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Suffolk police union settles suit with county over release of personnel records

Officers during a graduation ceremony from the police

Officers during a graduation ceremony from the police academy in Brentwood. (June 10, 2011) Photo Credit: Ed Betz

Suffolk's largest police union has settled with the county a lawsuit the union filed last year that sought to force officials to uphold a state law forbidding public disclosure of personnel and internal affairs investigations of its police officers.

County attorney Dennis Brown confirmed this week that the suit was settled in June.

The lawsuit, filed Oct. 25, asked the county to enforce a state statute that protects officers' personnel files. It was filed on behalf of the 1,600-member Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association and its president, Noel DiGerolamo.

The suit sought "preliminary and permanent injunctions requiring the county to protect from inspection, review and/or disclosure current and former police officers' protected employment and personnel records."

Under terms of the settlement, a county attorney must consent to any release of confidential personnel records, and a grievance procedure must be set up to settle disputes, DiGerolamo said.

"What the agreement basically does is it formalizes an obligation of the county to follow the law and gives us the right to go to a grievance procedure rather than another lawsuit if they fail to do it again in the future," DiGerolamo said.

State Civil Rights law section 50-a mandates that such records are confidential and not subject to inspection or review without the express written consent of the law enforcement officer in question or unless mandated by a judge's court order. The nearly 40-year-old state law also protects personnel records of firefighters and correction officers.

For example, if a public servant had civilian complaints about him or her on file or was ever investigated internally for wrongdoing, those files would not be open to the taxpaying public.

Paul Sabatino, a Huntington attorney who has served as legislative counsel for six Suffolk County administrations, said the lawsuit "seems to be a lot to do about nothing."

"To me it just appears to formalize practice," Sabatino said. "Because it's hard for me to imagine any employee in Suffolk County government who would take it upon himself or herself to release a personnel record, confidential records, without checking with the county attorney first."

It was not clear what prompted the PBA to file the lawsuit, which did not cite a specific case in which the state law may have been violated.

However, the suit was filed five days after Newsday reported findings of a 1995 internal affairs probe of Suffolk Chief of Department James Burke, which revealed that as a sergeant he had lost his handgun twice and had engaged in a sexual relationship with a prostitute in his police vehicle.

"No file should be released," DiGerolamo said. "If you had access to one, I had to go under the assumption that Newsday had access to all of them, and that's why I filed the action."

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