New York lawmakers passed a bill today rolling back a notorious police secrecy law that has hidden misconduct records from the public for decades.
The New York Senate and Assembly both passed legislation repealing Section 50-a of New York’s civil rights statute, which makes law enforcement personnel records exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week that he would sign such a bill.
Civil rights activists and progressive state legislators have been trying to repeal the law for years, saying it shields officers with long histories of misconduct from accountability. Calls for repeal grew after the 2014 killing of Eric Garner by an NYPD officer whose secret misconduct records were later leaked to the media.
However, politically powerful police unions squashed those reform efforts every year, securing the support of Republicans and moderate Democrats, including Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. But in the wake of massive, multi-day protests over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the state’s Democrats moved swiftly.
The legislation is part of a larger package of police reform bills Democrats are pushing. It will open up disciplinary records to FOIL requests, except for discipline for technical infractions that don’t involve interactions with the public.
New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman said in a statement that the repeal is “a historic win for New York and a long overdue change to the most restrictive police secrecy law in the country.”
“The repeal of 50-a is a critical step toward justice for New Yorkers, especially Black and Brown New Yorkers who have historically been the main targets of police abuse,” said Lieberman.
New York lawmakers originally passed Section 50-a in 1976 to prevent attorneys from using unfounded complaints to impugn police officers’ testimony during trial. But it has been steadily expanded by courts over the last 40 years—often as a result of litigation between police departments and news outlets or civil liberties groups—to hide a wide array of police records, including police shooting reports, transcripts of administrative trials, and even anonymized data on police use of force. A 2018 report by the New York City Bar concluded that 50-a “has been interpreted so broadly that police misconduct in New York State is more secretive than any other state in the nation.”
Reason reported last year on how Section 50-a has stonewalled the families of police shooting victims looking for answers, like Constance Malcolm. In 2012, NYPD officer Richard Haste and several other narcotics officers tailed Malcolm’s son, 18-year-old Ramarley Graham, from a bodega into Graham’s apartment, believing he had a gun, and fatally shot the unarmed young man. Malcolm has been fighting for years to pry information from the NYPD about the shooting and the officers involved, with little success.
“Even now, eight years later, Ramarley’s family has still only been allowed to know some of the officers’ names who were involved,” New York state Sen. Julia Salazar said in a floor speech on the bill today. “Repealing Section 50-a is about giving these families answers when we know that we collectively have not given them justice.”
Police unions opposed the legislation—as they have all efforts to reform 50-a—on the grounds that it would unfairly reveal unsubstantiated complaints and open up officers to targeted harassment and threats. A group of nine New York police unions wrote in a letter on Friday that such disclosures “would expose the accused officer to serious safety concerns as well as unavoidable and irreparable harm to reputation and livelihood.”
But for the first time since the law was passed, the police unions couldn’t sway enough Democrats. The New York Senate passed the legislation by a 40-22 vote, and the House passed it by 101-43. In the House, the vote was followed by a moment of silence for George Floyd.
“New York affirmed today that our state stands for transparency in policing, a vital step toward restoring confidence in law enforcement which is so undermined when a black or brown person, like George Floyd or Eric Garner, dies as a result of an encounter with an officer with a history of misconduct,” Norman Reimer, the executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said in a press release. “With the full repeal 50-a, police accountability takes a step closer to becoming a reality by allowing misconduct engaged in by a police officer to be accessible by the public.”