designated primarily by the stamping of the word "SECRET" across documents -- has nothing behind it. No rules, no guidelines, no explanations. This makes the NYPD a unique specimen among law enforcement agencies. It is the only one in the country that proactively designates documents as not for the public's eyes, something it has been doing for nearly a decade at this point.

This likely has something to do with having a former CIA agent running the Intelligence Division. To a man like David Cohen, who spent 35 years in the agency, classifying documents just makes sense -- even if no other law enforcement agency is doing it. And even if there's really no legal weight behind the NYPD's completely-made-up "SECRET" designation.

That was the speculation last fall when this in-house "SECRET" designation was first discussed at the Huffington Post. Now, it's basically been confirmed that the classification means whatever the person applying the designation thinks it means... at the precise moment the stamp hits the page.

In a response sent in late May to HuffPost's public records request, the police department said it could find no guidelines for its mysterious "NYPD Secret" marking, which appears on many of the records connected to its Muslim surveillance program.

The Huffington Post also asked the NYPD to say how many of its records are actually classified "NYPD Secret," and whether the mark prevents documents from being released under the state Freedom of Information Law. The response to all the queries was the same: The department was "unable to locate records responsive to your request based on the information provided."
This response is the NYPD's Glomar: it can't even be bothered to "neither confirm nor deny." Instead, as it has done with everything from requests for specific documents (requested by document number) to its own FOIL (Freedom of Information Law) handbook, it simply tells the requester that the documents don't exist.

The NYPD may have some actual classification guidelines, but there's no way anyone's accessing them without getting a court involved. Piercing this veil is such a heinous exercise in expense and futility that journalists have stated they prefer dealing with the FBI and the CIA.

But as it stands now, the "SECRET" designation has no legal weight and nothing that indicates it's not being used in a purely arbitrary fashion. As Matt Sledge at the Huffington Post notes, new police chief Bill Bratton said the NYPD should have "no secrets" under his command. Thanks to the supposed lack of responsive documents (and the lack of comments from the unresponsive department press office), the Intelligence Division is giving every impression that it took Bratton's proclamation to mean "no secrets from this point forward" or "no additional secrets," rather than a very heavy hint that the NYPD should start edging towards transparency.


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  1. identicon
    Squirrels Without Borders, 25 Jun 2014 @ 3:56pm

    By definition, as stated in the guidelines, documents marked "SECRET" are never responsive to FOIA-type requests. However, unfortunately for the public, the guidelines on how to mark documents as "SECRET" were the first documents to be stamped "SECRET."

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