The New York City Bar Association has joined a chorus of groups calling on elected officials in Albany to repeal a state law that shields records related to police misconduct, which critics say has helped fuel distrust in police.
New York is one of three states with specific laws for protecting officers, but the state’s transparency watchdog, the New York State Committee on Open Government, has said New York’s law is the most secretive in the country.
On Monday, the City Bar joined the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Legal Aid Society and almost 30 other groups to support a bill to repeal Civil Rights Law 50-a, a statute enacted more than 40 years ago that was originally intended to prevent the release of unsubstantiated civilian complaints and prevent lawyers from having unfettered access to police officers’ records.
“Really this law only serves to be a hindrance to the public trusting the officers sworn to protect them,” said Philip Desgranges, chairman of the City Bar’s Civil Rights Committee and a senior staff attorney for the NYCLU.
Since 50-a, which creates an exception in New York’s Freedom of Information Law for police personnel records, was enacted, New York courts have tended to interpret the statute broadly.
According to a City Bar’s report, the law was not well known until about four years ago, except by lawyers who had to scale a high burden of proof to get their hands on police officers’ personnel files.
But that changed after the 2014 death of Eric Garner, who died while Officer Daniel Pantaleo had him in a choke hold. The city has invoked 50-a in its decision to block the release of reports of civilian complaints against Pantaleo.
Police reform groups have supported a bill proposed by Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell that would repeal 50-a. O’Donnell first proposed the legislation in 2016, but the bill has languished and faced opposition by the union representing New York City police officers.
The NYCLU and Legal Aid have led fights in the courts to challenge the law, but they have found mixed success.
In December, the New York Court of Appeals declined to take on an appeal from an Appellate Division, First Department, ruling that the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board did not have to release Pantaleo’s complaint records, but the high court has agreed to hear another case related to the law.
Christopher Dunn, the NYCLU’s associate legal director, said the case has been fully briefed for oral arguments and that the parties are awaiting a hearing date.
Though the NYPD has fought legal challenges to the statute in court, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the department’s top brass support changes to the law.
Lawrence Byrne, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for legal matters, said in an email that de Blasio’s office and the department have submitted their own draft proposals to change the law.
Meanwhile, Byrne said, the department will continue to follow what’s on the books.
“We will continue to apply the law as currently interpreted by various courts in several court decisions,” Byrne said.
But the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, a union representing New York City police officers, has long opposed making changes to 50-a, arguing that removing the protections currently in place would put officers in jeopardy and give criminal defense attorneys ammunition to turn trials into “smear campaigns.”
In a March 22 letter to NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill, Pat Lynch, president of the union, said the recent announcement that the city would release certain personnel information about officers facing disciplinary proceedings, which does not include their names, amounted to an “end run” around 50-a.
The police union and the city are also at odds over the city’s recent decisions to publicly release footage from officer’s body cameras that picked up incidents in which officers opened fire on armed civilians.
In a lawsuit pending in Manhattan Supreme Court, the PBA alleges that 50-a shields body camera footage, and has said it in public statements that the release of the footage has put officers’ lives at risk, while the city’s Law Department has countered that the footage is a “factual record of the incident” akin to an arrest report.