Attorneys in a lawsuit over the New York City Police Department’s decision to stop publicly releasing internal information that included disciplinary actions—a practice the department had followed for four decades—sought relief from the state’s highest court Oct. 6.
Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and the Legal Aid Society filed with the Court of Appeals in Luongo v. NYPD Records Access Officer, 160232-2016. The suit was brought against the city in May 2016, after the department announced its interpretation of the state statute, Civil Rights Law Section 50-a, required it to cease releasing information about officers.
The statute shields certain police and other public officers’ personnel records from Freedom of Information Law requests. For years, Legal Aid had received the so-called personnel orders through FOIL before the department’s interpretation halted that, resulting in the suit.
A state Supreme Court judge ruled against the department, but on appeal to the Appellate Division, First Department, the order was reversed. The panel cited Court of Appeals precedent, allowing for broad application of the law by law enforcement agencies and department.
In a statement, Cleary Gottlieb partner Roger Cooper said the department’s interpretation was an attempt to expand 50-a to records that have never been used in evaluating officers—a key part of the law’s language.
“When the Legislature decided to protect personnel records, it limited that protection to records that are actually used in evaluating police officers,” Cooper said.
The move to the Court of Appeals in the Luongo matter now puts two suits over the use of 50-a before the high court. It joins a suit by the New York Civil Liberties Union’s over denials by the Civilian Complaint Review Board, a police department oversight agency, to release documents in internal legal proceedings against officers.
Both New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner James O’Neill have publicly stated a desire for the state Legislature to change 50-a. However, Tina Luongo, the named appellant and attorney-in-charge of Legal Aid’s criminal practice, echoed in a statement many advocates’ belief that the city’s interpretation is applying an overly broad shield that limits police accountability.
“The city’s reversal in favor of secrecy by manipulating an outmoded law counters any relationship the NYPD is trying to build with the blocks it polices,” she said. “So long as acts of police brutality continue to proliferate in black and brown neighborhoods, proof that the NYPD’s accountability system responds remains critical if we’re going to have true transparency and accountability.”
In an emailed statement from Law Department spokeswoman Meryl Holt, the city is reviewing was was filed, but maintains its view that 50-a does not adequately address the public interest in transparency and accountability for those in positions of public trust.
The personnel orders suit was one of two filed with the high court Oct. 6. An order from the Manhattan appellate court denying the release of CCRB records for Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo, seen in a July 2014 video applying an apparent chokehold to Eric Garner moments before his death, was also submitted to the Court of Appeals. Details from Pantaleo’s files were leaked by a former CCRB staffer in March.