Police Abuse

George Floyd Killing Reignites Calls To Repeal New York's Police Secrecy Laws

For decades, New York's secrecy regime has hidden police misconduct records from families and reporters.


In the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police, New York civil liberties groups are again trying to roll back the state's expansive police secrecy laws.

New York has arguably the broadest police secrecy law in the country: Section 50-a of the state's civil rights statute. The law totally shields police misconduct records from release, and its scope has steadily expanded over the decades to hide wide swaths of related records from the public, including police shooting reports, transcripts of administrative trials, and even anonymized data on police use of force.

On Saturday, Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he would sign a bill to reform the notorious law, although he didn't go so far as to say he supported repealing it entirely.

"I would sign a bill today that reforms 50-a," Cuomo said. "I would sign it today. So the Legislature can now convene by Zoom, or however they do it, pass the bill, and I will sign it today. I can't be clearer or more direct than that."

Cuomo also said local officials could voluntarily release disciplinary records.

"I think local, elected officials across the state could release disciplinary records, even with the existing…law, if they wanted to," Cuomo said. "I think they don't want to, so they say 'I can't.' The best way to say no, as an elected official, politician, is to say 'I can't.' I don't believe that's true. I believe they can, with the law, as written."

The City reports that Democrats in the New York State Senate and State Assembly were meeting today to discuss the protests sparked by Floyd's killing, as well as legislation to address Section 50-a and police misconduct records. 

For decades, the law has been a thorn in the side of civil rights organizations, investigative reporters, and families of police shooting victims. Momentum to repeal it grew following the 2014 killing of Eric Garner by New York Police Department (NYPD) officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose misconduct records became public only because they were leaked to ThinkProgress.

In 2018, BuzzFeed News obtained thousands of NYPD misconduct records through a similar leak. The resulting investigation identified 319 NYPD employees who had committed offenses serious enough to warrant firing—lying, stealing, ticket-fixing, excessive force—yet were allowed to keep their job.

The records embarrassed NYPD brass and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio enough that the city dropped its aggressive legal stance on how the law should be interpreted. But by that time it was bound by decades of accumulated court precedent, leaving legislative reform as the only real option.

"George Floyd's tragic death has led to heartbreak and protests—but it can also lead to much-needed reforms," said Khalil A. Cumberbatch, chief strategist for New Yorkers United for Justice, in a press release. "This lack of transparency into the disciplinary process is wrong: it makes law enforcement less accountable and it makes our communities less safe."

So far all legislative efforts to change the law have failed in the face of opposition from politically powerful police unions, who argue doing so would put officers at risk of targeted attacks.

"Last night, we saw violent criminals targeting New York City police officers with bricks, brass knuckles and Molotov cocktails, for no reason other than the uniform we wear," Police Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch said in a statement Sunday. "It is inconceivable that Governor Cuomo would want to arm those extremists with confidential police personnel records, so that they bring their weapons to our front doors."

Of course, if 50-a were repealed, law enforcement would still be afforded the same privacy protections as every other public employee in the state—judges, city council members, and teachers, for instance. What police and correctional officer unions in New York wish to preserve is their status as a special class accountable to no one but themselves.

NEXT: Trump Urges Governors To 'Dominate' Protestors With More Aggressive Tactics

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  1. …although he didn’t go so far as to say he supported repealing it entirely.

    Maybe when he’s out of office he’ll see the error of its existence.

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  2. Where is Mike “No Darky Malarkey” Bloomberg when you need him?

  3. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Time to make police misconduct reports public for all to see.

  4. New York is not the center of the universe.
    Too local

  5. Finally, something actually useful coming from all of this… if anything actually comes of it. Cuomo saying he would sign “a reform” of the law sounds like bullshit pandering to me. There could be one slight improvement and ten things that make it worse and it would still constitute a “reform”.

    1. Better yet, release the videos of all police encounters with citizens that end with an arrest. I want to see why the NYPD decided it was necessary to arrest DeBlasio’s daughter.

      1. Why not just make it so you can tap into the live feed of any active duty officer at any moment online and have instant access to a complete archive of all their footage? Then we can do the same for all active duty politicians. And yes, I consider politicians to be on active duty even when they’re taking a shit, sleeping with their mistress or sleeping. We can just repurpose all those old NSA servers that were used to store the data from when they were spying on us. Since they’re total not doing that anymore. Pinky swear!

        1. Mmmmm, no to the live feed. The bloods and the crypts don’t magically become good guys just because the cops need to be reformed.

          One month delay on access to all video unless it results in arrest or entering private property in which case it should be immediately available to the arrested person’s representative or the owner of the property (with priority to the person who was arrested). Representative or owner may unilaterally decide to either release or withhold the video from public viewing (again priority to the arrested person’s wishes).

  6. “So far all legislative efforts to change the law have failed in the face of opposition from politically powerful police unions, who argue doing so would put officers at risk of targeted attacks.”

    Why shouldn’t the police be as fearful of the public as the public is fearful of them?

    1. And now I’m swinging the opposite direction, because I can easily see a scenario where Antifa firebombs the home of anyone who tries to stop them from assaulting innocent third parties. Guess sunset laws it is then. Give the thing two years, and see if anyone is going to take advantage.

    2. If those police unions were so politically powerful, wouldn’t they be telling the politicians how these riots should be handled, instead of the other way around?
      It’s a myth that these public employee unions call the shots. Their power of donations and votes is minuscule compared to the business interests in these jurisdictions.

      1. Retiredfire, your name gives away your bias on this one.

  7. Yes lots of bads things

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