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The law that shields police records, explained

Everything you need to know about 50-a and the campaign to repeal it

April 23, 2019 Jake Bittle

After years of pressure from activists and government officials, New York’s state legislature this year may finally repeal a law that shields police misconduct records from public view.

The law, known as 50-a, started to receive greater scrutiny since around 2014, when high-profile incidents of police violence forced criminal justice reform into the national conversation. The NYPD has repeatedly cited 50-a in its refusal to disclose the disciplinary history of Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who choked Eric Garner to death on Staten Island.

Now that the State Senate has come under Democratic control, lawmakers have their best chance in years to revise the provision or eliminate it altogether. Criminal justice activists and legal groups have long supported repealing the law, as have the families of New Yorkers who have been killed by the police.

As reform bills gain steam in the legislature, here’s what you need to know about the campaign to change 50-a.

What is 50-a?

50-a is a section of the New York Civil Rights Law that deems the “personnel records” of police officers, firefighters and corrections officers “confidential and not subject to inspection or review” without the officer’s permission. It was passed in the 1970s both to protect the personal information of officers who testified in court and to prevent “harassment” by criminal defense attorneys.

But legal organizations and activists argue that the law as written is too vague. In practice, they say, state courts have set a broad precedent that allows the police to conceal nearly all police records from public view, exempting officers from transparency standards applied to other public officials.

Who wants it repealed?

A coalition of activists and progressive politicians has pursued 50-a reform in earnest since 2014, with more state legislators and city councilmembers announcing their support each year. Bills to repeal 50-a have been championed by police reform organizations, including New York Communities for Change and Make the Road New York, and legal organizations including the New York City Bar Association, Legal Aid and the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has also signaled his support for repealing the law. NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said at the same time that he believed “making information about disciplinary proceedings public will help us build trust with the community.”

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O’Neill later created an independent panel to study whether the law should be repealed. That panel, comprised of two former prosecutors and a former judge, released a report this February that found “almost a complete lack of transparency and public accountability” around NYPD discipline. In the wake of the report, O’Neill conceded that “the law must change.”

Why do they want it repealed?

Over the past five years, criminal justice activists have focused not only on acts of violence by individual police officers but also on the willingness of department leadership to forgive, ignore or even cover up officer misconduct.

In the case of Eric Garner’s death, for example, the NYPD cited 50-a in refusing to release Pantaleo’s disciplinary history. Pantaleo’s internal NYPD trial began only last year and is ongoing, but a leaked version of his complaint history showed he had several substantiated complaints for abusive stops and searches.

A similar debate over public access to misconduct records is unfolding in California, where police unions sued to block a Senate bill that would have made such records public. But beyond the national debates over police accountability, lawyers and activists also contend that New York’s 50-a in particular is egregiously strict.

Appellate court decisions over the past decade have expanded the 50-a shield to cover records of on-duty police misconduct, such as an officer assaulting a civilian during a traffic stop. Originally, the law only protected records of off-duty misconduct, such as an officer selling prescription pain pills while off the clock. These rulings have made it more difficult for defense lawyers to bring such records into the litigation process through discovery.

Only two other states in the country have statutes that exempt police officers from public records law.

Who doesn’t want it repealed?

Unsurprisingly, groups representing police and correctional officers have been the loudest voices opposing the repeal of 50-a. These organizations argue that repealing the law outright would endanger police officers by making their personal information too accessible.

The Police Benevolent Association, which represents rank-and-file police officers, has been the most vocal defender of 50-a. Earlier this year the PBA said that moves to repeal the law were “designed to once again demonize police officers, seemingly for political gain,” and that legislators who support it “ignored both the serious risks to police officer safety and the reputational harm of publishing false allegations.”

The New York City Correction Officers Benevolent Association also filed a suit in 2015 that used an expansive interpretation of 50-a to argue that jail guard records should be hidden from public view. (Last year a judge ruled the records must remain public.)

Despite O’Neill’s concessions, the NYPD has stopped short of accepting a full repeal of the law; instead, as its deputy commissioner Benjamin Tucker argued to the City Council last year, the statute should be amended to allow for the release of only those records that hold “significant public interest.”

Will it get repealed?

Unclear. After the Democrats took control of the State Senate this January, progressives were optimistic that long-stalled bills relating to issues such as immigration, abortion and transgender rights would finally pass. At least for the first few months, much of that legislation panned out. But now, after spending months working out the details of the state budget, some senators doubt that they’ll have time to hammer out the details before the current legislative session ends on June 19. (Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not include the issue on his list of legislative priorities this year, and in the past he has said the decision should be left to the NYPD.)

The City Council is currently debating a set of bills that would require the NYPD to release some aggregate misconduct data, but the only politicians who have the power to eliminate the 50-a exemption are state legislators. Lawmakers have introduced multiple bills this session in the State Senate and State Assembly to change the law, but the bills in both chambers are stalled in committee.

The success or failure of 50-a reform may hinge on the debate between amending the statute and wiping it from the state code altogether. One bill introduced in the Senate by the Bronx’s Sen. Jamaal Bailey and in the Assembly by Manhattan’s Assemblymember Danny O’Donnell would repeal 50-a outright. State lawmakers said last week that they had made progress toward passing the bill. Another bill, introduced by Brooklyn Sen. Kevin Parker, would narrow the 50-a exemption to cover only records relating to officer performance evaluations and promotions, while a third bill would keep the law as-is but add a provision allowing civilian review boards to seek the release of specific records.

Most advocates have rallied around an outright repeal, but it remains unclear how pressure from the police unions, which donated more than $1.3 million to state legislators last year, may influence which version of the bill ends up passing.

Jake Bittle is a reporter and researcher who lives in Flatbush. You can find him on Twitter.

Update (April 24) — This article has been updated to reflect the correct name of the Police Benevolent Association. It is no longer called the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. 

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