A 57-page report by a trio of law experts released earlier this month is little more than spin catering to political forces intent on weakening police, Sergeants Benevolent Association President Ed Mullins wrote in a lengthy rebuttal.
The panel, comprised by two ex-U.S. Attorneys and a former Federal Judge appointed last June by Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill to review the department’s disciplinary protocols, failed in what should have been its primary mission—to illuminate the shortcomings of the Police Department’s “totally discretionary, understaffed, underfunded, and prematurely public disciplinary system,” Mr. Mullins wrote.
Instead, the report’s emphasis on “transparency,” he wrote in his 37-page refutation, came at the expense of what might constitute true reform for a process with “undisputed white-shirt favoritism.” It also ignored the complex and often-knotty organizational makeup of an institution that numbers about 40,000 uniformed personnel and whose budget would make it the world’s 20th best-funded army, Mr. Mulllins wrote.
The report, released to the public Feb. 1, clearly showed that the panelists had no “particular experience with or interest in...police work or police administration.
“To the contrary, the panel treated discipline in the abstract, disconnected from life in the stationhouse and on the streets,” he wrote.
The SBA leader was also highly critical of Commissioner O’Neill, who sanctioned the panel’s recommendations following its public release. He characterized a recent Daily News op-ed by Mr. O’Neill that endorsed the need for reform of Civil Rights Law 50-a, which shields the disciplinary records of police officers from public view, as “a blaze of misstatements, ambiguities, and platitudes.”
‘Trust is Key’
The report that drew Mr. Mullins’s indignation concluded that 50-a “keeps the public in the dark about police discipline, breeds mistrust, and reduces accountability.” Keeping the department’s disciplinary process and its outcomes from the public “undermines” confidence in the NYPD, it said.
Commissioner O’Neill agreed and said the department needed to open up its disciplinary process by releasing names, charges, documents and dispositions. “As with everything, trust is key here and it hinges on accountability and transparency,” he said about the Police Department during a press conference following the report’s public release.
NYPD First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker, who will direct implementation of the panel’s recommendations, said at a City Council hearing that while transparency was necessary in building public trust, the safety of police officers remained paramount.
While the NYPD will continue to advocate for amendments to 50-a to allow for the public release of information of “significant public interest,” the Department does not support full repeal.
Citing what he said were 154 “direct threats” to officers in 2018, Mr. Tucker told the Council that the law “provides vital protections for police officers from harassment in court and possible threats to their personal safety,” which he called “very real.”
Fears of Retribution
Still, Sergeant Mullins cautioned in his rebuttal that the panel’s “myopic preoccupation” with transparency allowed it to disregard how “indiscriminate and irresponsible disclosure of NYPD records” could lead to the humiliation of officers and their families and “destroy the very credibility of the NYPD.”
The report instead zeroed in “on the demands of special interests to obtain idiosyncratic documents for use in any fashion (whether responsible or irresponsible) without considering the impacts of such uses (i) on the performance of NYPD as a whole or (ii) on due process for individual employees,” he wrote.
In a subsequent phone interview, the union leader said a repeal or weakening of 50-a could affect the way police go about their jobs, given fears of retribution by disgruntled defendants and criminals. He went so far as to suggest that the downturn in crime citywide and statewide could be upended as a consequence.
“We’re jeopardizing the very same people we have on the street protecting the public,” he said. “I believe it could have a chilling effect.”
In his rebuttal, Mr. Mullins said a recent Court of Appeals decision correctly exempted the entirety of police officers’ personnel records from access through the state’s Freedom of Information Law.
But some state legislators and officials have said the law, enacted in 1976, was being interpreted exceedingly conservatively. They include the State Senate’s chief sponsor of the legislation, Frank Padavan, who said the law was intended to prevent private attorneys from freely getting access to law enforcers’ records. Mr. Padavan, a law-and-order Republican who died last year, suggested in 2016 that the law might need amending if it was being “misused.”
The state Committee on Open Government, a bipartisan panel within the State Department, has also recommended changes to the law to allow some disclosures of personnel records through the Freedom of Information Law.
Warn of Micromanaging
Mr. Mullins and other police union leaders, notably Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the Police Benevolent Association, argue that repealing or even weakening 50-a will promote what the SBA president, in a position paper tied to his rebuttal, called “vigilantism” and the micromanaging of government affairs by the public and advocates.
He instead called for buttressing the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board and for an increased focus on the recruitment, training, retention and promotion of officers, which, he wrote, “will do far more to guarantee effective and fair law enforcement than the climate of fear and disrespect generated by individual witch hunts.”