Updated: September 1, 2016, 5:48 PM
BY GREG B. SMITH, KENNETH LOVETT, GRAHAM RAYMAN
|Mayor de Blasio finally steps up his game to get rid of a law that hides NYPD cop's disciplinary records. (HOWARD SIMMONS/NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)|
Hello again, Mr. Transparency.
Mayor de Blasio stepped up to the plate Thursday to call for the elimination of a state law that now bars public disclosure of police disciplinary reports.
The NYPD released these reports for years, but recently stopped doing so, citing part of the state Civil Rights Law known as section 50-A.
Police Commissioner Bill Bratton acknowledged Wednesday that because of that law, the NYPD would not release any disciplinary findings regarding Daniel Pantaleo, the officer involved in the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner.
After days of simply blaming the law for the new policy, de Blasio on Thursday announced for the first time that he thinks the law must be changed.
"I believe we should change the state law and make these records public,” he said during a radio appearance on WNYC. “The current state law that we have to honor — that does not allow for transparency.”
The mayor said he would support legislative action in Albany to allow the NYPD to resume releasing the reports.
“I would welcome a change that provides more transparency and when there is a disciplinary finding against an officer, that would be released,” he said.
Two police unions sharply disagreed with him Thursday.
"The law was passed to deal with important issues in the pursuit of justice and in protection of those who risk their lives to enforce the law,” said Patrick Lynch, head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association.
“Nothing has changed to negate the need for that law and we will strongly opposes any changes to it."
Two bills sponsored by Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell (D-Manhattan) are already pending in Albany that would repeal or amend the law.
O’Donnell said he didn’t make them a priority this year because he didn’t think they would pass the Senate, and might cause problems in an election year for some colleagues who favored the bills.
"50-A was written as a mechanism to protect police officers' confidential information from being gotten by criminal defense attorneys as mechanism at trial," he said. "What has happened is the courts have over-broadly interpreted that, and it has run amok with what the intention was."
The reports which sparked the controversy — known as personnel orders — contain promotions, retirements, transfers and brief summaries of disciplinary cases involving individual officers. The NYPD had been making them available to reporters for at least 30 years.
The NYPD says it began withholding the reports last month after the city Law Department suddenly discovered the long-standing practice of disclosure and declared it in violation of section 50-A.
On Wednesday, Bratton revealed that he would prefer to release these reports, but said it was up to Albany to change the law.
Meanwhile, even as de Blasio champions changing the law, the mayor’s lawyers have waged a two-year battle to block Legal Aid lawyers from obtaining a summary of Pantaleo’s civilian complaint history.
Even after two judges ruled that the summaries can be released, the city appealed, and arguments are scheduled for October.
“The rulings gave the city cover, but they are reading the law as narrowly as possible,” a lawyer involved in the case said. “If civilian complaint summaries can be released, why not NYPD summaries?”
Critics and supporters of criminal justice reform have attacked the NYPD for suddenly changing course and reducing transparency at a time of increased scrutiny of police tactics.
Public Advocate Letitia James has called for all discipline reports on cops found in violation of the law or departmental regulations to be made public.
Altering section 50-A would require approval by the legislature and Gov. Cuomo and would likely be opposed by police unions across New York, which see disclosure as undermining their members’ ability to do their jobs.
On Thursday, WNYC host Brian Lehrer questioned whether Albany would back such a change, but de Blasio said he was confident it could happen if the change were “worded the right way.”
“I applaud Mayor de Blasio for reaching a common sense response to a problem which would involve the repeal of a section of law that prohibits accountability on the part of police and correction officers,” said Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government.
Freeman has made changing the law a priority in recent years, noting that such records are public in 27 states.
But Ed Mullins, head of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, said the bill should remain as it is.
“Once again, the mayor is wrong,” he said. “I think it’s foolish. This is a civil rights law, and any change has to be done with good purpose.”
Mullen said he has asked his lawyer to investigate whether the city or the NYPD bears any liability for the fact that the personnel orders were made available to reporters.
“In essence, the Police Department was breaking the law all those years,” he said. “We’re taking a look to see if there's any opportunity to sue if the city was violating our rights.”