Police Abuse

New York's Top Court Shields Police Misconduct Records From Public View

It's up to state lawmakers to defy the will of the unions to change the rules.

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Eric Garner protests
BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS/Newscom

New York's top court on Tuesday blocked efforts to shine a light on the records of cops who misbehave on duty.

New York's State Civil Rights Law has a section (50-a) that broadly seals the personnel records of police, corrections officers, and firefighters, even in cases of misconduct. As a result, whenever a police officer gets in trouble, citizens can't know if he or she has been disciplined, and are unable to determine whether an officer has a history of bad behavior.

For the last six years, the New York Civil Liberties Union has been fighting for access to the records of officers brought before New York City's Civilian Complaint Review Board. Initially, the NYCLU won an order for the police to release the information in a redacted format. But it was overturned on an appeal that was upheld Tuesday.

The judge who wrote Tuesday's decision, Michael Garcia, made very clear that the purpose of the law is to shield police from not just "harassment," but embarrassment, and to make it harder to use an officer's disciplinary record to undermine his or her testimony.

Garcia detailed several New York state precedents, one of which states the purpose of section 50-a is to protect police against those who would use their records "as a means for harassment and reprisals and for purposes of cross-examination by plaintiff's counsel during litigation." The law is designed not just to protect the police officer's privacy, but also their reputation and to shield them from legal liability.

The law does have a mechanism by which this seal of privacy can be broken, but it requires a judge to review requests individually and to then determine that the records are "relevant" to a specific action.

We've seen the outcome of this practice in the case of Eric Garner, who died after a NYPD police officer saw Garner selling loose cigarettes and put him in a chokehold. The personnel records of the officer responsible, Daniel Pantaleo, were kept secret under this state law, but somebody leaked documents to the press that showed a history of problems, including four abuse complaints that were substantiated by the NYC Civilian Complaint Review Board.

Pantaleo will finally face an administrative trial next year. The Garner case, meanwhile, has become not just a symbol of police brutality, but a reminder of how little members of the public can know about the armed men and women who have the legal authority to kill them.

Law enforcement unions are, of course, over the moon about the decision. Michael Palladino, the president of the Detectives' Endowment Association, told The New York Times the decision was "exhilarating, especially in this climate." This "climate" is not actually any more prone to violent retaliation against police than it has been in the past. Of the 140 deaths of law enforcement officers reported this year, 49 were due to gunfire, three to assault, and seven to vehicular assault. All of 10 police officers have died in service in New York State this year, several of them as a result of 9/11-related illnesses.

Perhaps Palladino is referring to the "climate" in California, where lawmakers this year finally stripped law enforcement officers of similarly overbroad "protections" that prevented the public from knowing about officers' past misconduct. Lawmakers in New York are hoping to follow in California's footsteps and open up these records next year.

Read the ruling here.

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  1. several of them as a result of 9/11-related illnesses.

    Lung cancer from the 3 packs a day debris from ground zero?

  2. Typhoid Mary’s got HIPAA protecting her ass now.

  3. …it requires a judge to review requests individually and to then determine that the records are “relevant” to a specific action.

    Hopefully Garcia ain’t that judge.

    1. Who, bee tee dubs, interviewed to be Comey’s replacement heading the FBI.

  4. for purposes of cross-examination by plaintiff’s counsel during litigation.

    This seems like an incredibly blatant violation of the Sixth Amendment:

    In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

    How can a witness be a witness without being able to impeach his testimony? That’s not a witness, that’s just a prosecution puppet.

    1. And prosecutors would very much like to keep it that way.

    2. Seems you can still impeach their testimony, you just can’t impeach them for prior unrelated bad acts or patterns of related acts. Getting jurors to be willing to look beyond the badge without a healthy shove is something different.

      There are all kinds of other reasons to not hide this information from view but witness credibility seems low on the totem pole to me.

      1. IANAL, but my understanding is that one of the best ways to impeach a witness is to show a history of previous perjury and fraud. This especially is true with police.

  5. The more I think about it, the more it seems like the only people I would want to have as cops are people who have no desire to be cops.

    1. You’re hired. Here’s your badge and gun.

      1. Yes, exactly. Ditto for politicians.

    2. One tablespoon of narcissism

      Two tablespoons of sadomasochism

      Third cup of dishonesty and deceit

      Half cup of totalitarianism

      One cup of bully

      Two cups of amorality

      One quart of cowardice

      And there?.is your perfect recruit for American copping.

  6. “…the case of Eric Garner, who died after a NYPD police officer saw Garner selling loose cigarettes and put him in a chokehold. ”
    Wrong. The cops were there because someone had called in a fight. Garner had actually broken up that fight. One of the officers recognized Garner from previous encounters; there is no evidence that he was selling loose at the time. Further, it was a different officer who snuck up behind Garner and put him in the chokehold, like a true hero, sneaking up from behind.
    Maybe do some basic research instead of writing from memory and “common knowledge”.

    1. I’ve made that same observation half-a-dozen times before when they keep repeating the lie that Garner was selling loosies, but I’ve since given up. A lie told often enough becomes the truth I guess. But, Jesus, they had a story about the whole thing here including the fact that Garner actually fucking complained that the cops caught him that one time selling loosies and now every time they saw him they started hassling him and he wasn’t taking this shit any more. Which is when the cops killed him. The cops had absolutely no evidence that Garner was selling loosies, they just hassled him every time they saw him on the suspicion that he might be.

    2. Denver, you beat me to it. Even ex cop friends of mine have to,d me that the cops that attacked Garner are guilty of manslaughter.

  7. “The law is designed not just to protect the police officer’s privacy, but also their reputation and to shield them from legal liability.”

    Cops don’t pay the judgments; the cities, towns. counties and the state do, usually through an insurer. There are a lot more interests and lobbyists in favor of keeping the status quo than just police unions.

  8. We need a Snowden for the NYPD….and every other PD.

    1. How true

  9. “The law is designed not just to protect the police officer’s privacy, but also their reputation and to shield them from legal liability”. It seems to me that if the police were really the ‘good guys’, as they claim to be, serving and protecting as they claim to do, then their reputation would stand on its own. The mere fact that a law must exist to protect their reputation is quite telling.

  10. the purpose of the law is to shield police from … embarrassment

    Cool! A new right — to not be embarrassed!

  11. “…make it harder to use an officer’s disciplinary record to undermine his or her testimony.”

    We wouldn’t want that…

  12. Are these the same cops and judges who are currently installing policies to publicly shame civilian offenders?

  13. If the cops won’t let anyone know who the particular “bad apples” are, some day, someone will decide that the only solution is to run the entire barrel through a wood chipper.

  14. Nope. Sorry Judge, the public owns the records of public employees and therefore can view them at anytime. Nothing else makes any sense. The public pays for the paper, the computers, the electricity, the person typing, the building they type in. Every single link in that chain is paid for by the public.
    .
    Same with the videos made by publicly owned recorders. That dash or body cam was paid for by me, the batteries were paid for by me. The recordings belong to me. — and you.

    Speaking of,, it is time for cameras in all courtrooms.

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