The goal of legislation to open up police disciplinary records was to give citizens the ability to identify violent or unethical officers and to call out police departments for lax or non-existent disciplinary action.
Seeing those records would help the public identify officers who don’t have the temperament or tactics to act appropriately in dealing with criminal suspects.
Especially in the wake of the George Floyd killing, the state Legislature’s repeal of Section 50-A of state Civil Rights Law last month was a big step forward in the march toward police reform.
So how does it help the citizens rid police agencies of unfit officers and improve relations between law enforcement and their communities when the courts to side with police and their unions to keep records secret?
Earlier this month, a federal judge sided with the New York City Police Benevolent Association, which represents New York City police officers, by issuing a restraining order on the public release of NYPD disciplinary records that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was planning to post online.
The judge also issued a temporary restraining order barring the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union from publicly releasing officer misconduct complaints from the Civilian Complaint Review Board that the ACLU had already obtained under the state’s open government laws.
In a separate matter relating to the repeal of 50-A, a state Supreme Court judge on Friday temporarily blocked the city of Buffalo from publicly releasing police records of unsubstantiated allegations, pending allegations and matters that were the subject of confidential settlement agreements.
That restraining order came after the city’s fire and police unions sued the city to stop the release of the records.
Other news organizations, including the Associated Press, have reported filing separate requests for disciplinary actions and saying their requests haven’t yet been honored.
Some supporters of the new disclosure requirements, including those who wanted lawmakers to go further with the legislation, feared police would use the new provisions to limit the release of records to only those in which discipline was meted out.
How can the public scrutinize police disciplinary actions if only cases confirmed by police authorities are released? That would defeat the whole purpose of the law.
Let’s hope that when the judges in these respective cases review their restraining orders next month, they’ll recognize the vital importance of public disclosure and side with the citizens.
Police reforms can’t happen if courts side with police to impede the people’s access to these vital records.