Tensions flare at hearing over the law that shields police records from public view
The mothers of black men who died at the hands of police officers gave emotional testimony at a State Senate hearing on Thursday, as some legislators push to repeal a law that advocates say masks officer misconduct.
New York Civil Rights Law Section 50-a, passed in the 1970s, allows personal records of police, firefighters and correctional officers to be shielded from public view. The NYPD has used the law to deny public access to records of officers involved in high-profile incidents of police brutality, notably refusing to disclose the disciplinary history of officer Daniel Pantaleo, who put Eric Garner in a chokehold during an arrest in 2014, leading to Garner’s death.
Garner’s shouts of “I can’t breathe” as he died became a rallying cry for the growing movement against police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. Pantaleo was fired earlier this year.
Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, spoke at the hearing about how Section 50-a has made it difficult for her to learn about her son’s final moments.
“50-a makes it close to impossible to truly fight for justice for Eric,” she said, noting that she couldn’t get full transcripts of Pantaleo’s trial for the death of her son because of the law, even though the trial was public.
“It’s been five years since my son’s murder, and there’s been a widespread cover-up,” Carr said, calling out officers who were present at her son’s death and “looked the other way.”
The mother of Sean Bell, an African American man who in 2006 was shot and killed by police in Jamaica, Queens, said that Section 50-a prevented her from getting information about her son’s death from the NYPD or the Queens District Attorney — though the department was publicizing her son’s previous interactions with law enforcement and the justice system.
“Not being able to get answers was like losing Sean over and over again,” Valerie Bell said.
The women each implored the state senators to repeal the law.
“I need you to be Ramarley’s voice, I need you to be Sean Bell’s voice, I need you to be Eric’s voice,” said Constance Malcolm, mother of Ramarley Graham, who was killed by police in his home in the Bronx in 2012.
“I had sleepless nights. I still worry every day about my other son, who was 6 at the time, as he watched his brother murdered by officers,” Malcolm said, choking back tears. “I don’t want to have to bury another son.”
All three women, as well as presiding Bronx State Sen. Jamaal Bailey, emphasized multiple times that the conversation to repeal Section 50-a was not an attack on the police as an agency.
Carr said she wanted to see police committing misconduct to face consequences. “They don’t need to be controlling the streets of New York,” she said.
Representatives advocating for the NYPD and corrections officers argued that Section 50-a needs to remain in place to protect officers who would be left vulnerable if personal information, such as their home address, was leaked to the public.
“There’s a total misconception out there for what 50-a does and does not do,” testified Lou Matarazzo, former president of the Police Benevolent Association, the largest police union in New York City.
Six Civilian Complaint Review Board complaints, for instance, was “not a hell of a lot” when officers make hundreds of arrests, according to Matarazzo. Pantaleo had a number of allegations against him before his encounter with Garner, which Carr mentioned in her testimony.
“There’s no other profession in the world that has more oversight than the New York City Police Department,” NYC Detectives Endowment Association Vice President Paul DiGiacomo said.
DiGiacomo argued that criminals will use fake CCRB complaints to make it more difficult for police to halt their activities. “Drug dealers and the gangs use CCRB to keep the police away from them,” he said.
Without access to records, it’s unclear if any gangs or drug dealers have attempted to abuse the CCRB system. However, Eagle reporting found that people who had legitimate grievances after their loved ones were killed by police often did not file CCRB complaints, with some saying they didn’t even know of the agency. Of the 52 incidents in which people were killed by police officers since Garner’s death, only 12 cases were investigated by the independent oversight agency.
The union officials argued that officers’ records are made available when those asking go through the proper channels, such as through a judge.
Jackson Heights State Sen. Jessica Ramos asked Matarazzo and DiGiacomo if they could name the last three New Yorkers killed by the NYPD, which they could not.
“It comes across that because you wear a badge, you’re better than us. You’re not,” she said.
Manhattan Assemblymember Daniel J. O’Donnell argued that while the law was originally written with the intent of protecting officer’s private information, such as the names of their children, courts have misinterpreted it.
“The Republican senator who wrote 50-a before he passed away said, ‘We never intended it to be like this.’ He said, ‘The courts are reading this wrong,’” O’Donnell said. Former Northeast Queens State Sen. Frank Padavan, who created the law, told the Times Union in 2016 that the intent of the law was to block private attorneys from digging up personal information about officers through subpoenas.
“If the law is being misused, then obviously an amendment might be in order,” he told the paper.
President of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association Elias Husamudeen said that he understood both sides of the Section 50-a debate, having siblings who served time on Rikers and other family, including himself, in law enforcement. However, Section 50-a, he said, protects his union members.
“We put our lives on the line every day and I will not allow anybody to marginalize what we do, as if what we do is something that everybody does every day. It’s not,” Husamudeen.
Husamudeen stressed that if legislators wanted to change the law, they should think of the consequences.
“I’m a black man. It used to be against the law for my people to learn how to read. And it was legal,” said Husamudeen. “So, I’m saying that to say the law is not always right. But let’s try to get it … if you’re going to make laws for certain corrections officers, if you’re going to make laws for certain law enforcement officers, let’s try to get it right.”
Multiple senators called for Section 50-a to be addressed early in the next legislative session during the hearing, including Brooklyn State Sen. Julia Salazar, Jamaica State Sen. Leroy Comrie, and Bailey.
“We clearly need to reform 50-a” Bailey said.
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