It was Algernon Sydney, the British politician hanged for treason in 1683, who wrote, “That which is not just, is not Law; and that which is not Law, ought not to be obeyed.”
It was BuzzFeed, the website that majors in celebrity clickbait and tests like “Choose Some Cookies And We’ll Accurately Guess Your Favorite Color,” yet minors in important journalism, that most recently lived up to Sydney’s standard.
BuzzFeed published a story last month that outlined the arbitrary nature of police discipline in New York City. The story was based on NYPD records that, thanks to a dangerous state law known as 50a, are secret and were supplied by an anonymous source. BuzzFeed used the records as a starting point, confirming them where possible through interviews and court documents.
The take-away from the analysis is that from 2011 through 2015, at least 319 NYPD officers who committed offenses serious enough to merit firing were not fired. Instead, they were given “dismissal probation” by the police commissioner. That punishment merely keeps officers from being promoted, may limit their overtime, and ends in a year if they don’t get in too much more trouble.
The offenses the officers were found guilty of included assaulting civilians, lying under oath on police reports and during internal affairs probes, stealing, driving under the influence, fixing tickets, firing guns unnecessarily and making death threats. The analysis, along with interviews with officers and experts, also led to the conclusion that discipline meted out by the NYPD for similar infractions was so varied it suggested favoritism, racism and sexism.
Then BuzzFeed put out a searchable database of the more than 2,000 records it had.
To search the database even at random, to see what some officers who continue to serve did on the job or their own time, is terrifying. And it shows why it is vital that this information be public, even as police unions fight vehemently to keep it secret.
The records are a partial set for the four-year period studied. The NYPD says during that time at least 777 officers got dismissal probation, while 463 others were forced to leave or resigned while a disciplinary charge was pending.
A cop who lies under oath or fabricates evidence ought to be fired. Ditto ones who assault suspects, show up to work drunk and threaten civilians. But barring that, a defense lawyer for a suspect facing testimony from such an officer should know that the cop has fabricated evidence and lied, hasn’t always been sober on the job, and has beaten alleged perpetrators.
New York is one of only three states with a law like 50a that hides police discipline. That’s because 47 states understand that police work for the public, and the public should be informed of serious offenses.
The lack of available information is as much a problem on Long Island as in the city. A 2013 Newsday investigation showed that in the previous six years, in every one of 46 instances in Nassau County in which an officer used deadly force, the department’s Deadly Force Response Team concluded within 24 hours that the use of force was justified. That included a case in which a drunk off-duty cop shot a cabbie in Huntington Station, then tried to cover it up with the help of his also-drunk partner and officers from both Suffolk and Nassau police.
State legislators and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo could fix 50a this year, so serious police infractions and discipline are public. That would help ensure dangerous officers are fired, discipline is dispensed without prejudice or favoritism, and people standing trial, as well as juries, know when cops can’t be trusted.
BuzzFeed can see 50a is not just. Our legislators and Cuomo must assure it is not law.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.