Some local governments in the state have apparently begun bargaining with police unions and agencies over the release of police disciplinary records.
Before this becomes a common practice, lawmakers and the courts need to step in and tell them that the public’s right to know is not up for negotiation.
According to The Poughkeepsie Journal, some local government boards in the Mid-Hudson Valley are agreeing to conditions with police unions on the circumstances by which they’ll release police disciplinary documents sought by citizens and the media under the state Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).
Under one agreement, a local town agreed to give police advance notice when FOIL requests came in, set limits as to what kinds of records would be released and gave officers the opportunity to review and object to the release of their own disciplinary records.
The whole point of the state repealing Section 50-a of state Civil Rights law last year was to allow the public to view the disciplinary records of police officers who might demonstrate a pattern of misconduct and to allow the public to evaluate whether complaints have been handled appropriately by police agencies.
If the police and municipalities can agree to severely restrict the disclosure of such records and give the employee – who may be a rogue police officer with a record of misconduct – the right to withhold or fight the disclosure, then the whole intent of the law is undermined.
Remember, this whole initiative came about because of revelations that bad cops were either not being disciplined or were being allowed to remain on the force to do harm to citizens.
The disclosure effort came to a head last summer with the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis, Minn., police officers.
Around the same time, New York passed legislation to make it easier for the public to gain access to disciplinary records.
Since then, police departments have been trying to find ways around the disclosure rules.
If municipalities are allowed to negotiate their own deals with police about what types of information is released, and if officers can essentially be given veto power over disclosure, then the law will have no effect and the public will continue to be left in the dark.
Before any more of these agreements are negotiated, the state needs to step in and further define the rules by which disciplinary documents must be released.
The public’s right to know overrides a police officer’s right to have his disciplinary records hidden from view.
It’s not just a matter of transparency.
It’s a matter of public safety.