ALBANY – A decades-old law that kept law enforcement officers’ disciplinary records secret in New York appeared to be headed for an overhaul this week as state lawmakers moved to act on a number of police accountability measures prompted by street demonstrations over the death of George Floyd.
The state law, known by its section title, 50-a, was passed in the 1970s to prevent criminal defense attorneys from subjecting officers to cross-examinations about irrelevant information in their personnel file. The law applies to jail guards and firefighters, as well.
But over the years, the law also draped a veil over most records of alleged police misconduct. Formal complaints about excessive force by officers are not public in New York. In recent years, police departments have cited the law in refusing to say even whether officers have been punished.
The Democrat-led Legislature planned to pass a repeal this week and Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday he intends to sign it, noting that such records are already available for other government employees, such as teachers and toll takers.
“Their records will be available,” Cuomo said. “It is just parity and equality with every other public employee.”
The leaders of a coalition of police unions argued in a statement Monday that releasing such records, including complaints, could leave officers facing “unavoidable and irreparable harm to reputation and livelihood.”
The legislation would provide officers with some privacy protections, including redaction of home addresses, personal phone numbers and email addresses.
The legislation was among a package of police accountability bills that began to move through the legislature Monday, and some of which were passed. The state Senate and Assembly passed legislation that bans police chokeholds, guarantees the right to record police activity and collects more data on deaths in custody.
Another bill that makes it easier to file civil lawsuits against people who call 911 and falsely accuse someone of criminal activity based only on their race or background also passed.
A vote on opening police disciplinary records could come as soon as Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the protests that sparked the reform push continued around New York City on Monday, and organizers urged people to stay in the streets.
Protest organizer Carlos Polanco was cheered by hundreds at Washington Square Park as he asked for further change, including diverting funding from the city’s police department to the school system, social workers and programs that prioritize rehabilitation over punishment.
“This is the closest we’ve ever been” to lasting reforms, he said, but added “we don’t want crumbs. We want all of it.”
Later in the day, Polanco urged a crowd gathered at Gracie Mansion to call their senators and demand that the state’s police records law be repealed Tuesday.
Civil liberty and criminal justice reform groups have long pushed for a repeal of the law, but that effort got new momentum amid huge protests over Floyd’s death and images of violent confrontations between officers and demonstrators.
Only New York and Delaware have state laws that provide law enforcement “with special carve outs from records disclosure,” according to a statement from advocacy groups including Common Cause New York and the New York Public Interest Research Group.
“What’s become increasingly clear over the past few days is how much a lack of transparent accountability measures leads to police acting with impunity in our communities,” said Michael Sisitzky, lead policy counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union.
“We’ve seen police officers drive cars into crowds of protesters and pull down a person’s face mask in order to pepper spray them,” Sisitzky said. “We’ve seen lawmakers arrested and pepper-sprayed while attempting to mediate.”
Critics of the repeal include Republican Sen. Patrick Gallivan — a former sheriff in Erie County, home to the state’s second largest city, Buffalo — who noted the overwhelming number of complaints against officers are deemed unfounded.
“I think people are calling for a reform that doesn’t get at any of the problems that we face as a society,” Gallivan said in an interview.
The law gained widespread attention in 2016, when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio argued it prevented the release of disciplinary records of the police officer involved in the chokehold death of Eric Garner.
Garner’s death — after he refused to be handcuffed for allegedly selling loose, untaxed cigarettes — came at a time of a growing public outcry over police killings of unarmed black men that gave impetus to the national Black Lives Matter movement.
Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, last year urged Cuomo and New York state lawmakers to repeal a law that she has said “is harming me and my family.”
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