NY lawmakers vote to repeal law that makes police, FF disciplinary records private

The 44-year-old statute has prevented disciplinary records of police officers, firefighters and corrections officers from being made public


By Denis Slattery
New York Daily News

ALBANY, N.Y. — As mass civil unrest over police brutality against African Americans engulfs the nation, New York lawmakers took action Tuesday by voting to repeal 50-a, a state law used by police departments to shield disciplinary records.

The Democrat-led legislature approved the long-stalled reform of the statute — which is routinely used to keep the public from learning about police misconduct and disciplinary actions taken against officers — in response to protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black Minnesota man who was killed when a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

New York Sate Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, speaks in favor of new legislation for police reform during a news briefing at the state Capitol Wednesday, June 8, 2020, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)
New York Sate Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, speaks in favor of new legislation for police reform during a news briefing at the state Capitol Wednesday, June 8, 2020, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

“The silver lining on this incredibly dark cloud is that the sun is finally starting to shine on injustice. Maybe it’s the unmistakable, and in my opinion disputable, video evidence that we saw a live murder on TV, but it’s done something to the consciousness of America,” said bill sponsor Democratic state Sen. Jamaal Bailey in an emotional floor speech before the bill passed. “I don’t know if there could be a more meaningful piece of legislation for me and this body because it’s way more than just policy.

“There’s a time to not only correct what we thought and knew to be a flaw in the state law, but to correct misconceptions that many of us have carried for too long for things that we can never experience,” he added.

Since 1976, the statute has prevented the personnel and disciplinary records of any police officer, corrections officer or firefighter from being made public. The NYPD only started adhering to the statute in 2016, when the department abruptly stopped allowing media and the public to see the outcomes of administrative trials. The courts have repeatedly bolstered the more expansive interpretation of the law.

The law became a point of contention following the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner at the hands of then-NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose disciplinary record was shielded in secrecy.

Advocates, including New Yorkers United for Justice, and legal organizations such as the Legal Aid Society and the New York Civil Liberties Union, have pushed for the repeal of 50-A in the name of transparency.

“Our criminal justice system, in order to build and maintain public trust, must be transparent,” said New Yorkers United for Justice chief strategist Khalil Cumberbatch. “Even more so as it relates to law enforcement agencies — and that means accountability and public scrutiny for police.”

Former NYPD commissioner James O’Neill conceded that “the law must change” after an independent panel, comprised of two former prosecutors and a former judge, released a report last year that found “almost a complete lack of transparency and public accountability.”

“It is an attempt to level the playing field, it is an attempt to get information into the public,” said sponsor Daniel O’Donnell, a Democrat who has championed the bill for several years. “We take one step forward today on transparency. We allow people some degree of peace.”

Police unions have vehemently argued against changing the law. A coalition of law enforcement groups said in a statement Monday that releasing records, including complaints, could leave officers facing “unavoidable and irreparable harm to reputation and livelihood.”

However, the legislation provides officers with some privacy protections, redacting home addresses, phone numbers and email addresses.

“We, as professionals, are under assault,” Pat Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, representing rank-and-file NYPD officers, said during a press conference earlier Tuesday. “And this in a backdrop of a night when we had seven shootings (in Brooklyn) in seven minutes.”

The bill makes police disciplinary records subject to Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, requests, similar to most records kept by public agencies. It is part of a package of police reform bills that the legislature began voting on Monday.

The slate includes a bill making it a hate crime to call 911 and make a false claim based on a person’s race and another codifying into state law the state attorney general’s power to appoint a special prosecutor when someone is killed by police.

Other changes ban chokeholds under the so-called “Eric Garner Act” and mandate police departments to provide medical training to officers. Garner died after being put in a chokehold by cops on Staten Island in 2014.

Senate Republican Leader John Flanagan railed against Democrats, accusing them of attempting to “sow division” under the guise of justice and civil rights.

“The brutal killing of George Floyd is a horrific tragedy that never should have occurred. There is simply no place in our society for police brutality, and whenever it does occur those responsible must be held accountable,” he said. “But it is not a reason to vilify and punish every man and woman in law enforcement who serves to protect and serve our communities in New York, nor should it be a reason to sow division.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has vowed to sign the legislation, calling Floyd’s death the “tipping point” of a change that has been “brewing for decades, if not centuries.”

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©2020 New York Daily News

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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