A Suffolk County Police officer guards the scene of a shooting in...

A Suffolk County Police officer guards the scene of a shooting in Medford in August. Credit: John Roca

The New York Civil Liberties Union has sued the Suffolk County Police Department for refusing to release officer misconduct records state lawmakers made publicly accessible in 2020 after George Floyd was killed while in the custody of Minneapolis officers.

Suffolk is the latest agency to be sued by the NYCLU since lawmakers repealed a state law shielding police disciplinary records. Nassau County, Freeport, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Troy and the State Police have also been accused of withholding police misconduct records in lawsuits filed by the civil rights organization. 

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Suffolk County Supreme Court by NYCLU and Kirkland & Ellis LLP of Manhattan, seeks the release of documents regarding complaints against officers that did not result in discipline. Suffolk police refused to release the documents, according to the lawsuit, because officials claimed doing so would constitute an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

Suffolk police also heavily redacted documents regarding substantiated complaints, obscuring pertinent details about disciplinary actions against officers, court papers allege. The department failed to produce a redaction log or explain why it was redacting the documents, a violation of the SCPD’s Freedom of Information Law obligations, court papers say. 

 

In this June 8, 2020 file photo, a protester holds...

In this June 8, 2020 file photo, a protester holds a sign outside Queens County Criminal Court in New York, calling for the repeal of section 50-a, a law prohibiting the public release of police officer disciplinary records. Credit: AP/Frank Franklin II

The New York Legislature repealed 50-a, the state civil rights law that shielded police misconduct records from the public since 1976, in the wake of widespread public outrage over the death of Floyd, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes. 

The records are vital to the ongoing debate over police transparency and accountability, according to NYCLU supervising attorney Bobby Hodgson. Reform is possible if the public understands how Suffolk police review and adjudicate complaints, he said. 

“They are a necessary first step for the public to have an informed discussion on how the police are policing themselves,” Hodgson said. 

Irma Solis, Suffolk County regional director at the NYCLU, said the public has a right to the records.

“New Yorkers stood up, spoke out, and demanded change: the Suffolk County Police Department cannot deny the fact that 50-a was repealed, and police transparency is essential to police accountability,” Solis said. “We will continue to take action to ensure 50-a is repealed not just in theory but also in practice across New York State by obtaining full documentation of misconduct long withheld from the public.”

Representatives of the SCPD and Suffolk County, also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, declined to comment, saying they could not discuss pending litigation. 

Suffolk Police Benevolent Association president Noel DiGerolamo said he had not yet seen the NYCLU complaint but that his union may file a motion arguing against release of the records. 

He agreed with SCPD officials that releasing the documents would be a violation of privacy, saying that effective officers are often targeted for false complaints by drug dealers and other criminals who want to see those cops transferred from their neighborhoods.

“Any logical individual looking at the situation can see that nothing good comes from releasing false or unproven allegations against a police officer,” the PBA chief said. 

The complaint said the NYCLU submitted a freedom of information request to the SCPD more than two years ago, on Sept. 15, 2020, for disciplinary documents and other police records. The department and the civil rights organization negotiated rolling production of the documents during the following year, but on Oct. 15, Suffolk police formally denied part of the NYCLU request. 

The letter said documents in cases found to be unsubstantiated, unfounded or exonerated could not be shared because it would violate cops’ personal privacy.

“The Suffolk Police Department cannot withhold disciplinary records to which the public is legally entitled after the repeal of 50-a. We should know when and why the Suffolk Police Department refused to impose discipline,” Hodgson said. “Police transparency is now codified into law, and police departments can no longer argue that they must be trusted to police themselves, immune from public scrutiny.”

The Suffolk County attorney denied an appeal from the NYCLU, which continued discussions about the records with police through March. But the SCPD has not released the requested documents or explained the heavy redaction of records it released, according to the court papers, prompting the lawsuit. 

A Nassau County Police Department patch.

A Nassau County Police Department patch. Credit: Barry Sloan

The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a similar lawsuit against Nassau County in October. The lawsuit hoped to force the department to provide all of its records detailing police misconduct complaints dating back to 2000 in response to a public records request the NYCLU made more than a year earlier. 

Nassau police denied the request for all records of police misconduct complaints prior to June 2020, when the State Legislature repealed 50-a.

A court instructed police to turn over misconduct records that had been fully withheld by Nassau — and to consider possible redactions to address specific privacy concerns — but it also agreed with Nassau that pre-2020 records were shielded by 50-a. Both sides are appealing portions of that decision, he said.

A Nassau police spokesman did not return a call for comment. 

The litigation is part of a statewide police transparency campaign. The NYCLU and pro bono counsel filed FOIL requests against a dozen departments statewide as well as the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. The NYCLU said courts statewide have rejected the vast majority of efforts to bar release of the records. 

Newsday also has sued Nassau and Suffolk police with the goal of establishing the public’s right to inspect police disciplinary documents.

Nassau and Suffolk police have rejected or delayed numerous Freedom of Information Law requests submitted by Newsday and others. Records that were provided were blacked out almost to the point of being indecipherable.

A Nassau court upheld the county's denial of Newsday's requests, and Newsday has filed an appeal. Newsday's lawsuit against Suffolk is pending a decision by the Suffolk County Supreme Court.

The departments’ refusals to open the requested records — including for officers who shot and wounded unarmed motorists, applied fatal force to a mentally ill arrestee and were accused of fabricating arrest reports — compelled Newsday to conduct an investigation of the internal affairs systems in both counties. 

Latest videos