Yale University announced Friday morning that it would not contest the Freedom of Information Commission’s February ruling that mandated the Yale Police Department to disclose personnel files for two of its officers.
Almost two months ago, the commission ruled that although it is a privately funded and privately hired law-enforcement agency, the YPD is subject to the same disclosure rules as public agencies like the New Haven Police Department. Although University officials initially held their ground after the ruling, asserting that the YPD was not “functionally equivalent” to a public police department, they reversed their stance entirely Friday, citing the YPD’s involvement in policing the city.
“The University will abide by the FOI Commission’s decision requiring disclosure of certain documents related to Yale Police Department officers,” Friday’s release states. “[W]e are doing so because Yale recognizes the unique and public law enforcement role that its officers play in the City of New Haven. Yale takes extremely seriously its relationship to the public in performing its police work in the City.”
Public Defender Janet Perrotti — who is married to YPD Chief James Perrotti’s first cousin — initially filed a FOI request for two officers’ personnel files when she suspected misconduct during the May 2007 arrest of one of her clients.
The client, a 16-year-old black teenager, was riding his bike on the sidewalk when the two officers stopped him and charged him with breach of peace. After noticing discrepancies between the arrest report and her client’s account of the incident, Janet Perrotti wrote James Perrotti a letter last June asking to see files on the two officers’ police histories.
The following month, James Perrotti wrote his cousin’s wife back. The chief denied Janet Perrotti’s 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.
But in February, the commission unanimously disagreed. The YPD, it ruled, met all four requirements needed to classify it as functionally equivalent to a public agency and, therefore, subject to FOIA requests.
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. Although the FOIC’s ruling does not change the YPD’s status as a private agency, it now makes the police department a functional equivalent of a public agency.
Colleen Murphy, executive director and general counsel for Connecticut’s FOIC, told the News in February that she thought the commission had reached the right decision.
“It was a very compelling, very interesting case,” said Murphy, who also served as the case’s hearing officer.
Aside from the recently contested personnel files, the YPD has repeatedly claimed that its arrest records are available through the NHPD. The University’s release states that “records relating to the police function of the department … have always been available to the public.”
But the validity of such claims has been widely contested.
“As a practical matter, reporters rarely get access to Yale crime reports,” The Hartford Courant reported on Saturday. “[W]hen making such requests, The Courant is routinely referred to the New Haven Police Department, which refers calls to Yale, which invokes its status as a private entity in refusing disclosure.”
Even at the FOIC’s final hearing on the case in February, Janet Perrotti and Yale’s legal representation, which was led by Aaron Bayer ’77 of Wiggin and Dana, argued the true accessibility of YPD records.
“I don’t know it to be true,” Murphy said, when asked if the YPD’s records could be obtained through the NHPD. “There was some dispute about that — some evidence and testimony.”
Both sides stood their ground, and the argument did not come to an agreed conclusion, Murphy added.
The News has not pursued a FOI request with the YPD in the last three years, at least.
Days after the decision was handed down, University spokesman Tom Conroy said the University had ruled out an appeal.
“The University believes that the facts it presented in its brief to the commission warranted a finding that Yale is not subject to the state FOIA,” Conroy said.
Janet Perrotti told the News in February that she was expecting an appeal from Yale, although she expressed discontent with the University for “avoiding what should be done.”
Had the case been appealed, it would have been heard by the State Superior Court, and the FOIC, not Janet Perrotti, would have been the primary defendant. The court would have merely reviewed records and transcripts from the FOIC hearings to determine whether the decision was just. No new evidence would have been taken into consideration.
Across the country, fighting for access to police records on college campuses, where police are privately hired, is not uncommon.
Within the Ivy League, a New York court ruled in 2003 that the Cornell University Police Department had to make its arrest records accessible to the public.
That same year, the Harvard Crimson filed a lawsuit against its campus police for denying it access to police reports and records. That lawsuit was shot down in court in 2006.
Yale Daily News Editor in Chief Andrew Mangino found Yale’s Friday morning statement comforting.
“What is encouraging about this morning’s news is that the University did not decide to abide by the commission’s decision because it could not win, but because officials realized that it should not win” he said.
Janet Perrotti could not be reached for comment.
Both of the officers in question, Donnelly and Rivera, are still employed by the YPD.