Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Saturday questioned why New York City is appealing a judge’s ruling in line with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s own stated belief: that records about NYPD misconduct should not be secret.
The Law Department is seeking to overturn the order that the city must disclose the summary of any past civilian complaint against Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer who took down Eric Garner during a 2014 arrest for selling loose cigarettes on Staten Island.
De Blasio argues that Section 50-a of the state’s Civil Rights Law, passed in 1976, bars any such disclosure — an interpretation the governor challenges.
“You have a judicial determination that says ‘release the records,’ so don’t scapegoat and don’t say it’s the state law, when a judge interpreted the law otherwise, and your office is now contradicting the judge,” Cuomo said of his fellow Democrat before the annual Labor Day Parade in midtown Manhattan. “We’ll look at the state law and if we can make the state law better, we’ll make the state law better.”
State Supreme Court Justice Alice Schlesinger last year ordered the city to release records about Pantaleo that the Civilian Complaint Review Board had provided in the past about other officers. The Legal Aid Society had sued when the city refused to disclose the records. The administration has asked an appellate court to overturn Schlesinger’s ruling.
On his weekly “Ask the Mayor” program Friday, de Blasio said the law should be changed, saying “I think it’s the right time in history to make that change given everything that’s happening in this state and around the country.”
Eric Phillips, the mayor’s spokesman, said Saturday in a statement: “The governor believes the city should violate state law, and that’s not responsible. If the governor is serious about making these records public like the mayor wants, the governor should pledge today to work in Albany to make it happen.”
Neither Cuomo nor de Blasio has provided a roadmap for how to go about re-examining the law.
Earlier this year, the NYPD also stopped its longtime practice of allowing members of the media to see news about the disciplined officer at first saying the information had been removed from the department’s press office to save paper. Such disclosure, de Blasio’s attorneys since have said, violates the law, although the NYPD had done so for years.
“The mayor of this city, for decades, released the records — for decades,” Cuomo said Saturday, adding“If that’s what he wanted to do, that’s what he would do, right?”
Section 50-a states, “All personnel records . . . used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion . . . shall be considered confidential.”
Garner, 43, died July 17, 2014, because of what the city medical examiner ruled was Pantaleo’s chokehold — a tactic banned by the NYPD. A bystander’s cellphone video of the encounter — showing Garner gasping, “I can’t breathe!” — went viral and became one of the police-on-civilian deaths that catalyzed the Black Lives Matter movement.
A local prosecutor did not charge Pantaleo with a crime, and the federal government is considering whether Pantaleo violated federal criminal law. Given the de Blasio administration’s interpretation of the law, any NYPD discipline of Pantaleo could be kept secret.City Comptroller Scott Stringer, whose office settled last year with Garner’s relatives for $5.9 million on behalf of the city, declined to say whether de Blasio should appeal, but said: “I believe that we should have more disclosure, not less, and as a matter of policy I support releasing those records.”
Asked about the governor’s and mayor’s disagreement Saturday, Stringer said: “I’m not going to get in the middle of that.”
A 2013 investigation by Newsday found that Section 50-a has been instrumental in keeping the public in the dark about acts of misconduct, even crimes, by police on Long Island: Officers shot innocent people, faked official paperwork, manipulated DWI arrests to boost overtime pay and lied to prosecutors and investigators, out of public view.