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New York State Passes Historic Police Transparency Bill

Reverses Decades of Secrecy Over Disciplinary Records

Protesters gather outside of the Queens County Criminal Court on June 8, 2020, in the Queens borough of New York. © 2020 AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

Police disciplinary records in New York State are one step closer to being made public.

Under intense public pressure, the New York Legislature voted on Tuesday to repeal Civil Rights Law section 50-A, a 1970s law that concealed police disciplinary records from public disclosure in New York. Governor Andrew Cuomo has publicly declared he will sign the bill and Human Rights Watch urges him to do so immediately.

For years, police departments across the state have used the law to evade accountability by making all police disciplinary records confidential, including substantiated findings of misconduct by independent watchdog agencies. Section 50-A prevented the public for years from learning that the New York City police officer who fatally choked Eric Garner in 2014 had a lengthy record of misconduct.

In 2018, Buzzfeed News obtained hundreds of leaked New York Police Department disciplinary files and found that, “Hundreds of officers who committed the most serious offenses – from lying to grand juries to physically attacking innocent people – got to keep their jobs, their pensions, and their tremendous power over New Yorkers’ lives.” 

In recent days, as protests precipitated by the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black people swept across the United States, #Repeal50A became a rallying cry for demonstrators in New York seeking to turn outrage into meaningful policy. 

With this repeal, the public will have access to the disciplinary files of police officers through freedom of information requests. Public officials will still need to go beyond making this information available and ensure real accountability for police abuse. They should also stop efforts by the police or others to evade this change. For example, after California passed a similar police transparency law in 2018, several California police departments began shredding and recategorizing records to avoid disclosure. New York lawmakers should ensure similar destruction does not occur and that police do not reclassify relevant records as relating to “technical infractions,” which are exempt from disclosure under the law.  

This will be a small but important step toward police accountability, one pushed for years by local advocates. But authorities across the United States should be pursuing fundamental and structural changes to reduce their reliance on policing, and to reimagine public safety in the US.

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