It started with a kid riding his bicycle last spring, and it turned into a landmark ruling that could change the way the Yale Police Department operates.
The state Freedom of Information Commission ruled Wednesday that the YPD — a University-hired and -funded police force — is functionally equivalent to a public entity and therefore must make internal files available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act. It is not yet clear to what extent the commission’s ruling will open up an organization whose internal workings are largely obscured from public view, but those close to the case expect the University to appeal the commission’s decision.
Lawyers for Yale sought to convince commission members that the YPD does not qualify as a public entity, arguing that the department operates outside the auspices of the city government. But the four members of the FOIC unanimously dismissed that argument.
YPD Spokesman Sgt. Steven Woznyk declined to comment on the case and deferred comment to the Office of Public Affairs. OPA did not return multiple requests for comment Thursday.
If the University appeals the commission’s decision, the YPD’s case against the FOIC will be heard in State Superior Court. Colleen Murphy, the executive director and general counsel of the FOIC, said the court would take no new evidence into consideration and the appeal would be based on records, hearings and transcripts the FOIC has on file.
Added Murphy: “I think it’s the right result. It was a very compelling, very interesting case. It may be challenged in court, and in that case, we’ll just have to see it through.”
Last May, two YPD officers arrested a now-16-year-old black teenager riding his bike on the sidewalk and charged him with breach of peace. Janet Perrotti, the public defender representing the teenager, suspected misconduct on the part of the involved officers after reading through the arrest report and listening to her client’s account of the incident.
In a letter dated June 25 of last year, Perrotti — a first cousin of YPD Chief James Perrotti — requested the chief hand over personnel files for the two officers so she could check their histories. Perrotti made the request under the guidelines of the Freedom of Information Act, which makes certain government records available to the public by request.
On July 13, James Perrotti wrote her a letter in return, denying her request to see Officer Brian Donnelly’s and Officer Alexis Rivera’s personnel files.
“Yale University and its police department are private entities and are not subject to the Freedom of Information (“FOI”) Act,” James Perrotti wrote in the letter, according to the FOIC’s hearing report.
So Janet Perrotti went to work, filing a formal complaint with the FOIC.
“It’s in everybody’s best interest to have accountability,” she said Thursday. “We should open up the records and realize it just creates accountability — they shouldn’t have anything to hide.”
Perrotti said she has not yet received the personnel files. She expects an appeal and probably will not see the files anytime soon, she said.
“You know what the sad thing is?” Janet Perrotti said. “[Yale has] probably spent $100,000 avoiding what should be done.”
In order to qualify as a public entity, an agency must meet four criteria. Under FOI guidelines, an entity is public if it performs a governmental function, was created by government, is regulated by that government and receives government funding.
Some criteria’s relevance was disputed more than others’ at the hearing Wednesday, though the commission eventually ruled that the YPD meets all four requirements.
According to the hearing report, Yale’s legal representation, led by Aaron Bayer ’77 of the Connecticut law firm Wiggin and Dana, argued the YPD does not receive public funding.
The YPD’s operating budget of $10.3 million is composed almost entirely of University funds, the report said that Bayer asserted. But the FOIC pointed to the tax-exempt status of the department’s headquarters, which was assessed at over $5.6 million in 2007.
The commission ruled that, while the YPD receives significant private funding, the department’s tax exemption qualifies as financial support from the government.
According to the report, Yale’s representation also cited a Connecticut Supreme Court case pitting the Connecticut Humane Society versus the FOIC, in which the court ruled that the Humane Society was not a public entity, even though it served a governmental function.
The FOIC rejected Bayer’s argument, citing the Humane Society’s “small role in the state’s overall law-enforcement activities directed at preventing the cruel treatment of animals” and the YPD’s “full police powers, co-extensive with those of the police department of the City of New Haven,” the hearing report states.
An article in the Hartford Courant on Wednesday described contentious exchanges between the University’s lawyer and a member of the FOIC during the hearing. Commission Chairman Andrew O’Keefe “chastised” Bayer on “several” occasions when Bayer spoke in a “tone that came across at times as patronizing,” the Courant reported.
Murphy, who also served as the hearing officer for the YPD case, confirmed in an interview with the News that there was some “back and forth” between Yale’s lawyers and an FOIC member.
Murphy said there was also a dispute about whether the YPD’s arrest records are already subject to the FOIA. At the hearing, Bayer said they are, claiming YPD arrest files are accessible by filing FOIA requests with the NHPD.
But Janet Perrotti claimed at the hearing that, in her experience, she has rarely received documents she has requested because the investigations were marked as pending by the NHPD.
At a point during the hearing, Murphy said Yale’s defense changed direction.
Initially, Bayer tried to establish that the FOIA does not apply to the YPD at all, Murphy said. But Bayer later shifted focus to a secondary claim — that the FOI request should pertain only to the two personnel files Perrotti requested and not the files of the entire police department.
In 2003, a New York court ruled that Cornell University’s police department had to make its arrest records available to the public.
But in 2006, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachussetts rejected a lawsuit against Harvard’s police department that the Harvard Crimson, the university’s daily newspaper, filed when it was denied access to the HUPD’s incident reports.