A group of New York legislators are hoping the political mood is right to pass a set of bills meant to increase police transparency and oversight. And they view a root cause of problems with police accountability, and therefore with public trust in law enforcement, as a section of New York Civil Rights Law called 50-a.
It's a law that shields police personnel records, including findings of misconduct, from public view. New York is one of only two states in the nation with a law that specifically keeps police personnel records secret, according to civil liberties groups.
Now, there is a bill to repeal it.
"We're not here to vilify officers, we're just here to get transparency and make what's right," said state senator Jamaal Bailey, who is sponsoring the bill to repeal 50-a, at a rally outside City Hall on Thursday.
The push to repeal 50-a is part of a package of legislation, called the Safer New York Act, related to police oversight. Other bills cover issues like increased data reporting on law enforcement activities and strengthening the investigations of those people killed by police or who died in custody.
Bailey said debate over the bills in Albany would come after the budget is due in order to avoid rushing legislation or watering it down. He said he expected to hold hearings on the bills and policing in general in late April or early May.
Both Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner James O'Neill have called for significant changes to 50-a, in order to increase transparency. O'Neill has said that in most cases the NYPD should be able to keep the public informed of misconduct charges against an officer and outcomes of investigations. But both favor amendments to 50-a over a new law.
The city's largest police union, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, opposes any changes to the law. The union contends that the law is necessary to protect officers in a line of work where they are expected to risk their lives.
But lawmakers and advocates argued Thursday that a full repeal of 50-a is necessary, and officers' personal information would still be protected through the Freedom of Information Law.
"FOIL already has exemptions that cover privacy, that cover threats to safety," said Michael Sisitzky, lead policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union. "They can work within the same system as everyone else and make sure that all of their concerns are addressed through repeal of 50-a."
Last month, an independent panel reviewed police disciplinary practices and found that the public received too little information on misconduct and how the NYPD handled it, thereby eroding public trust.