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Don't renege on NY's 50-a

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 on June 8, 2020. Credit: AP/Frank Franklin II

What it comes down to is accountability.

State lawmakers last year repealed section 50-a of New York Civil Rights Law, which for a long time prevented the public from seeing law enforcement disciplinary records in full.

Accountability was the issue Tuesday when a federal appeals court in New York tossed out a bid from NYC police, firefighter, and corrections officer unions to go back to the old days. The unions wanted to place unnecessary restrictions on what the public finds out when some members of this essential workforce are accused of doing something wrong.

It’s a bad idea, and the court agreed, knocking down objection after objection:

Would officers be stigmatized and have a hard time getting future jobs if people saw records of unproven complaints? The court noted that each record would reveal the outcome of the investigation.

Would officers be endangered by complaint information being released? State law prevents release of personal data like home addresses. Police unions claim that Googling an officer’s name can yield some information, but the decision said that in general "many other States make similar misconduct records at least partially available to the public without any evidence of a resulting increase of danger to police officers."

Police unions and allies across New York State have brought up these and similar arguments for months, from the allegation that police, who have the power of deadly force, are unfairly scrutinized to the idea that the release of complaints threatens morale.

The rationale for hiding complaint information can no longer be shielded in the wake of George Floyd’s death under the knee of an officer with multiple misconduct complaints logged against him. Floyd’s death was the event that finally galvanized Albany lawmakers to change 50-a.

Accountability is why Newsday is trying to pry loose the disciplinary records for Nassau and Suffolk police officers involved in highly publicized cases, some many years old, where credible concerns have been raised about how the county police departments police their own.

To take just one example, as many as 22 Nassau police officers "ignored, downplayed or mishandled" Jo’Anna Bird’s repeated pleas for protection from an abusive ex-boyfriend, a confidential informant for the department who tortured and killed her in 2009. "The Nassau County Police Department has never provided a full public accounting of the actions, or inaction, that led to the young mother’s murder," Newsday wrote last week, after announcing a lawsuit seeking the release of a 700-page report from 2010 into the department’s lapses in the case.

Long Islanders deserve to know the consequences of these failures by their public servants. Yet Nassau and Suffolk police leaders — and their brethren across the state — seem to be looking for new ways to block their secrets despite the clear intent of the law for transparency.

State law includes plenty of important, and needed, privacy protections for law enforcement officers. Releasing information about officer wrongdoing — and following up with consequences for that wrongdoing when appropriate — is not particularly onerous. It’s just accountability.

— The editorial board