The time to repeal Civil Rights Law 50-a, the state law currently blocking the release of all police discipline records, will never be more appropriate than now.
A New York City Bar Association report said that 50-a “shrouds police misconduct from the public.” In its annual report, the state’s Committee on Open Government stated that police misconduct in New York is “more secretive than in any other state in the nation.”
The recent independent review of the NYPD disciplinary system stated that “denying those directly affected by police misconduct access to information on police discipline serves no one’s interest. More broadly, lack of transparency impedes the Department’s efforts to show the public that it holds officers accountable for their conduct.”
The Police Department has been making a serious effort to improve police-community relations through their neighborhood coordination program across the city and all patrol officers, sergeants and lieutenants assigned to precincts as well as transit and housing commands will be equipped with body cameras early this year, but that will only go so far if there is no proof that misconduct is being appropriately addressed.
The broad interpretation of this law keeps getting broader, as body camera footage has recently been looped into this law, even though this footage is expected to help clear officers of misconduct more often than it incriminates them.
Based on the Civilian Complaint Review Board’s records, the agencies tasked with oversight over police misconduct have been fair to officers, despite a lack of financial support and adequate resources. In 2018, 89% of NYPD active members of service had zero substantiated complaints against them and an additional 8% only had one substantiated complaint. We are talking about getting a closer look at the 700 officers that fall into the multiple-complaint category, not the 35,000-plus officers who make up the overwhelming majority of the force.
So while this law was meant to protect all of those in the NYPD who protect and serve our city from unfair criticism, it is really hurting the tens of thousands of officers who work to protect us and serve with honor by shielding the hundreds who are holding the Department back from achieving the goal of building a solid foundation of trust between police and communities.
The public has a right to know who is serving their community, and until we get this right, we are doing those officers, who are truly making a difference in our communities, a disservice.
Commissioner James O’Neill appropriately responded to concerns around the NYPD’s discipline process last June when he appointed the independent panel to review their entire discipline structure and now that their recommendations have been made public, it is abundantly clear that the time to make responsible reforms to the old structure is here and it all starts with repealing 50-a.
The City Council will be taking a deep dive into this structure Thursday, when the Committee on Public Safety will hold a hearing on police discipline and accountability.
But the truly substantial change must come from Albany. The Legislature must move Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell’s bill if we are to ever transform the NYPD into a fully transparent agency.
We owe it to all of the mothers and families who have lost a loved one at the hands of an officer. And we owe it to the overwhelming majority of officers who respect the responsibilities given to them as much as they respect the communities they serve.