Dozens of Civil Rights Organizations Call for a Repeal of New York Law That Protects Police Secrecy

Over 60 organizations have signed and sent a letter to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to repeal a state law that keeps police misconduct records confidential.

The letter, which was spearheaded by the Communities for United Police Reform (CUPD) and its Safer New York package, calls for the state to repeal the police secrecy section of New York’s Civil Rights Law, also known as NYS CRL 50-a (“50-a”). The letter was signed by 64 civil rights organizations.

Quick facts about “50-a”

  • Section 50-a of New York’s Civil Rights Law states that all personnel records of firefighters, police officers and corrections officers are “considered confidential and not subject to inspection or review without the express written consent of such police officer, firefighter, firefighter/paramedic, correction officer or peace officer.”

  • The law was passed in 1976 as a way to protect the personal information of these civil servants in the event they serve as witnesses in a trial if they are cross-examined by criminal defense attorneys, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.

  • In a recent report released by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), the organization calls the section of the law “the most secretive police misconduct law in the country,” as it keeps information, like alleged police misconduct and abuse, from being released to the public.

  • “As long as 50-a remains on the books, it will be used to prevent the public from learning important information about the people sworn to protect them and the department leaders tasked with holding them accountable,” the NYCLU report read. “New York has the opportunity to end police secrecy and set a new standard for transparent and equitable policing.”

  • New York and Delaware are the only two states in the U.S. that specifically make officer’s records confidential, with full secrecy, according to a WNYC report. There are 23 other states, including D.C., where an officer’s disciplinary records are mostly unavailable even with a public records request, the report states. In Alaska, for example, police disciplinary records are not explicitly confidential, but police departments will deny requests for these records under local ordinances, WNYC reported. In 2018, then-California governor Jerry Brown signed senate bill 1421, which would release internal information about police misconduct, deadly use of force and dishonesty, the Palm Springs Desert Sun previously reported.

  • There are 12 states, including Connecticut, Florida, Ohio, Utah, Wisconsin, Alabama, Arizona, Georgia and Michigan, that make disciplinary police records open to the public, WNYC reported. There are 15 states that allow disciplinary records to the public in certain instances, like suspension or termination.

Why organizers want the law to be repealed

The letter sent by the CUPD urges Cuomo to support a full repeal of the law, stating that any “tweaks to a law designed to shield police misconduct from public transparency will be harmful and counterproductive.”

“New York is one of only two states with laws that specifically make police ‘personnel records’ confidential. New York is arguably the worst in the nation when it comes to police secrecy,” the letter reads. “This weakens the public’s trust in government and harms those impacted by police violence and their families by denying them basic information regarding their respective cases.”

In February, former New York Police Department (NYPD) Commissioner James O’Neil said reform of 50-a is important, but the NYPD does not support a full repeal of the law because it still needs to comply with “the privacy rights and safety of our officers.”

The letter by CUPD also discusses the case of Eric Garner, a Black man who was killed by former NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in 2014. Pantaleo and other officers tackled Garner, as Pantaleo placed Garner in a chokehold, and pressed him to the ground for allegedly selling loose cigarettes in Staten Island, New York, despite telling the officers “I can’t breathe.”

While Pantaleo was finally fired from the NYPD in August, information about the other officers involved in Garner’s death has yet to be released. A few days after Pantaleo was fired, it was leaked that one of the officers who was hit with disciplinary charges after Garner’s death will remain on the force, Politico reported. Sergeant Kizzy Adonis, who is facing disciplinary charges over failing to properly supervise the scene where Garner died, only lost 20 vacation days.

Nahal Zamani, the Advocacy Program Manager for the Center for Constitutional Rights, told The North Star that the law was never supposed to be broadly interpreted or to be this expansive. Zamani said that the nation has been talking about policing for the past few years and we are able to see them thanks to bystanders who record the incidents with their phones or cameras, but the people who are most affected by this are families of victims of police violence.

“In New York, many of those [families] do not know what happens to those officers, why they remain on the force, if they’ve been disciplined if at all or any of the outcomes of those disciplinary processes these departments have,” said Zamani.

There are protections for officers and civil servants that don’t need to be revealed, like their home address, Zamani said.

“What really is key is that the public needs to know what’s happening to officers. Officers have a big role in people’s lives, in protecting them, but at times in taking them away and it is just imperative that the law gets struck,” she told TNS.

The civil rights organizations in the letter state that section 50-a is what is keeping officers from being held accountable. In a statement to TNS, Carmen Perez-Jordan, president and CEO of The Gathering for Justice and co-founder of Justice League NYC, said that the law has allowed NYPD officers to abuse their power and hide it from the public.

“When officers brutalize someone, the public should be able to request information about the disciplinary records of those officers - and in 48 other U.S. states, they can. This secrecy and shielding of violent and dangerous officers has harmed the family members of those brutalized by police, it has eroded trust in the NYPD and it has harmed those officers who do their job with professionalism and respect,” Perez-Jordan’s statement read.

“It has also cost our city hundreds of millions of dollars annually in settlements for police misconduct, while offending officers remain on duty. A statewide repeal of 50-a will have a huge impact on transparency and it will lead to greater accountability from the NYPD."

To learn more about how to repeal 50-a or to get involved, click here to learn about Communities United for Police Reform.

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in the various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.