The whole idea behind last year’s repeal of Section 50a of the state Civil Service Law was to make police disciplinary records available to the public so that they could be protected against rogue police officers and complicit police departments.
In the wake of the George Floyd killing, state lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo thought it was important enough to build a door in the Blue Wall of Secrecy and expose bad officers with a record of jeopardizing the public’s safety.
Recent news events in Minnesota and Virginia (in addition to the ongoing Chauvin trial in the death of Floyd) have thrust police abuse of power into the spotlight once again.
But in the 10 months since New York’s law opening up disciplinary records was passed, it has not always worked out in the public’s favor.
That’s due in part to vague wording in the law that leaves it open to the interpretation of individual judges.
On Monday, a state Supreme Court justice in Rochester issued a permanent injunction on behalf of the Brighton Police Patrolman Association to stop the release of disciplinary records dating back before the law’s passage in June 2020.
The judge, Ann Marie Taddeo, ruled that the law says it’s “effective immediately,” giving the judge discretion to assume it meant that it was not retroactive.
If that ruling was applied across the board, members of the media and other citizens could only obtain records from the last 10 months, and nothing before.
Frankly, the judge bent the wording to favor secrecy, in clear defiance of the Legislature’s intent at transparency.
Other courts have determined that disciplinary matters from before June 2020 could be released to the public.
The Gazette and other media organizations recently received the disciplinary records of a Schenectady officer dating back at least through 2019.
Justice Mark L. Powers wrote in the Schenectady case that, “There is strong evidence that retroactive effect was intended by the legislature,” adding that only limiting disclosure to June 2020 didn’t make sense.
But the law’s language is ambiguous enough that different judges can interpret it different ways.
The repeal of 50a also left some other areas up for interpretation, including whether the law covers unsubstantiated allegations against officers and how to deal with situations in which an officer agreed to discipline on the condition of confidentiality.
Given the vague language, there’s no telling how appeals courts will rule.
State lawmakers have time left in session to go into their original repeal of Section 50a and clear up the language before it falls into the hands of more judges.
Even with changes, the police unions will continue to fight disclosure in the courts.
But with clearer language in the law, it’s less likely they’ll prevail in hiding these vital records from the public.