NYPD Police Disciplinary Records Remain Confidential Due to Little Known Statute - Section 50-a New York State Civil Rights Law
The death of Eric Garner at the hands of NYPD officers in Staten Island on 17th July, 2014 has thrust a little-known New York statute to the forefront of debates concerning transparency and police abuses of power. Section 50-a of the New York State Civil Rights Law blocks access to the personal disciplinary records of NYPD officers unless the officer concerned explicitly consents to their disclosure or is otherwise compelled to disclose by court order. Under this law, reports of civilian complaints against Officer Pantaleo, the officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner through use of an illegal choke-hold, remain confidential. In December 2017, the New York Court of Appeals declined an appeal from the Appellant Division, First Department holding that Officer Pantaleo’s personal records should not be disclosed.
Even when courts do occasionally demand disclosure of personal records, these documents are often reviewed behind closed doors in private, in camera session, such the recent case of People v. Pena, as reported in the New York Law Journal, May 22, 2018. Some groups, such as Communities United for Police Reform, therefore argue that Section 50-a case law upholds secrecy and is ripe for legislative reform.
The law was originally designed to protect the police from defense attorneys seeking to use spurious and unproven complaints to discredit officers during trial. However, critics such as the New York City Bar Association argue that the law, which is perhaps the most secretive of its type in the country, has substantially expanded in scope to become a powerful obstacle to transparency and accountability. Indeed, almost 30 civil society groups – including the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Aid Society – support a bill to repeal the law.
Mayor de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo have made public statements criticising the expanding scope of the law but have yet to plot any substantive path forward. Senior NYPD officials have made their own proposals for reform but organisations such as the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, along with the police union, oppose any change and have thrown their substantial weight behind lobbying in the state legislature. The controversy surrounding Section 50-a therefore looks set to continue. Meanwhile, no charges have been brought against Officer Pantaleo until the federal inquiry into Eric Garner’s death is completed.