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Editorial: Repeal of disclosure law long overdue

Editorial: Repeal of disclosure law long overdue

Lawmakers and the governor need to stop siding with rogue police officers and start siding with the public and the criminal justice system

It’s bad enough that state Civil Rights Law is preventing the public from learning information about police officers accused of misconduct.

A section of that law — and a broad interpretation of it by the courts well beyond its original legislative intent — is now directly contributing to the possible obstruction of justice.

It’s doing so by limiting the powers of the state attorney general to investigate fatal incidents involving police and unarmed civilians, despite a mandate by the governor’s office.

Lawmakers and the governor need to stop siding with rogue police officers and start siding with the public and the criminal justice system by revoking Section 50-a of Civil Rights Law.

The section of law was originally designed by the Legislature 43 years ago for the narrow purpose of preventing defense attorneys from using disciplinary records to discredit officers serving as witnesses during criminal trials. 

But since then, that protection has been institutionalized in the state’s Freedom of Information Law that protects public employees from unwarranted invasions of privacy and from the disclosure of information that could jeopardize their security or safety. So it’s no longer necessary.

More importantly, since the section was enacted, the courts have expanded its scope to include any records that could possibly be used to evaluate officer performance — an overly broad interpretation that has resulted in officers being virtually shielded from all public scrutiny.

Already flying down the proverbial slippery slope toward secrecy, the courts are a short skip to blocking all public access to officer misconduct. That could include video recorded on police body cameras and police vehicle dash cameras of officers assaulting citizens or otherwise violating their civil rights.

Now, it turns out, that same section of law is preventing the state attorney general from fulfilling its mission to investigate incidents involving fatal shootings and other potential crimes against unarmed citizens.

Back in 2015, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, through executive order, authorized the appointment of the attorney general as a special prosecutor in matters relating to the deaths of unarmed civilians caused by law enforcement officers. The order also allows the special prosecutor to review cases in which there is a question over whether the civilian was armed or not at the time of their death.

The action was taken in the wake of public outrage over grand juries failing to bring criminal charges against officers in the choke-hold death of Eric Garner on Staten Island and the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Missouri.

Now, though, that power to investigate is being limited by Section 50-a, which supersedes the executive order.

According to a Times Union article on the aftermath of the fatal shooting of an unarmed Latham man by a Troy police officer in 2016, that section of law is preventing the state’s highest-level law enforcement officer from reviewing internal affairs records or other officer personnel files that could help establish a pattern of abuse by an accused officer.

That access could provide the attorney general with a mitigating factor that could help it establish a pattern of misconduct and allow the office to make a better determination about whether to prosecute or not.

In any reversal, modification and clarification of Section 50-a, lawmakers could include protections for officers to ensure that statements made in confidence to internal affairs investigators and that are inadmissible in court are not used in criminal prosecutions against them.

Protections also could be put in place that reveal information to the public about police discipline without subjecting accused officers to public disclosure of unproven allegations and subsequent harassment.

It’s clear that Section 50-a has been stretched far beyond its original intent and is actually now doing harm to both the public’s right to know and to the attorney general’s ability to investigate and prosecute fatalities involving police officers.

It’s the job of lawmakers to pass laws that protect the public.

It’s long overdue time for them to do their jobs.

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