State Legislators & Advocates Call for Repeal of New York’s Police Secrecy Law That is among Worst in Nation
Problems with state law 50-a have recently been highlighted because of NYC Mayor de Blasio & NYPD’s frequently changing, new interpretations to hide more and more information on police misconduct
Several state legislators joined civil rights and advocacy organizations from across the state to announce support and call for repeal of New York State’s police secrecy law, 50-a. It is one of the worst laws in the nation blocking police transparency, and has seen an expanded use by political and police officials over the past four years to conceal basic and vital information about police misconduct and discipline from the public. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in New York City with the NYPD during the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“New York State government must repeal 50-a, because it impedes police transparency and accountability, undermines community safety, and harms public trust in government,” said Monifa Bandele, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform and Senior Vice President for MomsRising. “It allows police departments, like the NYPD, to misuse it for their own purposes of hiding police misconduct and a lack of accountability from the public. The de Blasio administration’s ever-changing, new interpretations of the law – in one case, breaking from nearly 40 years of precedent – offer a case study in why this law needs to be repealed.”
New York is one of only three states with law that restricts public access to information on police officers’ records. New York’s 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.”
“I’ve often referred to Albany as the capital of unintended consequences, and there is no better example of this than Civil Rights Law 50(a),” said Assembly Member Daniel J. O’Donnell, the lead sponsor of legislation to repeal 50(a). “The way 50(a) has been interpreted by the courts and invoked by agencies throughout the state has been in direct contradiction to its original intent – to encourage the greatest amount of transparency without putting officers at risk. None of the advocates here want sensitive personal information of our police or correctional officers to be disclosed. What we as citizens have a right to know are the circumstances of their interactions with the public and their colleagues, and their disciplinary records. These should be accessible to the citizens of New York the same way the records of all other public servants are.”
The expanded use of state law 50-a, with new interpretations during the de Blasio administration in New York City, has brought increasing attention to the law’s problematic nature. The administration 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 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 interpretation have created the opening for the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) to challenge the release of body-camera footage and other records. The latest new interpretation by the NYPD was in May 2018 when the department claimed that it could not release data on officers’ use-of-force that was mandated by city law, despite the fact that the mayor and NYPD supported passage of that legislation requiring such reporting. Days later after receiving immense criticism, the NYPD reversed course, demonstrating how the de Blasio administration has arbitrarily and self-servingly interpreted the law.
It was recently revealed that the NYPD has not been sharing information with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office about officers with a history of lying that prosecutors need to determine whether to bring or dismiss a case. The news organization BuzzFeed sued the NYPD for withholding transcripts and other information related to disciplinary trials that are open to the public under the guise of 50-a.
“There is no issue more clear-cut than repealing 50a,” said Assembly Member Dan Quart. “Shielding misconduct and abuse by law enforcement perpetuates a culture of secrecy within the NYPD. The current misuse of 50a places New York at the very bottom when it comes to police transparency. I'm proud to cosponsor a bill that would put an end to this injustice and repeal 50a.”
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.