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NY Scraps Law Blocking Release of Police Disciplinary Records
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The State Senate debates legislation on Tuesday, June 9, 2020.
The State Senate debates legislation on Tuesday, June 9, 2020.
Credit: New York State Senate

Democrats in New York voted Tuesday to repeal a decades-old law that’s been interpreted in recent years to allow local governments to withhold the prior disciplinary records of police from individuals who request them under the Freedom of Information Law.

That means that, as soon as the bill is signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, members of the public will be able to request those records at any time.

The bill was one of a package of police-related reforms proposed and supported this week by Democrats, who control both chambers of the state Legislature. Some of the legislation isn’t new, but the death of George Floyd garnered support for the measures.

Lawmakers voted Tuesday to scrap section 50-a of the state civil rights law, which has been used to block public access to police disciplinary records.

Supporters of the measure have argued that those records could be used to reveal a pattern of complaints made against certain officers accused of police misconduct, excessive abuse, and other activities.

Assemblyman Walter Mosley, D-Brooklyn, said the bill was about shifting power away from members of law enforcement, and into the community.

“This bill is about accountability, transparency, and how performance is related to that,” Mosley said. “This is about power given back to the people. This is about making sure the status quo doesn’t have a foot on our necks that should be tolerated.”

The legislation was staunchly opposed by police unions, who have argued that the bill will roll back due process rights for police officers, and lead to targeted harassment against their members.

It was also largely opposed by Republicans, who argued Tuesday that claims made against officers that turn out to be unsubstantiated, or unfounded, shouldn’t be available to the public. They likened it to being accused of a crime, but let off those charges.

“A wrongful accusation is a wrongful accusation, and it shouldn't be allowed to be used against anybody,” said Sen. Patrick Gallivan, a Republican and former county sheriff. “It opens the door to impugning a good officer’s reputation.”

State Sen. Jamaal Bailey, a Democrat from the Bronx who sponsored the bill to repeal 50-a, pushed back on that argument. An unsubstantiated claim doesn’t necessarily mean the officer was exonerated, he argued.

“Unsubstantiated doesn’t mean something doesn't happen, it just means there’s information around it where it couldn't be proven to be substantiated,” Bailey said.

Police unions had also raised the possibility that a repeal of 50-a could allow members of the public to get their hands on the identifying information of officers, like their home address, or their medical information.

Democrats have said for years that a repeal of the law wouldn’t allow for that, but they also included a new section of law in Tuesday’s bill that will require that information to be fully redacted before any disciplinary records are released to the public.

“We are not looking into anyone’s personal business,” said Assemblywoman Diana Richardson, a Democrat from Brooklyn who was recently pepper sprayed by police in New York City during a protest.

“We want that, if you take an oath to protect and serve that you don't become an abuser. We want that, if you take an oath to protect and serve that you uphold yourself to the highest levels of accountability.”

The legislation was sponsored in the Assembly by Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, a Democrat from Manhattan.

As soon as Cuomo signs the bill, the public will be allowed to request those records from any law enforcement agency through the Freedom of Information Law.

Lawmakers also approved bills Tuesday that will require, starting next April, members of the State Police to wear body cameras and affirm the right to medical and mental health attention for individuals while in custody.