A request for access to Yale Police Department personnel files has called into question how accountable the department should — and legally must — be to the public.

The University is challenging State Public Defender Janet Perrotti’s Freedom of Information Act request for the files of two YPD officers, Brian Donnelly and Chris Cofrancesco, both of whom she suspects of misconduct during a May 23, 2007 breach of peace arrest. Perrotti represents the defendant, a 16-year-old male, in the case.

Janet Perrotti, who is married to the first cousin of YPD Chief James Perrotti, said the chief justified denying her FOIA request to the files because he said the YPD is a private, rather than government, department.

YPD Spokesman Sgt. Steven Woznyk and Chief Perrotti declined to comment on the incident or the request for personnel files until the FOIC makes a ruling, which is expected to take place in January.

Janet Perrotti said since the New Haven Police Department is subject to FOIA, she does not understand why the YPD would not be as well.

“Honestly, I don’t think it’s in anyone’s best interest for there to be a perception that Yale officers should be any different from other officers in New Haven,” she said.

But University Deputy Secretary Martha Highsmith said the YPD is not legally a public entity, although she was unfamiliar with the details of the FOIA dispute. As a private police department, the YPD is subject to different standards than public police departments, she said.

For example, public police forces can use polygraph tests on potential officers during the employment process, Highsmith said, but the YPD cannot.

“The Yale Police Department is a private law enforcement agency,” she said. “We draw our powers through the city of New Haven, and we work with the Police Commission on some things, but basically we’re a private entity whereas the New Haven Police Department is a public entity.”

Robert Langer of the law firm Wiggin & Dana, who is representing the University in the case, declined to comment to the News, but spoke to the Advocate in an article published last weekend. When contacted by the News, Langer referred comment to the University General Counsel and to University Spokesman Tom Conroy.

Conroy said the University has no comment on the matter beyond what has already been made public to the FOIC.

In her appeal to the Freedom of Information Commission — the Connecticut body that oversees FOIA requests in the state — Janet Perrotti said she claimed that the YPD meets the act’s four-pronged requirement to be classified as a public entity and should be subject to requests for information. But the University has denied the claim, she said.

The appeal was heard on Sept. 27 by FOIC Executive Director Colleen Murphy and is still awaiting a decision by the commission.

According to the Connecticut FOIC Web site, agencies are subject to FOIA if they perform some governmental function, receive a minimum level of government funding, are subject to a certain amount of government regulation or involvement and if they were created by the government.

Janet Perrotti said the YPD meets all four crieria of a public entity. The YPD officers perform the same function as New Haven Police Department officers, she said, and possess the same powers of arrest.

In addition to the $350 million in federal funding that the University receives, the YPD also gets a tax break on all of its squad cars and on its police headquarters — appraised at $5.6 million, or roughly $200,000 in taxes — which Janet Perrotti said is the most compelling reason why the department should be considered a public entity.

Because YPD officers are sworn in by the city, Janet Perrotti said, and because the YPD was originally staffed by two NHPD officers who reported back to the city, the University’s police department meets all four standards.

Langer told the Advocate that the University contends that the YPD does not meet any of the four criteria to be a public entity.

According to the article, Langer said the city of New Haven has no oversight over the Yale Police Department because of a 1992 agreement with the city that does not include any mention of the YPD falling under the regulations of the NHPD. YPD recruits are no longer required to train at the same academy as NHPD recruits, he said.

The Advocate article also states that Yale believes the amount of public money it receives is “negligible.” Conroy said the YPD received $19,957 in direct grants between 2000 and 2004.

Janet Perrotti said she was surprised the YPD denied her access to the personnel files, especially in light of the New Haven Police Department’s corruption scandal that has since implicated three officers in the NHPD’s former narcotics enforcement unit.

“Anytime we can help create a good perception of police officers I think that benefits everybody,” Janet Perrotti said. “I think it benefits the community, benefits the police officers — so each person can feel safe reporting a crime.”

According to the New Haven Advocate, the two YPD officers Donnelly and Cofrancesco stopped the 16-year-old while he was riding his bike and arrested him for breach of peace.

FOIC Acting Clerk Wendy Paradis said the commission’s hearing officer was reviewing the case, and that a ruling may be issued following the commission’s meeting Jan. 9. After its Jan. 9 session, the FOIC will next meet Jan. 23.

Paradis said the commission usually hears the requests and appeals for information in the order that they are filed.