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As troopers are diverted, deployment information remains restricted

August 18, 2017 - 02:33 pm

NEW YORK — The New York State Police, facing questions over a plan to divert troopers to New York City from upstate counties, have sought to restrict the release of information that would show staffing changes across the state.

The state comptroller’s office denied a request for that information by The New York Times this month, after a state police lawyer argued that revealing how many troopers were deployed to different counties as of June represented a threat to troopers and residents.

The response by the state police — effectively suggesting that criminals could take advantage of knowing what counties had fewer troopers — has pulled a cloak over an already opaque deployment process. It also threatens to hinder state lawmakers trying to monitor what amounts to an unprecedented plan by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to station troopers in New York City.

The state comptroller’s office had previously given The New York Times staffing details for May in response to a records request, but vetted a subsequent request for June’s staffing counts with the state police, whose assistant counsel, Ryan P. O’Malley, objected. On his advice, the comptroller’s office rejected the second request.

“The release of information providing our force strength in specific locations throughout the state raises a possibility of endangerment to our members and other individuals,” O’Malley advised, according to a letter from the comptroller’s office explaining the denial.

Police forces routinely treat deployment details as agency secrets. Once exposed, they sometimes reveal disparities in police coverage: For instance, The Times found that Bronx detectives last year dealt with significantly more violent felony cases on average than detectives in Manhattan or on Staten Island, leading the New York Police Department to increase its staffing in the Bronx.

The state police, with 2,955 troopers and about 4,900 sworn members overall, have primary responsibility for patrolling and investigating crime in large parts of upstate. Cuomo has sent close to 200 troopers to airports and railroad stations in New York City to guard against terrorism and to cashless tolling points to protect against revenue loss, all places already patrolled by nearly half a dozen law enforcement agencies and in an era when crime is at historic lows.

The city deployment has strained some upstate troops, former commanders say, and frustrated some state police officials, who see it as a bid by the governor to expand his visibility in New York City. The state has spent tens of millions of dollars on the plan, and the cost is expected to grow. The state police have said that upstate areas were not affected by the deployment.

Most New York counties measure hundreds of square miles, and restrictions on disclosing the number of troopers have raised concern among some lawmakers.

“If we get to the point where we’re not able to get the information from the state police regarding their general deployment numbers, I think that’s a problem,” said Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan, a Republican from western New York and a former state police captain.

Gallivan said he had heard no complaints from his district about understaffing. But, he said, lawmakers were concerned about the eventual impact, and needed deployment details before they evaluated police staffing as part of the next budget. Releasing deployment details to the public could create risks, he said, but those needed to be balanced with transparency.

“We all speculate and think it’s going to happen,” Gallivan said of the effect the change in deployment is having upstate, “but as you reach out to state police members, they are very tight-lipped about it.”

Sen. Terrence Murphy, a Republican from the Hudson Valley, requested staffing details in a May letter to the state police. While the state police later increased the size of its current academy class to account for the expansion in New York City, Murphy’s office said it had not yet received staffing information.

Some of the troopers sent to New York City, especially to LaGuardia and Kennedy airports, are pulled from upstate troops on temporary assignments, which would not be reflected in permanent staffing counts.

In July, The Times requested state police payroll records, kept by the comptroller’s office, that noted what county troopers were employed in on June 15 and June 29. The state police are organized into 11 troops, most of which cover several counties and are divided into zones and stations.

The state police had long ago shared details showing the number of daily patrols within each troop zone for a 1989 audit by the comptroller’s office.

The state police said they no longer publicly release staffing levels for any geographic area. The agency said it provided legal guidance when asked by the comptroller’s office, but did not contact the office beforehand to warn it against providing records. “Such disclosure of operational deployments would constitute a safety and security risk for the public and our members,” the agency said in a statement.

The New York Times has appealed the records denial to the state comptroller’s office.

The earlier records provided to The Times showed that trooper levels had declined in 19 of the 58 counties where troopers patrol from May 2016 to May 2017 and stayed level or increased in the rest. The largest increase was in Manhattan, which gained 39 troopers.

Overall, the state police had 92 fewer troopers in May 2017 than a year before. The agency decreased by another five troopers by the end of June.

Across New York state outside of New York City, violent crime inched down by 0.2 percent in 2016 from the year before, while violent crime dropped in New York City at almost 10 times that rate.