New York secrecy law that protects police is contemptible

Nassau Legis. Peter Schmitt. (Oct. 30, 2011) Nassau Legis. Peter Schmitt. (Oct. 30, 2011) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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Peter Schmitt, the presiding officer of the Nassau County Legislature, must appear in court tomorrow to face a contempt charge. He had the audacity to let the public in on a few details from a report on outrageous police misconduct.

It's not Schmitt's candor that is contemptible. It's the sealing of that report in a misguided ruling by U.S. Magistrate Kathleen Thomlinson, handling the case for U.S. District Court Judge Arthur Spatt, and the court's failure to see the critical public service that would have been performed by making the report public.

The report is about the case that cost Nassau County $7.7 million, because its police officers, by not properly enforcing a restraining order against Leonardo Valdez-Cruz, failed to protect his ex-girlfriend, Jo'Anna Bird. Valdez-Cruz, who was a police informant, is now serving life in prison for torturing and killing the mother of two. Schmitt discussed the report with News 12 Long Island, which, like Newsday, is owned by Cablevision.

Nassau County Attorney John Ciampoli demanded the report be sealed at the behest of the Police Benevolent Association on the eve of a news conference by Bird's lawyer to discuss it contents. As a result many questions are unanswered. How many officers were involved? What exactly did they do, wrong and right? Have they been disciplined, and if so, how? What processes have been changed in the department to prevent this from happening again?

Ciampoli argued the secrecy was required by a 1976 state law applied so broadly that it keeps practically all police, jail, prison guard and firefighter personnel records under wraps.

The law is known as 50-a, and its initial rationale was to keep defense attorneys from dredging up the employment histories of police officers testifying in criminal trials to damage the cops' credibility. But there are lots of things we don't allow in court, and we don't find it necessary to pass laws hiding every aspect of public servants' job performance from the eyes of the public. Judges can stop attorneys from using irrelevant personnel information about officers testifying in court.

The Bird case is only one of several in which details of serious police personnel problems have been hidden from the public. Recent well-publicized episodes include an intoxicated cop flashing a gun in a Farmingdale bar, a cabbie shot in Huntington after falling afoul of two allegedly drunken off-duty officers, an unarmed man shot by police in his Selden home, and a Nassau cop said to have spent his shifts napping and having sex at the home of a mistress. Little is known about what consequences will befall these officers.

The 50-a law often has bad consequences, and ought to go away. A paper from the state's Committee on Open Government came to the same conclusion in 2010, but little has been done. Even so, it was an overreach by the court to seal the Bird report.

Schmitt, who never signed any confidentiality agreement, is the head of the legislature, and was responsible for making sure the multimillion-dollar settlement by the county attorney was warranted. He was stunned by what he read in the report. His public comments are not contemptible but commendable.

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