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Federal appeals court upholds release of police disciplinary records

A protester holds a sign outside Queens County

A protester holds a sign outside Queens County Criminal Court calling for the repeal of section 50-a, June 8, 2020. Credit: AP/Frank Franklin II

ALBANY — A federal court on Tuesday rejected a bid by unions to block the release of police disciplinary records.

The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower-court ruling and, effectively, also upheld state lawmakers’ landmark repeal of "50-a." The statute had kept police disciplinary records out of public view for decades.

In a unanimous decision, the court rejected the unions’ claim that officers would suffer irreparable harm from release of the records, face heightened danger on the job or be deprived of particular rights.

"We have considered the unions’ remaining arguments and conclude they are without merit," circuit judges Amalya Kearse, Pierre Leval and Raymond Lohier wrote in the 3-0 decision.

The State Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in June repealed 50-a, a civil rights statute that shielded police misconduct records since 1976.

Shortly thereafter, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city’s intention to proactively publish certain types of disciplinary records and provide other records upon request under the state’s Freedom of Information Law.

Police and firefighter unions filed suit and sought an injunction to block the release of records, which was granted temporarily.

The unions sought to block "any disclosure of allegations of misconduct against their members that are unsubstantiated, unfounded or non-final, or that resulted in an exoneration or a finding of not guilty," the judges wrote.

City officials said the appeals court ruling cleared the way for disclosure of a range of police disciplinary records.

"The rule of law prevailed today," Nicholas Paolucci, spokesman for the New York City Law Department, said in a statement. "The city’s planned release of these records was consistent with the law and the enhanced transparency the legislature intended. We are gratified by this court ruling."

The Legal Aid Society, which represents indigent clients, cheered the decision and said the police and fire unions were trying to "use the federal courts to undermine clear state legislative prerogatives and fundamental values of civil rights and open government."

Molly Griffard, a fellow with the Legal Aid Society, said the appellate decision "rightfully rejects the police unions’ baseless attempts to undermine the legislature’s decisive repeal of Police Secrecy Law 50-a and to continue hiding records of police discipline and misconduct."

Hank Sheinkopf, spokesman for a coalition of police, firefighters and correction officers who sued to block release of certain records, vowed to fight for "our members' safety and due process rights."

The state FOIL law "provides exemptions that allow public employers to protect employees’ safety and privacy," Sheinkopf said in a statement.

"We will continue to fight to ensure that New York City applies those exemptions to our members fairly and consistently, as they do for other public employees," he said.

Sheinkopf didn't raise the possibility of an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Noel DiGerolamo, president of the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association, called the decision "misguided" and a "victory for criminals."

DiGerolamo said it was "chilling" that "false and salacious allegations found to have no merit will be placed in public view and that officers will be scrutinized for no legitimate purpose."

Nassau County PBA president James McDermott said he had not seen the ruling and declined to comment.

With Anthony M. DeStefano and Michael O'Keeffe

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