Last week in this space, we lamented in an editorial the sad state of affairs of the effort to make police agencies more transparent.
The repeal of Section 50-a of state Civil Rights Law was supposed to open up police disciplinary records, allowing the public much greater access to information that could identify rogue police officers and the departments that protect them.
But in the first six months since the law’s repeal, according to a report by USA Today, New York police departments and courts have overwhelming sided with the police in favor of continued secrecy.
But just as the ink had barely dried on our editorial, we got good news on the transparency front from right here in our own backyard.
State Supreme Court Justice Mark Powers on Tuesday, overriding an effort by the Schenectady Police Benevolent Association, ruled that the city of Schenectady must release all disciplinary files for city police officer Brian Pommer, who earlier this year was caught on tape placing his knee on the head of a local man while arresting him for suspicion of vandalism.
The judge’s ruling to vacate a temporary injunction against the release of the documents includes all unsubstantiated claims and unfounded or uncharged allegations made against the officer in the past, as well as information about a case in which the officer was issued a “counseling notice.”
The documentation, when released, will likely and appropriately have some personal information redacted so as to protect the officer’s privacy.
But information about complaints and disciplinary measures taken relating to the performance of his public, taxpayer-funded duties will be released.
Not only did the judge in his ruling honor the intent of the Legislature’s action, but he also beautifully articulated the overwhelming public purpose of such disclosure, writing: “Even despite a risk of ‘over-transparency,’ our state Legislature has spoken loudly towards its stated goal of improving racial discourse, particularly with regards to policing and especially as to policing of minorities and those suffering with mental health disorders.”
We’ll wait until we see what actually gets released to ascertain how well the judge’s order works and how cooperative the city will be in response.
And the fact that a judge had to make a ruling over the objections and legal maneuverings of the local police union shows how far we are from full cooperation and full transparency from police departments when it comes to the conduct of their officers.
But Justice Powers’ ruling on this most important of public safety issues sends a strong message to police, the courts and the public that the citizens’ voice is finally being heard.
It’s a positive step ahead.