The New York State Senate Tuesday voted to repeal a 44-year-old provision that had previously shielded police officers’ disciplinary records from being released to the public, an early sign that the nationwide police brutality protests are advancing actionable change.
In 1976, legislators passed the provision, known as 50-A of New York’s Civil Rights Law, as a way to protect police officers who testified in court. “All personnel records used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion, under the control of any police agency or department of the state … shall be considered confidential and not subject to inspection or review without the express written consent of such police officer, firefighter, firefighter/paramedic, correction officer or peace officer …. except as may be mandated by lawful court order,” the provision states.
But criminal justice activists, public defenders and select judges have sought to overturn the provision, arguing that it removes a crucial layer of transparency for police officers accused of misconduct and gives police departments too much power in exempting officers from transparency. “Black New Yorkers, like all residents of this state, deserve to know that their rights, and lives, are valued and protected by our justice system,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said. “The Senate is stepping up to advance reforms that will empower New Yorkers, improve transparency, and help save lives.”
On Tuesday, the senate overturned the provision 40-22, with all Republicans voting against the measure. Governor Cuomo has publicly said he will sign the bill once it crosses his desk. The bill is part of a package of various police reform bills the state senate has taken up this week.
“The silver lining on this incredibly dark cloud is that the sun is finally starting to shine on injustice. Maybe it’s the unmistakable, and in my opinion disputable, video evidence that we saw a live murder on TV, but it’s done something to the consciousness of America,” bill sponsor Sen. Jamaal Bailey said in a floor speech before the bill’s passage (via the NY Daily News). “I don’t know if there could be a more meaningful piece of legislation for me and this body because it’s way more than just policy.”
“Black people and all people of color are not anti-police, we are anti-bad police,” Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes added at a news conference. “For generations, we have been hunted, abused, mentally and physically, by bad police. Those who are supposed to serve and protect us.”
The New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, an organization that represents many of the city’s rank-and-file officers, has vociferously opposed any changes to the law, arguing that it puts police officers’ lives at risk. “The Council has simply ignored both the serious risks to police officer safety and the reputational harm of publishing false allegations — which will unfairly impact the careers of good police officers that keep all New Yorkers safe — in favor of purported ‘criminal justice reform,’” PBA President Patrick Lynch said in 2019. The PBA is one of the most powerful unions in the state, holding powerful influence over state lawmakers. Massive protests in New York and around the country against police brutality had given those who oppose the provision momentum on the hopes that it would be repealed after numerous failed attempts in the past. (A representative for the PBA did not immediately reply to a request for comment.)
Last week, Lynch argued that a repeal of the provision would allow criminals access to police officers’ personal information. “It is inconceivable that Governor Cuomo would want to arm those extremists with confidential police personnel records, so that they bring their weapons to our front doors. We cannot protect New York if politicians won’t even provide the bare minimum protections for us and our families,” he said last week. (But as The City notes, Freedom of Information laws prevent that disclosure.)
Advocates intensified their call for repeal following the 2014 death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York police Daniel Pantaleo. The previously obscure law came into sharper focus following Garner’s death, as the NYPD repeatedly cited it to avoid disclosing Pantaleo’s past disciplinary history. (A grand jury did not indict Pantaleo for Garner’s death, though activists released a leaked version of his disciplinary history.) In 2016, the NYPD cited the law as justification to end sending disciplinary summaries to the news media. These “personnel orders” had previously contained the officer’s name and precinct alongside his offense and penalty.
Attempts to repeal 50-A have been amplified by a slew of celebrities calling for its abolition in an open letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, including Rihanna, Ariana Grande, Meek Mill, Billie Eilish, Nas, Justin Bieber and Demi Lovato. “We mourn the killing of George Floyd and the unnecessary loss of so many black lives before his,” the letter stated. “We must hold accountable those who violate the oath to protect and serve, and find justice for those who are victim to their violence. An indispensable step is having access to disciplinary records of law enforcement officers. New York statute 50-A blocks that full transparency, shielding a history of police misconduct from public scrutiny, making it harder to seek justice and bring about reform. It must be repealed immediately.”
Tina Luongo, Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society, tells Rolling Stone in a statement: “A comprehensive repeal of Police Secrecy Law 50-a and advancement of other needed police reforms are now just one pen stroke away, and with these bills codified into law, New Yorkers will be better able to hold their police department accountable for misconduct committed in their communities … Transparency is a critical first step to change the way police interact with communities in New York … We urge Governor Andrew Cuomo to enact this bill into law at once. Lastly, we must acknowledge that this moment is wholly the result of communities of color — those who have long shouldered abuse from the police — rising up and demanding change.”