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Ahead of New York Senate Hearings, Elected Officials & Groups Call for Full Repeal of State Police Secrecy Law (50-a) That Is Worst In the Nation

Group calls on NYS legislature to repeal state law 50-a in 2020 legislative session

New York, NY – Today, elected officials, families whose loved ones have been killed by police, and advocates rallied on the steps New York City Hall to call for the full repeal of New York state’s police secrecy law, known as “50-a”.

 

The rally preceded upcoming hearings that the New York State Senate Committee on Codes will be holding on October 17th (in New York City) and October 24th (in Albany). Over 100 organizations across New York state support repeal of 50-a, a key priority of the Safer New York Act legislative package, organized by Communities United for Police Reform (CPR).

 

"Because of 50a, I still don't have basic information about the other officers besides Pantaleo who helped to kill my son, or the other acts of misconduct that are part of the ongoing cover-up by the Blasio administration related to the killing of my son,” said Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner. “50a must be repealed at the start of the 2020 legislative session. Families like mine - and New Yorkers - shouldn't have to rely on media leaks or international pressure to get crumbs of information about the killings of our loved ones and the officers who killed them.” 

 

New York is one of only two states with a law that specifically restricts public access to information on police officers’ discipline records.  New York’s 50-a is the country’s most secretive law on police misconduct, declaring all police “personnel records” confidential – and is the most restrictive in providing a specific exemption to FOIL/FOIA requests, despite robust privacy protections that have been built into the state’s existing FOIA law.

 

“For over 40 years, the public had access to critical records on police misconduct to help hold officers accountable who committed heinous crimes,” said Tina Luongo, Attorney-In-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society. “The public still must have access to this crucial information, and Albany must repeal 50a immediately next session. Fully repealing 50a will help change the culture of impunity that thrives at the NYPD and with other departments around the state. Our clients and other New Yorkers from communities of color who have long shouldered the brunt of police misconduct deserve this justice.”

 

Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, one of the legislators who voted against CRL 50-a when it was passed in the 1970s shared: “Keeping this information secret undermines public confidence in our police and shields the wrongdoing of a minority of officers. This is a disservice to good officers, who I believe are the vast majority, and creates real danger for the public.”

 

The rally, organized by Communities United for Police Reform (CPR) called for full repeal of NY’s police secrecy law, 50a, in the 2020 NYS legislative session.

 

Additional Quotes

“New Yorkers deserve to know that the people protecting them are held to the same standards as the rest of the public,” said State Senator Julia Salazar. “Transparency is the only way to restore the people’s trust in the system, which is why repealing 50-a is crucial to the communities we represent. New Yorkers deserve NYC law enforcement that’s held accountable for any previous misconduct out of respect for the communities they serve.”

 

“Repealing 50-a is a crucial step in restoring the public’s trust in law enforcement that would provide much-needed transparency and accountability around police misconduct and disciplinary policies,” said State Senator Brad Hoylman. “I’m proud to be working with my colleagues Senator Jamaal Bailey and Assembly Member Danny O’Donnell, and advocates like Communities United for Police Reform to enact this essential legislation.”

 

For nearly fifty years, the 50-a exemption in the New York State Civil Rights Law has allowed law enforcement to shield abusive officers and cover up dangerous police misconduct. In order to build trust between our communities and local law enforcement, there must be full transparency of officer behavior and discipline.  I stand firmly with Communities United for Police Reform and my colleague Senator Jamaal Bailey in calling for the repeal of the 50-a exemption, and demanding meaningful accountability within law enforcement,” said State Senator Alessandra Biaggi (D-Bronx/Westchester).

 

“Given the amount of questionable police shootings of unarmed people of color, I think it is only appropriate that uniformed law enforcement officials be held to the same level of accountability as all other public employees,” said State Senator James Sanders Jr.  “I support the repeal of 50-a, which would allow the personnel records of police officers to be used as evidence in court proceedings.”

 

“This administration’s interpretation and application of section 50-A deprives the public of information fundamental to oversight and lends a shield of opacity to the very public state and local police agencies that have perhaps the greatest day-to-day impact over the lives of citizens. It's long past time we repeal it, and I'm proud to stand with advocates today to demand transparency and accountability,” said New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams

 

“For too long police departments across the state have kept their disciplinary process behind an opaque curtain, shielding important information about officers who have engaged in police misconduct from the public,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “As long as 50-a remains law, it will be used to prevent the public from learning important information about those sworn to protect them. Repealing 50-a is a necessary step to pull back the curtain on police discipline and create a system that is grounded in transparency.”

