It all seemed so straightforward.
Back in June, the New York state Legislature repealed a law, known as Section 50-a, that barred the release of police disciplinary files to the public.
Those of us who applauded the passage of this long-awaited reform believed it signaled that a new era was upon us, one where it would become easier to hold police officers accountable for misdeeds, detect patterns of misconduct and root out bad cops.
Records long shrouded in secrecy would finally have some light shined on them, bringing much-needed transparency to the inner workings of law enforcement. Departments would be quicker to crackdown on malfeasance and less likely to sweep abuses under the rug.
At least, that was the idea.
The reality is that the state’s repeal of Section 50-a has not yet lived up to expectations, though it may in time.
Efforts to obtain police disciplinary records have met with fierce resistance, as police unions throughout the state have sued to block their release – a blatant attempt to subvert reform.
In Schenectady, the Police Benevolent Association is seeking to block the release of disciplinary records of the officer involved in a controversial arrest this summer, Officer Brian Pommer. In response, State Supreme Court Justice Mark Powers issued a temporary restraining order barring the city from releasing the records until a hearing this Wednesday.
The PBA’s lawsuit is a stalling tactic – nothing more.
It tells us that the police don’t want their disciplinary records released, and are willing to fight to keep them secret, even though a new state law says they must now be released to the public in response to requests made through the Freedom of Information Law.
Police unions have argued that releasing unsubstantiated allegations of misconduct would violate officers’ due process.
So far, it’s not a winning argument.
In August, a coalition of New York City police, firefighter and prison guard unions received a stinging rebuke from U.S. District Judge Katherine Polk Failla, who declined to grant a preliminary injunction blocking New York City from releasing unsubstantiated misconduct allegations.
“Plaintiffs have presented speculation only that these disclosures will increase risk of officer harm,” Failla said.
Her decision is the right one – and will hopefully be followed by other decisions from judges affirming that police records are essential information, and that the public has the right to access them.
It’s disappointing to see police unions fight a reform that’s for the greater good, and will ultimately benefit both the police and the citizens they serve. Increased accountability and transparency will lead to better, more trusting relationships with the public.
Secrecy “is the enemy of trust,” as a June statement from the National Freedom of Information Coalition and Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida observed. “More public oversight leads to better policing, which leads to better public safety and stronger communities.”
All of which sounds good to me.
The state’s police unions ought to do us all a favor, and abandon their losing battle to undermine the repeal of Section 50-a. They should embrace this long-overdue change, and reject the culture of secrecy that afflicts far too many police agencies, once and for all.