Long Island civil rights advocates cheered Tuesday as New York lawmakers repealed a state law considered one of the nation's strictest in shielding police disciplinary records, even as local officials cautioned that officer safety must remain a priority.
But the advocates for police reform said they won’t celebrate until they see the final version of the 50-a bill — and how it will be implemented.
“I think what we must do now is work with our district attorneys and police commissioners and community leaders to come together to discuss implementation, next steps and healing,” said Tracey Edwards, the Long Island regional director of the NAACP.
“You can be 100% pro-police and 100% against police misconduct,” she added.
Repeal of 50-a is the first step in reimagining a new approach to public safety, said Jackie Burbridge of the Long Island Black Alliance, especially when it comes to encounters with the mentally ill.
“Envisioning communities where social services and community-based organizations are also considered integral to public safety benefits everyone,” Burbridge said.
Civil rights activists and criminal justice advocates have pushed to repeal 50-a for a decade, but they have been blocked by politically powerful police unions. The death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man — while in police custody in Minnesota — and the nationwide protests that followed sparked the New York State Legislature to take quick action.
Activists said they may seek release of police disciplinary records after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signs the repeal, as he has pledged to do.
Long Island’s top prosecutors, meanwhile, expressed support for increased police transparency and accountability, but they also urged legislators to make sure that reforms do not jeopardize cops.
Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas said she supports greater transparency of police discipline but said officers’ personal information should remain protected.
“These officers do dangerous work, the overwhelming do their jobs with courage and integrity, and repeal that does not afford protection to officers personal information could endanger officers and their families,” Singas wrote in a letter to the community Monday.
“We support reforms to improve transparency and law-enforcement accountability but of course the devil is in the details,” Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini said. “Reforms must protect officer safety.”
A Suffolk Police Benevolent Association leader blasted lawmakers for not including law enforcement unions in discussions over reforms and said repeal of 50-a creates new dangers for police officers. Criminals could track down cops’ family members even if officers’ personal information is redacted from records, PBA president Noel DiGerolamo said.
“How do they expect our members to deal with organized crime or MS-13 if they will show up at their parents’ front door?” DiGerolamo asked.
Asked if police unions would seek to reverse the change, DiGerolamo said: "We will seek all legal remedies under the law."
Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said his department will "abide by the law and make any modifications that may need take place."
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said in a statement after the legislative vote: “After nearly two weeks of national protests, government has heard loud and clear that reforms are much needed... My team will be reviewing what has been passed, determining the impact of the repeal, and working on the best way to implement changes at the County level.”
Suffolk police declined to comment, referring questions to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.
“We are certainly supportive of reforming the 50-a statute,” Bellone said Tuesday during his daily briefing.
Southold police Chief Martin Flatley said he supports transparency but worries the release of records documenting false and unsubstantiated claims would bruise the reputations of his officers — especially in smaller communities. He said he prefers modifications, not repeal, of 50-a.
“I hope this is not a knee-jerk reaction,” he said.
A spokesman for the NYPD said the department supports 50-a reforms.
“The NYPD has long advocated for reforming the law,” said Det. Sophia Mason. “Department executives have spoken publicly about the need for fairness and transparency in the law and have testified in Albany in support of an amendment to accomplish that.”
The Long Island Social Action Network plans on offering educational sessions about the change to the public, said Serena Liguori, one of the organization’s founders.
“We want people to understand what this will allow them to do and educate them on its implementation,” said Liguori, also the executive director of New Hour for Women and Children, a social services agency that provides support to incarcerated women.
The New York Civil Liberties Union will focus on how the reforms will be implemented by police departments, Nassau chapter director Susan Gottehrer said. “We are pleased to see this first step to more transparent approach to law-enforcement and policing and making people accountable,” Gottehrer said.
“We have not taken anything off the table,” Gottehrer added when asked if the civil-rights organization would immediately seek to have police disciplinary records made public.
Long Island NAACP chief Edwards said she hopes activists can work with elected officials, police and others to develop a more equitable approach to public safety.
“The NAACP is for ‘protect-and-serve’ for all communities,” she said.
With Bridget Murphy