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New York Police Killed Her Son, Then Refused to Answer Her Questions. The Law They’re Hiding Behind Could Soon Be Repealed.

An obscure provision designed to protect personnel records makes it nearly impossible to hold the state’s cops accountable.

LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS/NewscomLUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS/NewscomIn 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

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  • Brian||

    "all personnel records used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion."

    So, how long has it been since NY has released criminal records to employers?

  • Longtobefree||

    What part of 'secret police' do you not understand?
    Socialism requires a large police force not subject to review by any but their political masters.

    Welcome to the revolution. (move out of NY)

  • DetroitDumbGuy||

    I thought New York was Progressive??? I thought Progressives are all about police accountability. Thus, it's weird that state's like CA (I know they recently repealed/passed a law that will allegedly make police disciplinary records public) and New York make it pretty much impossible to hold police accountable. Why is that...

  • Brian||

    Sometimes "progressive" and "statist fucks" go together.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    What do you mean "sometimes"?!?

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    Not all statist fucks are Progressives.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    The article blames Republicans at the state level. Doesn't explain NYC though.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Sometimes? As in always and all-ways? Both gangs are altruists, like both parties to the Hitler-Stalin pact. Since both rely exclusively on the initiation of force, neither draw a breath without killing people and conjuring up more enemies.

  • Trainer||

    I think the word you're looking for here is "corruption".

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Unions > police accountability.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Unions mook, "The (body camera) has serious implications for...due process rights for officers"

    Yeah, like they might actually have to face some due process.

  • Jury Nullification||

    "...but that releasing them raised a "substantial, realistic possibility of harassment and violence" against Haste and two other officers involved in the shooting."

    Really?! Must be especially egregious and not what the public expects or is likely to tolerate.

    One should expect that any so-called transparency reforms would stipulate so clearly and inarguably that it applied retroactively, that only a full on libtard/fascist/aka police union rep would dare argue it did not and only the most blatantly corrupt POS judge would endeavor to agree.

    FOP- Fraternal Order of Police. Now there is a fraternity that needs to be disbanded or at the very least should have lethal hazing requirements so only the most committed are admitted (posthumously preferred).

    https://www.themarshallproject.org/2017/10/11/ why-the-fraternal-order-of-police-must-go

  • Ann in L.A.||

    The new California law is so far not working out the way its backers wanted. It has been interpreted by the bureaucracy as only applying to *future* misconduct; they are not allowing an opening of their records from before the law was passed. The issue of whether the law applies retroactively is currently being fought in the courts.

    http://kqed.org/news/11714576/.....ce-records

  • Get To Da Chippah||

    Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, now a popular podcast host, declined to bring federal civil rights charges against Haste.

    Give him a break, he was busy prosecuting internet commenters.

  • Hank Phillips||

    This and the latest of many Houston police-gang murders bring to mind a Second Amendment application in Neil Stephenson's novel "Snow Crash." A non-Aryan gentleman rigged up biosensors such that if, say, killed in a hail of mindless First-Responder™ gunfire, his death would trigger the nuclear weapon in his motorcycle sidecar. That sort of thing could make even Noo Yawkuhs polite alluva sudden.

  • CGN||

    Cops are often more crooked than the (so-called) criminals. The idea that this poor women can't get the information that is needed to go after the murdering cop is an abomination. It is precisely these types of laws which encourage cops to BREAK rather than follow the law.

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