safer ny act

A DRIVE FOR TRANSPARENCY: State legislators joined with a coalition of dozens of organizations in Albany on June 12 to call for the passage of the Safer NY Act, a package of justice-reform bills, including one that would repeal Civil-Rights Law 50-a, which shields the outcome of disciplinary proceedings against police officers charged with misconduct. Among the legislators at the rally were Senator Brad Hoylman, far left; Assemblyman Dan Quart, second from left; Sen. Julia Salazar, at the microphone; and Senator Jamaal Bailey, far right.

The outcome of Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo disciplinary trial on charges that he used a department-prohibited chokehold while trying to arrest Eric Garner, who later died of cardiac arrest, will likely remain confidential, at least officially.

A legislative effort to repeal a section of the state Civil Rights Law that shields the results of department trials such as Mr. Pantaleo’s, which concluded on June 6, is not expected to come to a vote before the current session ends June 19, according to one of the reform effort’s chief legislative backers.

‘Anti-Transparency’

“I’m not optimistic,” Assemblyman Dan Quart said of the probability the bill would be calendared for a floor vote in the Assembly before legislators break for the year.

He cited opposition from the Police Benevolent Association and other law-enforcement groups as one reason. The Manhattan  Democrat has said the law, Section 50-a, was the antithesis of a civil-rights law in that it conceals what ought to be public information.

“It’s an anti-transparency law,” he said June 12.

He cited Officer Pantaleo’s administrative trial as one example, saying that although the trial was a mostly public process, Administrative Law Judge Rosemarie Maldonado will base her decision partly on testimony the officer gave to the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau that was only partially revealed during the disciplinary case. Officer Pantaleo did not testify during the trial.

“The hearing showed a lot of the problems with the disciplinary process and the important need to repeal 50-a,” said Mr. Quart, a former criminal-trial attorney.

The chief sponsor of the legislation in the State Senate, Jamaal Bailey, though, held out hope the bill could pass both houses before the summer recess.

“I’m still advocating for it,” he said during an interview. “It’s vitally important that transparency should take place.”

Need to Know

Senator Bailey, who represents portions of The Bronx, said repealing 50-a is a cornerstone step if the public is to trust that police departments are diligent in their efforts to both investigate and, if necessary, discipline officers suspected of wrongdoing.

“We cannot have a state that hides the misconduct of certain public employees and have no accountability,” he said. Full repeal, rather than amendments to the law is “the best possible vehicle” to achieve needed transparency, he said.

While Senator Bailey said he had respect for the job police are tasked with as well as an appreciation for the pressures that come with carrying out their responsibilities, disciplinary procedures need to be aired in public. “We need to make sure people are held accountable,” he said. “We deserve to know who is policing us.”

Spokespersons for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, the bill’s chief Assembly sponsor, did not respond to requests for comment.

Repeal Invites Harm

Starting in 2016, 40 years after it took effect, the NYPD has increasingly cited 50-a to keep disciplinary records, documents and proceedings confidential. And courts have tended to interpret the law to favor non-disclosure, leading to the legislative push to repeal the provision.

In its 2018 annual report, the State Committee on Open Government said state courts’ increasingly narrow interpretations of the law have distorted what was intended as a safeguard against potentially troubling cross-examination of police officers during criminal prosecutions.

The report said the law has erected “a virtually impenetrable statutory bar to the disclosure of  information about the conduct of law enforcement officers” and frustrated “meaningful public oversight of law enforcement agencies.”

The Police Benevolent Association, though, has steadfastly opposed a weakening of 50-a, saying doing so could invite reprisals against officers. The PBA president, Patrick J. Lynch, has said that any undermining of the law would have harmful and possibly lethal consequences for officers who are merely accused of misconduct.

Protections Inadequate

“The courts have repeatedly held that even redacted or partially-disclosed personnel records can be used to harass or intimidate police officers and their families,” he said earlier this year as efforts to change the law gathered momentum. “Any modification to Section 50-a would provide more fodder for those looking to harm police officers and their families.”

But the Committee on Open Government’s report said the state’s Freedom of  Information Law already includes “broad protections” for law-enforcement personnel against unjustified encroachment into their private lives, prevents the release of information tied to unproven allegations, and has built-in safeguards against disclosures that “could endanger the life or safety of any person.”

Mr. Lynch, though, has said the Freedom of Information Law protections are inadequate. “The FOIL privacy exemptions would still allow employers, under pressure from anti-police advocates, to publish false or frivolous complaints that serve no purpose apart from furthering their campaign to demonize police officers,” he said.

O’Neill Favors Reform

Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill, though, has said a more public disciplinary system is necessary if the NYPD is to continue cultivating the public’s trust. Following the February release of a report by a panel of law experts that, in part, concluded that the department’s disciplinary process was too opaque, he said he favored “reform” of 50-a.

“As with everything, trust is key here and it hinges on accountability and transparency,” he said at the time.

Mr. O’Neill said he and NYPD officials would be speaking with legislators regarding possible changes to the law, but Senator Bailey said he had not been approached by the Commissioner regarding 50-a.

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