NYPD Secrecy on Police Disciplinary Records Challenged in Court

Wednesday, December 07, 2016
(photo: Getty Images, photo illustration: Steve Straehley, AllGov)


By Rick Rojas, New York Times


NEW YORK — The Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit against the New York Police Department on Tuesday in an effort to force the agency to disclose information about how officers are disciplined for wrongdoing on the job.


The lawsuit, filed in state Supreme Court in Manhattan, is the latest salvo in a continuing dispute, led by Legal Aid and other civil rights groups, over transparency in how the Police Department holds officers accountable for misconduct. In the lawsuit, Legal Aid calls for the department to make public summaries of disciplinary actions taken against police officers dating to 2011.


In the past, the information had been available in “personnel orders,” bulletins routinely distributed around the department with news of changes in duty, promotions, retirements and deaths, as well as disciplinary actions. For decades, the orders were posted in the offices of the deputy commissioner for public information, where they were accessible to journalists.


In May, according to the lawsuit, Legal Aid, using a Freedom of Information Law request, asked the department for the disciplinary summaries published in the orders, going back to 2011. The personnel orders typically contained an officer’s name and precinct, the nature of the offense and the penalty. The Police Department denied the request, and soon after, stopped making the disciplinary information in the orders available to reporters.


At the time, police officials said Legal Aid’s request led them to realize that the practice was in violation of a state law, Section 50-a of the Civil Rights Code, that shields the disciplinary histories of police officers from public view without the officer’s written consent or a court order. But critics said the response reflected the city’s expansive interpretation of the law’s protections, which, in a statement on Tuesday, Legal Aid called “overly restrictive and inconsistent with over 40 years of practice.”


“The timing of the NYPD’s abrupt reversal is more than a little suspicious,” Legal Aid said in the lawsuit.


The lawsuit noted recent cases of officer-involved deaths in New York that spurred an “increased public demand for police accountability,” including those of Ramarley Graham, who was fatally shot in 2012 in the Bronx, and Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died in 2014 after he was placed in a chokehold by an officer.


City officials have argued that they are limited by the state law, which was enacted four decades ago, and advocates for police officers have called the law a necessary protection amid the increased tension surrounding law enforcement in recent years.


But it has also been a long-standing obstacle to activists and journalists seeking information about misconduct by officers.


There have been repeated calls for the law to be repealed or altered, including from the New York State Committee on Open Government, which said in its 2015 annual report that changing the law was its “foremost recommendation.”


In October, Mayor Bill de Blasio also proposed changes for the statute, saying the “public interest was disserved” by it. It was a sentiment echoed in a statement issued by the Police Department on Tuesday in response to the lawsuit. “As the police commissioner has said many times before,” the statement said, “the department supports changing the state law to promote additional transparency for the public.”


The arguments over the law have come up in a separate fight to make public summaries of the disciplinary history of Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who held Garner in a chokehold. A state Supreme Court judge ordered last year that the misconduct findings from before Garner’s death should be released. But the information has not been disclosed as the city pursues an appeal.


“There is no excuse for New York City to be taking steps backwards on police transparency,” Monifa Bandele, a spokeswoman for Communities United for Police Reform, said in a statement on Tuesday. “It leaves communities most impacted by police abuses and misconduct at further risk and without accountability from the NYPD.”


To Learn More:

Expansion of Civilian Oversight of Police Approved by Voters in Major U.S. Cities (by Sadie Gurman, Associated Press)

Police Union Contracts with Major Cities Shield Officers Charged with Misconduct (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Maryland Court Rules that Police Disciplinary Records can be Hidden from the Public (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)


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