Foss: Too much secrecy on police discipline

State law should be repealed
Schenectady police Officer Daniel Coppola is pictured on May 17.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Schenectady police Officer Daniel Coppola is pictured on May 17.

Categories: News, Opinion, Schenectady County

If you were hoping to learn more about the disciplinary actions taken against Schenectady police Officer Daniel Coppola, well, good luck. 

Here’s what we do know: Coppola, who pleaded guilty last month to driving while ability impaired, has been disciplined. 

But we don’t know whether he was suspended with our without pay, or for how long, or whether the suspension resulted from an internal investigation into his actions. 

City officials won’t tell us these things, and while it might seem like they’re simply being stubborn when faced with questions they don’t like, the law is on their side.

A state civil rights law, known as Section 50-a, shields the personnel records of police officers, firefighters and corrections officers from the public. 

In other words, it is illegal to leak or release these records, and those who do so can face consequences: Gloversville Mayor Dayton King is set to go on trial for allegedly accessing and releasing information from a former city firefighter’s personnel file.

So, yes, there is a law that prevents us from knowing as much as we’d like to know about how Coppola’s was disciplined.

But it’s a bad law, and the state Legislature should get rid of it.

It makes law enforcement officers less accountable to the public they serve, and results in a troubling lack of transparency. 

Passed in 1976 to safeguard officers’ privacy and protect them from harassment and reprisals, Section 50-a doesn’t make exceptions for cases involving serious accusations of misconduct and abuse.

This unnecessary secrecy makes it difficult to evaluate how departments handle such allegations — and to know whether they’re being resolved fairly and satisfactorily. Deterring police misconduct becomes more difficult when the outcome remains shrouded in mystery. 

The protections afforded under Section 50-a are unusual, to say the least. 

No other public worker is entitled to them, not even district attorneys or members of their staffs.  

Last month the New York City Bar Association issued a report calling for the repeal of Section 50-a, arguing that “because of overbroad interpretations of (civil rights law 50-a), public awareness of police misconduct is stymied. And without transparency, officers may be less accountable to the communities they serve.” 

Hmmm, you think? 

The Bar Association notes that the last time the New York Court of Appeals reviewed public access to police disciplinary records under the state’s Freedom of Information Law was in 1999, when The Daily Gazette sought the identities of 18 officers involved in off-duty misconduct and “the full files pertaining to their discipline following a drunken off-duty brawl during a bachelor party.” 

We lost that fight — the Court of Appeals held that off-duty misconduct is not subject to FOIL — and “recent appellate court decisions have broadened the protections of (civil rights law 50-a) to shield on-duty misconduct from disclosure,” according to the Bar Association report.  

This is unfortunate, because we need to know more about police misconduct and how it’s handled, not less.

New York is one of only three states with a law that makes police personnel records confidential, and there’s little evidence that our officers are any less safe than officers in the 47 states without a Section 50-a type law. 

It’s time to repeal Section 50-a and expose these crucial areas of government to the light. 

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.

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