It's been two years since the New York legislature repealed a notorious police secrecy law and moved to put decades of police disciplinary files in the public record. But in many jurisdictions those records are still hidden, due to ceaseless stonewalling from departments.
Bobby Hodgson, supervising attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), says his group is currently litigating about a dozen different lawsuits with departments that are refusing to release police disciplinary records. The jurisdictions involved include Rochester, Syracuse, Freeport, Troy, Buffalo, Nassau County, and Suffolk County, as well as the New York State Police.
"It's really frustrating, obviously for journalists and for organizations like us, but also for the folks who are out there in their communities just trying to get information that should be public and is public under the law," Hodgson says. "They're just running into a wall, and that's not how it should be."
In 2020, the New York legislature repealed Section 50-a of the state's civil rights law, a statute that police departments relied on for four decades to keep disciplinary records and other police files secret. Police unions had waged successful court battles to expand the scope of the law to thwart reporters, civil liberties groups, and families of people killed by police from discovering nearly anything about the officers involved. A 2018 report by the New York City Bar concluded that 50-a "has been interpreted so broadly that police misconduct in New York State is more secretive than any other state in the nation."
With the repeal of 50-a, activists and journalists launched a flurry of public records requests to get their hands on long-hidden disciplinary records. There were some early successes; New York City's Civilian Complaint Review Board released an entire database of complaints against officers, even though police unions tried to block the disclosure in federal court. But many departments around the state dug in their heels and to this day are still bitterly fighting to claw back whatever records they can.
There have been conflicting rulings in lower courts over whether records created before the repeal of 50-a can be released. For example, the NYCLU is currently appealing a lower court ruling that permitted the Nassau County Police Department to withhold all police misconduct complaint records created pre-repeal.
And while the city of Rochester has tried to argue that it could withhold all citizen complaints that were ultimately unsubstantiated, three weeks ago a New York appellate court ruled that those records must be made public. Rochester has been embroiled in scandals and lawsuits since city officials tried to cover up footage of the police killing of Daniel Prude.
"Overwhelmingly I think the majority of courts across the state have agreed that after the repeal of 50-a, an agency needs to turn over these documents," Hodgson says. "But there are courts that we've encountered that have accepted police unions or police departments' arguments that they can withhold it."
In addition to police departments, the NYCLU is also fighting to pry free a database of use-of-force investigations from the New York City Department of Corrections, which oversees the infamous Rikers Island jail complex.
Rikers has been in a state of crisis for several years now, wracked by corruption, violence, preventable deaths, and deplorable conditions. It's under threat of being put in receivership by a federal judge.
This stonewalling has real effects on the public's ability to hold police accountable. When two Buffalo News reporters tried to obtain disciplinary records from the New York State Police, the agency refused to hand them over. So the reporters asked a local district attorney's office, which dutifully complied with the law. The records showed that troopers were rarely fired, even for conduct like interfering with investigations, drunk driving, and intentionally crushing a man's eyeglasses.
As The Buffalo News detailed in an editorial, police unions, rather than expressing chagrin, howled that the publication of such information was unfair. The New York State Police Investigators Association declared, "We do not and will not support sharing personal information with the public that is not relevant to any criminal proceeding." It also warned that publishing such records could "encourage more anti-police violence." The New York State Troopers Police Benevolent Association said it "condemns the recent so-called reporting by local media outlets gossiping about the disciplinary records of New York State Troopers."
These departments are all places that could use more transparency, not less. But they have demonstrated over the past two years, through their actions and shrill statements, that they don't care about why citizens demanded the repeal of 50-a; that they don't understand why legislators finally caved to public pressure after years of chummy relations with police unions; and that they are clueless to what this all says about the public perception of their profession.