While lawmakers in New York prepare to pass a package of comprehensive changes to the state’s criminal justice system, one related proposal has remained untouched and undiscussed this year at the state capitol: the repeal of section 50-a of the Civil Rights Law.
That section of state law, which has been long-lambasted by defense attorneys and criminal justice advocates, shields the personnel records of police officers, firefighters and correction officers from public view.
Supporters of the repeal have argued that repealing 50-a would be a win for transparency in cases where police misconduct is suspected. But those who oppose the idea have said it could, instead, reveal the identifying information of officers and potentially put them in danger.
Lawmakers in both the state Senate and Assembly have said the topic hasn’t been brought up in closed-door discussions among members, making its chances of coming to the floor for a vote unlikely anytime soon.
Instead, a small minority of lawmakers from both chambers have coalesced around the issue in hopes of convincing their colleagues to act on it before the end of this year’s legislative session, which ends in June. The bill is sponsored by Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, D-Manhattan, and Sen. Jamaal Bailey, D-Bronx.
“The idea that a disciplinary record or the disciplinary history of a police officer is not known to the public when they’re public employees creates an exemption that simply goes too far,” O’Donnell said.
O’Donnell said he didn’t expect the issue to be brought up at any point before lawmakers come to an agreement on the state budget, which is an omnibus package of bills passed at the end of March that typically includes negotiated deals on policy issues unrelated to spending, as well as the state’s appropriations. But he expects Democrats in the upper chamber to be supportive when the issue is addressed.
“A number of the new senators when they were running for Senate came up to me and told me that 50-a was their top priority,” O’Donnell said. “So, I do believe there’s support in the Senate for repealing 50-a, and I intend to keep pushing that, but I don’t believe it will be addressed until after the budget.”
He’s sponsored the bill in the Democrat-controlled Assembly for at least three years, but this is the first year it has a chance of actually becoming law. Democrats won a firm majority in the state Senate during last year’s elections for the first time in nearly a decade. They now outrank the chamber’s Republicans, who were opposed to repealing 50-a.
Bailey, who now chairs the Codes Committee, said the bill is not off the table, but that he wants to give other Democrats in the chamber the chance to be heard on the issue before they move forward with the legislation.
“We’re still having conversations with all the stakeholders,” Bailey said.
He was one of a handful of state and city lawmakers who rallied on the steps of City Hall in Manhattan this week to call for a repeal of the law. Also in that group was Assemblyman Dan Quart, D-Manhattan, who has been particularly outspoken about repealing 50-a in recent years. He confirmed that lawmakers haven’t seriously discussed the issue, but he expected it to come up later this year.
“It’s not currently something we’re deliberating on in contrast to bail, discovery reform, speedy trial,” Quart said. “I think it’s more likely to be an issue that I’ll be pushing with Assemblymember O’Donnell in May and June.”
The main opposition to the proposal is from the Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York, which has argued that the law is in place for a reason: to keep police officers safe from individuals who may use identifying information from the records to find and harm them and their families.
“It’s a safety issue for our members,” said Patrick Lynch, president of the PBA. “Our members are out in the street dealing with criminals, and criminals retaliate against police officers. We’ve had it.”
Lynch argued that repealing 50-a wouldn’t do anything to advance criminal justice because the state’s prosecutors, who would be responsible for investigating and prosecuting cases of police misconduct, already have access to the personnel records in question. Civilian review boards are also able to access those records.
“The reason the law is in place is because it’s fairness for both sides. Those that need to investigate and look can, those that need to be protected are,” Lynch said. “So we don’t believe there’s a reason to do it at all.”
O’Donnell, who is a former criminal defense attorney, said he has no intention of revealing certain information, like addresses, as part of the repeal and that he doesn’t expect his legislation to result in any harm for police officers. He argued that the heart of the issue is about promoting accountability among members of law enforcement.
“I do not want any harm to come to any police officer because we repeal 50-a and I don’t believe that will happen,” O’Donnell said. “They are public employees and the public pays them and the public has a right to know if the system is working adequately to ensure if there are any bad apples in the police department, that they’re properly addressed and disciplined.”
That’s also why civil rights groups, such as the New York Civil Liberties Union, support repealing the law. NYCLU has been outspoken on the issue for years, but it’s hardly the only legal group that supports the change. It’s also backed by the Legal Aid Society and the New York City Bar Association. Michael Sisitzky, lead policy counsel at NYCLU, said repealing 50-a would be in the public interest.
“Repealing 50-a is a necessary step to pull back the curtain on police discipline. The law has been twisted to provide a blanket excuse to shield basic police information from disclosure,” Sisitzky said. “Transparency is a necessary ingredient of accountability. The public deserves to know what consequences police face for misconduct.”
State lawmakers in Albany, meanwhile, have said they’re on the cusp of announcing reforms to the state’s laws on cash bail, criminal discovery, and the right to a speedy trial. Like the repeal of 50-a, those changes are intended to benefit the accused. But unlike 50-a, they’re expected to be passed in the coming weeks.
“It will not be an easy path towards passing the repeal of 50-a,” Quart said.