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New York Poised to Knock Down Law That Built Up ‘Wall of Blue Silence’ Around Police Misconduct

New York State legislators voted on Tuesday to repeal a controversial secrecy provision that shields police misconduct records from public view.

The statute, widely known as 50-A, is currently part of New York’s consolidated “Civil Rights” laws–itself an oft-criticized decision. Activists have been pushing for repeal of the provision for years.

“By repealing 50-A we will be able to find out if police departments have been ignoring patterns of behavior,” New York State Sen. Julia Salazar (D-Bushwick) said during a floor debate. “We can’t afford to delay change and justice. I’m proud to vote to repeal 50-A.”

Section 50-a of the New York State Civil Rights Law has long been used by the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and other police departments in the Empire State to withhold individual police officers’ disciplinary records from the press–even when those same officers have been credibly accused of bad behavior.

The statute reads, in relevant part:

All personnel records used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion, under the control of any police agency or department of the state or any political subdivision…shall be considered confidential and not subject to inspection or review without the express written consent of such police officer…except as may be mandated by lawful court order.

Appellate court decisions across the state maintained the official regime of secrecy since the statute’s enactment in 1976. Judges repeatedly held that uniformed service personnel records, including disciplinary actions for police misconduct, could not be disclosed due to the law’s atypically high confidentiality protections.

Other state courts, however, held otherwise.

“50-A has been used to build up that wall of blue silence that has permeated law enforcement in this country,” Assemblywoman Inez Dickens (D-Harlem) said when voting to repeal the law.

By its own terms, the law also carved out similar secrecy provisions for firefighters, paramedics and corrections officers–but organized opposition to the anti-transparency statute has always focused on the activities of the police and the NYPD in particular.

The NYPD consistently cited 50-A as justification for withholding the prior disciplinary records of Daniel Pantaleo, the former cop who killed Eric Garner with a chokehold as Garner shouted “I can’t breathe” near the Staten Island shore–helping to ignite the nascent Black Lives Matter movement in 2014. Pantaleo was eventually fired–five years later.

“The system is not broken. It was intended this way,” said Assemblywoman Taylor Darling (D-Hempstead) just before she voted yes on repealing the statute. “This system needs a massive rebuild, and this legislation takes us one step closer.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also came out in favor of doing away with the law in October 2016.

“Without significant changes to this statute, the city remains barred from providing New Yorkers with the transparency we deserve,” the mayor said in a statement at the time.

The mayor had previously challenged a court decision that allowed for the release of police disciplinary records–leading many of his critics to doubt the sincerity of his motives.

De Blasio, for all of his alleged maneuvering, was critical of 50-A even before he was elected mayor. A 2013 report by the New York City Public Advocate’s Office–where de Blasio served before his electoral promotion–found the NYPD didn’t respond to freedom of information requests more than 30 percent of the time.

Newsday investigative reporters Sandra Peddie and Adam Playford found the Long Island Police Department to be riddled with corruption and misconduct largely protected from public scrutiny due to the extreme protections offered by 50-A.

Per that 2013 report:

Officers have shot innocent people, falsified official reports, manipulated DWI arrests to increase overtime pay and lied to district attorneys and investigators.

Occasionally an officer’s poor behavior bursts into public view, embarrassing the majority of officers who spend their careers serving honorably. But far more often, serious misconduct stays hidden behind state Civil Rights Law 50-a, which makes any record used to judge an officer’s performance confidential.

Far from simply barring the release of performance review-related records, the law has allowed police departments to keep confidential internal investigations of police wrongdoing. In fact, a report by the Committee on Open Government commissioned by New York State found that was frequently what the law served to protect.

“Over time this narrow exception has been expanded in the courts to allow police departments to withhold from the public virtually any record that contains any information that could conceivably be used to evaluate the performance of a police officer,” the report noted.

“Police have denied production of reports of misconduct, including instances where departments have determined that their officers have broken the law,” the committee’s findings continued. “Such secrecy is unwarranted and defeats (the Freedom of Information Law’s) goal of transparency and accountability.”

Police union bosses, on the other hand, have consistently pushed back against legislative changes.

“While we support greater transparency in the criminal justice system, making detailed personal information available to convicted criminals will potentially put our officers and their families at risk,” James Miller of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association (PBA) told the Albany Times-Union in 2014.

Organized law enforcement opposition during an unsuccessful repeal effort last year was similarly pitched.

“I wonder how many people in this room remember the last police officer that got killed,” the PBA’s Lou Matarazzo asked a group of state senators during a hearing in October 2019.

State Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Queens) responded by asking the retired NYPD officer to name the last three civilians killed by cops.

Matarazzo answered the question incorrectly by naming two men killed several years prior and failing to even name a third at all–eliciting boos from the audience.

“That’s the thing about pointing fingers and not being open to having a sincere conversation about what repealing 50-a really means for communities of color,” Ramos responded. “I’m a little admonished by your testimony because it comes across as if you think that because you wear a badge you are better than us.”

Supporters of the bill have also warned that there could be consequences for officers who do not root out misconduct.

“If you are the commanding officer who sits back and allows abuse to happen, you will be exposed as well,” Assemblywoman Latrice Walker (D-Brownsville) said in support of the bill on Tuesday.

A wellspring of support for repealing 50-A erupted after nationwide protests, violence, riots and incidents of police brutality rocked the country in the aftermath of the Minneapolis Police Department killing of George Floyd in late May.

The New York State Senate voted 40-22 to repeal the statute on Tuesday afternoon along party lines. All Republicans in the upper chamber voted against it. The measure also has a commanding lead in support among Assembly members who are currently voting on the bill.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) has signaled he will support the legislature’s efforts.

“I would sign a bill today that reforms 50-a,” Cuomo said during a press conference last month.“I would sign it today. So the Legislature can now convene by Zoom, or however they do it, pass the bill, and I will sign it today. I can’t be clearer or more direct than that.”

[image via TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images]

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