Police discipline proceedings need to be more open, says a panel of two former prosecutors and a former judge that found too little information about misbehaving cops is made public.
“We found a complex disciplinary system, which is imperfect but which generally seems to deliver fair disciplinary outcomes,” former Manhattan US Attorney Mary Jo White said Friday.
But the system is too shrouded in secrecy, said White and her fellow panelists, former Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Robert Capers and former Brooklyn Federal Judge Barbara Jones.
White said the group found “an almost complete lack of transparency and public accountability” in the disciplinary system.
The biggest culprit, according to the panel’s report, is what cops and lawyers call “50-a,” a section of New York State’s civil rights law that prevents the public release of information about police disciplinary actions unless ordered by a judge.
The panel said the Legislature should amend the law to provide more openness — and that the NYPD should not interpret the existing statute so narrowly.
“The Department should resist efforts to include arrest reports, police body camera footage, and the like in the definition of personnel records to which 50-a applies,” the panel said. “An arrest report may be the subject of a disciplinary matter, but that does not convert it into a personnel record.”
“If a police shooting were captured on a body camera and 50-a were interpreted to prevent its disclosure, the public would be justified in decrying that outcome,” it said.
Some of the panel’s other findings:
• The police commissioner should issue written, public opinions when he overrules decisions by the department’s discipline panels and trial judges.
• Penalties should be toughened against officers accused of lying and domestic violence.
• The NYPD’s disciplinary trial calendar should be made public. The calendar is now a confidential document, even though trials themselves are open to the public.
• Disciplinary proceedings should be speeded up by beefing up the legal staff that handles cases, and fast-tracking decisions in cases where officers are accused of minor infractions.
Police Commissioner James O’Neill called the report “a candid, honest assessment” of the disciplinary system, and named a group of top police officials to implement its findings.
“Our primary goal is to have a disciplinary system that is fair, clear and consistent for all involved,” O’Neill said. “Trust is key here, and it hinges on accountability and transparency.”
The commissioner said he continues to support changing the 50-a law. “I would like to put out names, charges, documents and outcomes, which I think will help build trust,” said O’Neill. But he cautioned that “transparency does have to be balanced with the safety of police officers.”
As long as 50-a stays on the books, the panel said, the NYPD should name a “citizen’s liaison” to communicate with anyone who has questions about a disciplinary case.
Jones said that tossing or amending 50-a would make a “huge difference” in the NYPD’s disciplinary process.
“The information is there, the results are there,” Jones said. “The processes are there. But nobody can see them. Until 50-a is amended, there is nothing more important.”
The Police Benevolent Association — the city’s largest police union — slammed the panel’s findings, claiming that it bowed “to the demands of anti-police, pro-criminal advocates.”
“It is clear that public safety in this city is headed down a very dark path,” PBA President Pat Lynch said in a statement. “The panel’s recommendation to shred the confidentiality protections for police personnel records will put all New Yorkers in jeopardy.”
“Criminals will exploit this supposed ‘transparency’ in order to escape justice, and police families will be exposed to even greater threats and harassment,” he said.
The panel, which was not paid for its work, said it found no evidence of “white shirt immunity,” the term for what rank-and-file cops see as the special treatment for those who wear white shirts, namely captains and above.
“The panel found no direct evidence that high-ranking officers generally received more lenient discipline than other members,” the report said.
But it was concerned that the NYPD Department Advocate Kevin Richardson — who oversees disciplinary cases — “is particularly vulnerable to internal and external influences" and said he should be barred from attending department functions, where he “frequently receives input about disciplinary cases outside the formal disciplinary process.”
O’Neill said he has full confidence in Richardson.
Police Commissioner James O'Neill announces that the NYPD is accepting the Independent Panel's complete list of recommendations to improve the NYPD disciplinary system at a press conference at One Police Plaza in Manhattan on Friday. (Shawn Inglima for New York Daily News)
Mayor de Blasio hailed the panel report. “These thoughtful reform proposals represent meaningful progress in the never-ending mission to make our city safer and fairer,” he said.
Reactions from longtime critics of the department’s disciplinary practices were mixed.
Civil rights attorney Joel Berger said the report “represents a death knell of 50-a.” “I think it's a dynamite report that should shake the NYPD disciplinary process to its very core,” Berger said.
Others said the review didn’t go far enough.
The panel “politically sidestepped a true deliberative analysis of the disciplinary process,” said civil rights attorney Eric Sanders, who has defended scores of police officers in the NYPD trial room. “This report is nothing more than political theater. They should do a real study with real data.”
Cynthia Conti-Cook, a staff attorney with the Special Litigation Unit at the Legal Aid Society, said the report “does not include the strong recommendations that we had hoped for in order to bring wholesale change to the department’s disciplinary procedures.”
“Until Albany fully repeals 50-a so that disciplinary summaries and other critical information are once again made available for the public to truly hold police officers accountable, we clearly cannot count on the department to police itself,” she said.
Robert Gonzalez, a professor at St. John’s University and former NYPD assistant commissioner for training, said the report was “complex” but “lacks the teeth to enforce the recommended changes (and) suggestions.”