Will 50-a Police Discipline Records Rule Backfire?
Its removal and impact on law enforcement unions in NY is uncertain
A trusted source of UCOMM's has given us the skinny on the deal with releasing the employment records of officers who are suspected of being the bad apples. Newsday did a fair piece on it below, quoting 3 elected law enforcement union officials and advocates who call for a change in the system.
Newsday: Advocates, Unions Spar Over Rule Sealing Police Disciplinary Records
Long Island police unions and criminal justice advocates are gearing up for a battle over 50-a, the controversial state regulation that prohibits the release of disciplinary records of police officers.
The push to repeal 50-a has gained steam in the wake of the nationwide protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month when an officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. Leaders of New York and Long Island law-enforcement unions, however, have vowed to oppose the regulation's repeal, which they say protects officers and their families.
“It is time for police departments to be held accountable, for laws to be passed that require them to answer to the public and be transparent,” said Susan Gottehrer, director of the Nassau chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Noel DiGerolamo, president of the Suffolk PBA, said disciplinary records should only be made public through a court order because they could contain information that might lead to attacks on police officers and their families.
“You can’t have an environment where you ask men and women to risk their lives and safety every day,” DiGerolamo said.
Nassau PBA chief James McDermott agreed, saying the vast majorities of complaints filed against police are invalid: “It protects police officers so the people they arrest don’t get their personal information.”
“This has worked,” McDermott added. “It protects witnesses and it protects the police.”
The effort to repeal 50-a, which requires a court order to make police disciplinary records public, intensified after the 2014 death of Eric Garner in Staten Island. It gained momentum last week after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said he supports efforts to dump the regulation.
NYPD PBA president Pat Lynch said in a statement earlier this week that the protests that have rocked New York in the wake of Floyd’s death prove why 50-a should not be repealed or modified.
“Last night we saw violent criminals targeting New York City police officers with bricks, brass knuckles and Molotov cocktails, for no reason other than the uniform we wear,” Lynch said in a statement issued Sunday, referring to violence that took place after protests. “It is inconceivable that Gov. Cuomo would want to arm those extremists with confidential police personnel records, so that they bring their weapons to our front doors.”
State legislative leaders said lawmakers will convene next week to take up criminal justice bills. Proposals to repeal or amend 50-a are at the top of the list, but legislators have not reached a consensus yet on a bill the Senate and the Assembly can support.
Criminal justice advocates say 50-a contributes to an opaque disciplinary process that suggests departments are covering up police misconduct, not investigating it and issuing discipline when warranted.
The repeal, according to Serena Liguori of New Hour for Women and Children, which works with incarcerated women, would ease tensions between cops and communities. A better-informed public, she said, would not think bad cops are being shielded by colleagues and supervisors.
“My perspective is that we can actually prevent violence if there is more transparency,” said Liguori. “This could create safety for cops by reducing tensions.”
Personal information contained in disciplinary records, such as home addresses, could also be redacted, Liguori said.
Paul DiGiacomo, the head of the NYPD Detectives Endowment Association, said his organization has been lobbying in Albany against changes to 50-a because repealing or amending the regulation would hobble his members’ effectiveness as witnesses in criminal prosecutions.
Criminal justice advocates say those concerns are overblown. Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, said activists are seeking records of substantiated cases of misconduct, not unfounded allegations.
“The fact that the unions are fighting the repeal of 50-a tells us their members don’t have to be held accountable,” Cartagena said.
“What we have seen is that the police unions have called the shots in New York State politics for a long time,” Liguori said. “Now is not the time to be timid.”
The Facts About the Politically Driven Campaign to Repeal "50-A"
What is 50-A?
50-a is a section of the New York State Civil Rights Law that deems the "personnel records" of Police Officers, Firefighters and Correction Officers "confidential and not subject to inspection or review" without the Officer's permission or a Court Order. It was passed in the 1970s both to protect the personal information of officers who testified in court and to prevent "harassment" by criminal defense attorneys.
Who Wants it Repealed?
A coalition of activists and so-called "progressive" politicians has pursued 50-a reform in earnest since 2014, with more state legislators and city councilmembers announcing their support each year. Bills to repeal 50-a have been championed by police reform organizations, including New York Communities for Change and Make the Road New York, and legal organizations including the New York City Bar Association, Legal Aid and the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Why Do They Want it Repealed?
Over the past five years, criminal justice activists along with inmate activists have exploited the high-profile deaths of civilians in police custody in an attempt to demonize police officers and correction officers, seemingly for political gain.
Correction and Police Unions Have Led the Fight Against Repealing 50-A.
Our unions, along with our brothers and sisters in other law enforcement unions, have led a vigorous legislative battle to protect our personnel records and defend our civil rights. Through public testimony before local and state legislative committees, filing lawsuits, and lobbying individual lawmakers, we have argued that a repeal of 50-A is a violation of our civil rights and endangers our members and their families by potentially having our personal information accessible to the public. Because of these efforts we were successful in stalling any legislative effort to repeal 50-A.
Our Message to New York State Legislators:
Transparency Must Cut Both Ways!
Our unions believe that if state legislators are truly interested in transparency and accountability for all, then they should immediately make their own personnel records, as public officers, fully accessible to the public for further review and scrutiny. These records should include any accusations of any kind made against a state office holder, as well as their staffs, including the transcripts of all protected Ethics Hearings etc. Anything short of this would clearly demonstrate pure hypocrisy, which is completely unacceptable to us and to our members. We look forward to hearing from state legislators about their commitment to ensure that transparency cuts both ways as far as personnel records are concerned.
We strongly urge each of our Members to immediately reach out to your local State Representatives and tell them to protect OUR Civil Rights as Law Enforcement Officers and to oppose the Repeal ofNYS Civil Rights Law 50a.
Our safety and Civil Rights matter!