A New York judge said Tuesday that he was “likely” to allow a lawsuit blocking the NYPD from releasing anonymous summaries about police officers’ misconduct to move forward.
The case was brought by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the largest police union in New York representing about 24,000 NYPD officers, over the department’s plan to release limited information about how officers are penalized.
Judge Arthur Engoron said he would keep in place a temporary order preventing the release of any information until the case is resolved.
Since 2016, citing a new interpretation of a controversial state law, the NYPD has refused to release information about officers disciplined for lying, beating innocent New Yorkers, or other wrongdoing. Courts have for the most part agreed with the department, though some cases are ongoing.
But following a recent BuzzFeed News investigation that found hundreds of officers who committed the most serious offenses — such as lying to grand juries and physically attacking innocent people — got to keep their jobs, the police commissioner announced that he would release limited information about how officers are punished. The summaries would include details about the allegations and penalties handed down by the department while omitting the officers’ names and any other identifiable information.
Before the department had a chance to move forward with its plan to release the anonymous disciplinary records, the union sought a court order blocking the release.
The NYPD is trying to “eviscerate the civil rights of police officers and supplant their judgment for that of the duly elected Legislature,” lawyers for the union argued in court documents.
The BuzzFeed News investigation was based on a cache of secret, internal records provided by an anonymous source that are now available to the public in a searchable database.
The NYPD fiercely guards police misconduct records. Even prosecutors — who sometimes must decide whether to bring charges based on the word of a police officer — have said they cannot get the records before a case goes to trial, BuzzFeed News reported earlier this week.
Judge Engoron asked the union about the BuzzFeed News database during the hearing in New York Supreme Court, to which the lawyers replied that “it’s a different issue” where “somehow these records got leaked.”
The lawyers added that they are not suing BuzzFeed News, though they threatened legal action before publication.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill have vowed to fight for changes to state law to allow for greater transparency.
An attorney for New York City said Tuesday that they have a legal right to release such anonymous records and the union’s lawsuit should be dismissed.
Judge Engoron granted a motion by the Legal Aid Society, a public defender organization that represents criminal defendants who cannot afford attorneys, to weigh in on the issues in the case.
At the hearing, an attorney for Legal Aid echoed the city’s position that the union’s effort to prevent the release of these records would be an “incredibly expansive” interpretation of state law and would place an “incredible restriction on the City.”
A final ruling from the judge is expected in the coming weeks.