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Prompted by Floyd case, NY Legislature OKs repeal of police secrecy law

New York Sen. Jamaal T. Bailey speaks during

New York Sen. Jamaal T. Bailey speaks during a legislative session the Senate Chamber at the state Capitol in Albany on June 20, 2019. Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

 ALBANY — Prompted by the death of George Floyd, the State Legislature on Tuesday voted to repeal a law considered one of the strictest in the nation in shielding police disciplinary records.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said he will sign the measure, which would undo “50-a,” the 1976 civil rights statute considered one of the three most restrictive statutes in the United States in shielding police disciplinary records. 

Proposals to repeal 50-a have been around for a decade but have been blocked by influential police unions. But the death of Floyd — at the hands of a Minnesota police officer with 17 misconduct complaints — and the ensuing nationwide protests propelled the New York lawmakers to take quick action.

They began voting on the repeal bill while Floyd's funeral was ongoing in Houston.

"This is the moment. We are tired of the brutality," said Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn), who added he was struck, pepper sprayed and handcuffed by police at a recent protest. "There has been no consequence for brutality against my people."

The Senate approved the repeal, 40-22; the Assembly, 101-43.

The repeal also will affect discipline records of correction officers and firefighters. 

It was one of a number of police oversight bills lawmakers were slated to approve this week. One will require New York state troopers to have body-worn cameras while on patrol. Another establishes a “right to record police activity.”

"This goes beyond Mr. Floyd," said Sen. Jamaal Bailey (D-Bronx), one of the sponsors of the 50-a repeal bill. "That knee on Mr. Floyd's neck was a wake-up call for America. We need police reform. That doesn't mean we are anti-police. It just means we need to change a few things and people weren't listening."

Police disciplinary records won’t become available automatically, but instead will have to go through a request under the state Freedom of Information Law.

Assemb. Daniel O’Donnell (D-Manhattan), chief sponsor of the bill in the Assembly, suggested it’s likely that requests to obtain police discipline records might require going to court to get them released.

Still, repeal supporters said this merely puts police on equal footing with other civil servants.

The law originally was enacted in 1976, not long after the State Legislature approved a landmark Freedom of Information Law to open up government records. Years later, the champion of 50-a, the late Sen. Frank Padavan, a Queens Republican, said the implementation of the law went beyond his original intent in shrouding records.

A 2017 report said the New York law was one of the three most restrictive statutes in the United States “that restrict the scope of law enforcement information available to the public.”

Court challenges over the years reinforced the law, the latest coming in 2018 when the New York State Court of Appeals said 50-a disclosure limits weren’t tied strictly to litigation but extended to any “potential use of the information,” which closed off any freedom-of-information requests.

Newspapers across the state often were stymied in trying to obtain police records.

In 2010, a federal court blocked Newsday from obtaining potential police misconduct records related to the death of Jo’Anna Bird, a New Cassel woman tortured and killed by her boyfriend. A subsequent lawsuit by the newspaper also failed.

A 2013 Newsday investigation identified more than 200 Long Island police officers linked to misconduct cases by departmental charges, jury verdicts or court settlements. The nine-month investigation of how agencies used New York State’s officer privacy law to hide cases of police misconduct, ranging from falsifying reports and lying to shooting innocent people, was a 2014 Pulitzer Prize finalist in Public Service.

Republicans said a repeal of the law was too reactionary, not fully considered and could not only tar good officers but also endanger some.

“This is not the answer,” Assemb. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) said during the Assembly debate. “We are feeding red meat to the mob that wants to go after police.”

"Isn't there some value in weeding out officers who have a problem,?" Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Brentwood), a former police officer, said at a different point in the debate.

Sen. Patrick Gallivan (R-Elma), a former sheriff, said Minnesota had a much broader disclosure law than New York, yet that had “nothing to do with the lack of accountability of that officer” who knelt on Floyd’s neck.

But Democrats countered that lack of transparency and accountability about police brutality is part of what’s eroded trust and helped fuel the protests.

“We need action to change the institutional forces that have brought us to this day,” said Sen. Shelly Mayer (D-Yonkers). “This is a moment of national reckoning.”

The NYS Legislature repealed a statute called "50-a," which shields police discipline records from the public. Here are some things to know:

  • The repeal means the public could request any “complaints, allegations and charges against an employee,” as well as his/her name; the transcript of any disciplinary hearing or trial and the accompanying exhibits; the disposition of disciplinary proceeding; and the final opinion or “complete factual findings,” along with the discipline imposed.
  • The repeal also applies to corrections officers and firefighters.
  • The repeal exempts "technical" violations, such as tardiness, frequent sick days and uniform transgressions, from disclosure, as well as personal information.
  • The records don't become open automatically. They can be requested under the NY Freedom of Information Law. That request can be denied; the applicant then would have to go to court to obtain the records.

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