Once again, police are hiding behind a broad interpretation of an ancient law to keep information about police conduct from the public.
Why do we continue to tolerate it?
And why do state legislators still to refuse to change it?
At issue is Section 50-a of the Civil Rights Law, which allows law enforcement to withhold records related to police performance evaluations.
One justification for the law back then was that these records could be used by defense attorneys to discredit officers serving as prosecution witnesses at trials.
When it was passed back 1976, it seemed like a reasonable public safety measure to keep juries from turning criminals free based on unrelated conduct in an officer’s background.
But over time, law enforcement — abetted by the courts — has exploited this narrow protection to hide virtually any information that might show officers in a bad light, since it’s likely information on conduct would be added to an officer’s personnel files.
The most recent example comes from Albany, where The Times-Union is reporting that the city is refusing to release police body camera coverage and police car dash camera coverage in connection with the arrest of a woman preaching with a bullhorn in Townsend Park.
The city claims the footage is exempt from disclosure under Section 50-a.
The use of Section 50-a to justify withholding cop-camera records flies in the face of the very reason the public demanded, and has been willing to fund, dash cams and body cams — to hold police accountable.
Police have been caught on camera beating suspects, shooting unarmed suspects, withholding medical attention and doing other nefarious acts. The presence of cameras has helped control police misconduct and helped rebuild trust with the community.
For police, the benefit of cameras is that it has discouraged people from falsely reporting alleged misconduct.
How can we trust the police when the visual evidence of their conduct, good and bad, can legally be withheld under an outdated loophole in the law?
The only solution to the problem is for state lawmakers to amend or eliminate section 50-a.
One bill (A1685A/S3398A) would exclude body and dash cam footage from being treated as personnel records.
Another (A2513/S3695) would repeal 50-a outright, saying the state Freedom of Information Law, passed since 50-a went into effect, now provides adequate protection of police personnel records.
Camera footage provides an essential check on police conduct. The law shouldn’t be exploited by law enforcement as a tool to hide police misconduct.
Lawmakers need to act.