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New York is repealing 50-A to open police disciplinary records

The repeal has been one of the main demands at Black Lives Matter protests.
Written by
Shaye Weaver

Governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to sign a bill that would repeal a state law used by police departments to keep disciplinary records under wraps.

In protests over the death of George Floyd, who was killed after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes, demonstrators have been urging lawmakers to repeal the law (50-a) so that the public can learn about police misconduct and disciplinary actions taken against officers.

The bill makes these records available to the public, except for redacted personal information, through the Freedom of Information Law requests—FOIL—like many other records kept by public agencies. It passed in the Senate, 40-22 and 101-43 in the Assembly on Tuesday. You can see who voted for and against the measure here.

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"Today’s victory belongs to the people of New York who took to the streets to protest police violence against Black people, called and emailed their elected representatives, and made their demands for justice heard," Brooklyn Defender Services Executive Director Lisa Schreibersdorf said in a statement. "It also belongs to the families of people killed by police who organized across New York for many years and refused to give up. Repealing Civil Rights Law 50-a brings much-needed transparency to police discipline and, as public defenders, we look forward to translating that transparency into accountability in court. We also stand with those demanding an end to all forms of white supremacy, structural racism, and state violence – in the streets and behind bars – and commit to continue our advocacy toward that end. I thank the Senate and Assembly for passing this law and I hope Governor Cuomo upholds his promise to sign it as is.”

The 50-a law has been on the books since 1976, but in 2016, the NYPD stopped letting media and the public see the outcomes of administrative trials, the New York Daily News says. 

The chokehold death of Eric Garner brought the law to light even more so when it was learned that then-NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo's disciplinary record was kept from scrutiny, City & State New York says.

The repeal of 50-a is just one piece of the puzzle — the Legislature is taking a look at a package of police reform bills that include the creation of an Office of Special Investigation to prosecute any incident of a person whose death was caused by a police officer; the "Eric Garner Act" to ban chokeholds and make them a felony; penalizing those who call police for a non-emergency incident; making it the state attorney general’s responsibility to appoint a special prosecutor when someone is killed by police; and requiring police to report when they discharge a weapon within six hours of using it, whether they were on duty or off; among others.

On Tuesday, New York's police unions accused lawmakers of "not giving us a seat at the table," according to amNewYork Metro.

Pat Lynch, the president of Police Benevolent Association, said the repeal of 50-A would show every accusation, proven or not, and risk the lives of cops and their families.

"Why aren’t you speaking to all the stakeholders?" Lynch said during a press conference. "Why aren’t you asking the opinion of professional law enforcement? They won’t even give us a seat at the table. If they did, we might be able to offer compromises or not. But we don’t even have a seat. Why aren’t you seeking our advice? Maybe we’d be reasonable?"

But the suite of bills before lawmakers have a lot of backing.

"As a formerly incarcerated New Yorker, I know firsthand that we are far less safe without trust and transparency– and that means accountability and public scrutiny for police," New Yorkers United for Justice Chief Strategist Khalil A. Cumberbatch said. "Given broad public support and longstanding buy-in from lawmakers and law enforcement across the state today, by repealing 50-a, New York State’s legislature has come down on the right side of history and put unity first. We look forward to Governor Cuomo’s signature, as he has pledged he’ll swiftly do - and look forward to a statewide conversation about the benefits of the necessary repeal to every New York community following passage.”

Gov. Cuomo said during his Wednesday briefing that the package is the "most dramatic police reform in the country and will happen this week."

"And we're proud of it," he said.

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