In 2017, Constance Malcolm sat across from Kevin Richardson, the NYPD lawyer in charge of prosecuting police discipline cases. Richardson said he couldn't tell her the pending charges that were about to be presented in an open and public disciplinary trial against the police officer who killed her son.
Five years earlier, NYPD officer Richard Haste had followed Malcolm's son, 18-year-old Ramarley Graham into Graham's apartment, believing he had a gun, and fatally shot the unarmed young man. Since then, Malcolm had been trying to claw any information she could out of the department about the police narrative, the aftermath of the shooting, and the history of the narcotics officers who tailed her son from a bodega and shot him to death in his bathroom.
What she discovered, as countless other family members, reporters, and watchdog groups have, is that it is nearly impossible under New York law to hold police accountable. The NYPD would not show her the reports all officers are required to file when they discharge a weapon. It would say nothing about the disciplinary record of the cop who shot her son.
To top it off, she would have to take a day off work to sit through the department trial, because the NYPD official in front of her wouldn't even utter the upcoming charges the officer would face, nor would the department give her a transcript of the hearing.
"This officer murdered my son, and for me to have to sit through a whole trial just to catch the charges, that shouldn't happen," Malcolm says. "I'm like, so why the hell you call me down here to have me sit in this damn office?"
"I don't know how she held her composure so well, but it was a slap in the face," says Loyda Colon, co-director of the Justice Committee, a police-reform advocacy group, who was sitting in the office with Malcolm that day.
Last Friday, nearly seven years to the day after Graham's death, an independent panel released a report, citing Malcolm's ordeal among others, finding that there is a "fundamental and pervasive lack of transparency into the [NYPD's] disciplinary process and about disciplinary outcomes."
The prime culprit behind this culture of secrecy is Section 50-a of New York's civil rights law. For more than 40 years New York law enforcement, including the biggest police department in the country, has used this expansive exemption to hide a vast array of records about police misconduct.
However, growing public scrutiny, as well as a new Democratic majority in the state legislature, could finally lift that veil of secrecy. A coalition of more than 80 New York civil liberties organizations and advocacy groups are demanding the New York legislature repeal Section 50-a of the New York Consolidated Laws.
In a letter last month to New York legislative leaders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the coalition, Communities United For Police Reform, called Section 50-a "the nation's most regressive, secretive and least transparent law that local municipalities across the state have used to shield abusive officers and abusive departments from public view."
That's not hyperbole. Prior to this year only two other states explicitly made police misconduct records confidential. (California recently enacted a bill opening such records to the public.) 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."
One New York Assembly member, Democrat Daniel O'Donnell, has introduced a bill that would fully repeal the infamous statute. He's introduced it repeatedly over the years, but now, with Republicans and the centrist Democrats who caucused with them out of power, activists see the best chance in years to finally do away with 50-a.
How a Minor Civil Rights Law Became a Barrier to Public Scrutiny
Section 50-a began more modestly. When the New York legislature passed it in the 1976, Civil Rights Law 50-a authorized police departments, prisons, and fire departments to withhold "all personnel records used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion." It was intended to stop criminal defense attorneys from using frivolous citizen complaints to discredit officers' testimonies at trial.
Since then, however, it's been expanded to hide, or attempt to hide, things like substantiated citizen complaints of excessive force, shooting reports, body camera footage, reports of lost police guns, transcripts and outcomes of administrative trials, and even anonymized data on police use-of-force.
"What we've seen in practice is that a 'personnel record' becomes whatever a police department doesn't want the public to see," Michael Sisitzky, lead policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), says in an interview.
Part of the coalition to repeal Section 50-a also includes family members of people slain by police, like Malcolm and the family of Eric Garner, who died in 2014 after NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo placed him in a chokehold.
Pantaleo had an extensive disciplinary history prior to his fateful meeting with Garner, but the public would have never learned of that if his records weren't leaked to Think Progress.
Photo Credit: LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS/Newscom