 

“The Arab American Association of New York demands that the New York State Legislature repeal the NYS Civil Rights Law 50-a, which enables the police to conceal misconduct from public view. Many of our community members have fled war-torn countries or been targeted by undue police surveillance and misconduct, and they have a strong distrust of law enforcement. Civil Rights Law 50-a further erodes public trust in law enforcement, particularly in vulnerable communities like ours,” said Reem Ramadan, Lead Organizer at the Arab American Association of New York. “Repealing 50-a will bring us a step closer to police accountability and will help organizations like AAANY continue our efforts to build community safety. 

 

"50-a is the most repressive secrecy law in the nation and only serves to harm the same communities that have long borne the brunt of abusive policing practices," said Lupe Aguirre, a Bertha Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights. "Repealing 50-a will be a necessary and pivotal step toward achieving transparency and accountability that will begin to address these abuses."

 

“The crisis of impunity for police must end. Brooklyn Defender Services supports repealing Civil Rights Law 50-a to create transparency and accountability for police, who under current law can hide their entire disciplinary history,” said Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services. In addition to shielding bad acts committed by officers, this unjust law blocks courts from reviewing prior misconduct and criminal activity by police officers who are actively making arrests. As a result, police misconduct goes unchecked and unchallenged, fueling the epidemic of wrongful arrests, wrongful convictions, and the unlawful incarceration of innocent New Yorkers.”

 

Other Background

On Thursday, October 17th, the State Senate Committee on Codes will hold the first of two hearings on New York state’s police secrecy law, CRL Section 50-a. The October 17th hearing will be held in the Senate Hearing Room at 250 Broadway in Manhattan.  Hearing witnesses  - including elected officials, civil rights leaders, legal experts, New Yorkers directly harmed by 50-a and advocates -- will highlight the issues posed by 50-a in New York and the need for full repeal.  The second hearing will be held in Albany on October 24th.

 

New York is one of only two states with a law that specifically restricts public access to information on police officers’ discipline records.  New York’s 50-a is the country’s most secretive law on police misconduct, declaring all police “personnel records” confidential – and is the most restrictive in providing a specific exemption to FOIL/FOIA requests, despite robust privacy protections that have been built into the state’s existing FOIA law.

 

There are 27 states that grant some level of access to police personnel records, including 12 states that make disciplinary records available to the public as a matter of course. These include states like Ohio, Connecticut, Florida, Utah, Wisconsin, Georgia, Alabama, Arizona, Michigan, and Washington. The NYC Bar Association noted in April 2018 that “As the only one of its kind in the nation, 50-a has been interpreted so broadly that police misconduct in New York State is more secretive than any other state in the nation.”

 

New York police have used 50-a to shield abusive officers and departments from public scrutiny by hiding outcomes of disciplinary trials, names of officers involved in police misconduct, body camera footage, and even basic data on use of force incidents. In fact, the public only saw the judge’s decision in the trial of Daniel Pantaleo (the officer responsible for Eric Garner’s killing) because it was leaked to the press. According to the NYPD and Section 50-a,that decision and the accompanying report is considered confidential.

 

The de Blasio administration’s use and expanded use of state law 50-a with new interpretations has brought increasing attention to the law’s problematic nature. It has fought to conceal police misconduct records, even when courts have ruled such information could be released in compliance with the law. A state court ruled in July 2015 that a summary of misconduct findings against the officer who killed Eric Garner could be released and that 50-a did not apply. Despite that state court ruling that assessed the state law’s application, the de Blasio administration sought an appeal to a higher court, effectively seeking concealment over transparency. In the subsequent years, the de Blasio administration and NYPD have continually reinterpreted the law to conceal an unprecedented and increasing amount of information on police misconduct and the lack of accountability for it within the NYPD. In April 2016, the NYPD reversed the practice of approximately 40 years prior of posting promotions and outcomes of disciplinary cases outside of its press office. It cited a new interpretation of the state law that claimed previous mayoral administrations – from Bloomberg to Giuliani, Koch and Dinkins – had inaccurately understood the law. The police department has continued to publicly report promotions, just not the outcomes of disciplinary outcomes. The NYPD also claimed in August 2017 that 50-a protected video footage of alleged misconduct and could only be released due to an officer waiving those protections. Such an assertion and shifting interpretations have created the opening for the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) to challenge the release of body-camera footage and other records.

 

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About Communities United for Police Reform

Communities United for Police Reform (CPR) is an unprecedented campaign to end discriminatory policing practices in New York, and to build a lasting movement that promotes public safety and policing practices based on cooperation and respect– not discriminatory targeting and harassment.

CPR brings together a movement of community members, lawyers, researchers and activists to work for change. The partners in this campaign come from all 5 boroughs, from all walks of life and represent many of those unfairly targeted the most by the NYPD. CPR is fighting for reforms that will promote community safety while ensuring that the NYPD protects and serves all New Yorkers.

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Topics: Repeal 50-A Safer NY Act