Federal Court Temporarily Extends The NYPD's Famous Opacity, Blocks Release Of Misconduct Records

from the dammit dept

The NYPD barely bothers to punish officers who misbehave. This "misbehavior" often includes violations of rights and extrajudicial killings, but it appears the NYPD feels New York's "finest" should be above reproach. Consequently, NYPD internal investigations often conclude no officers should be reproached, allowing them to remain the "finest" even when they're really the worst.

A new wrinkle in the law fabric might change that. After years of doing nothing (and after years of the NYPD never bothering to invoke the law), the state repealed "50a," the statute that allowed the NYPD to withhold misconduct records from the public. For several years, the NYPD posted the outcome of internal investigations. Then it decided it was no longer going to do that. First, it blamed the high cost of printer ink. Then it cited the law that allowed it to stop posting reports where the press could access them.

Lawsuits followed. And -- as is the case whenever law enforcement opacity is threatened -- the NYPD's unions have intervened. It was too little too late. An injunction was sought and obtained, but ProPublica -- which wasn't a party to the lawsuit over 50a records -- published what it had already received from the NYPD. But the battle continues because future opacity is at stake. Unfortunately, a federal court has decided opacity must win out for the moment.

A federal court has halted the release of police misconduct records until a coalition of New York City’s police, fire and corrections unions can make their case to the United States Second Circuit of Appeals.

The ruling came Wednesday afternoon — just days after Manhattan Federal Judge Katherine Polk Failla ruled on a lawsuit brought by the unions over the repeal of the law shielding police personnel records known as 50a.

That's right. The union doesn't just want records blocked from release. It wants the law back on the books. This is all very procedural so it probably doesn't wipe away Judge Faila's distaste for this lawsuit. Five days prior to this temporary injunction, Faila had this to say about the union's challenge of the repeal.

The lawsuit, brought by the coalition of unions over the repeal of 50a, argued that releasing unsubstantiated or unfounded allegations would put officers and firefighters at risk and would affect their employment prospects if they leave their department.

But Failla said the unions failed to explain why an “officer in charge of hiring would be incapable of interpreting the records” and she had been “presented with no evidence of increased violence or threat of violence.”

The disclosures plaintiffs’ argument also seems to overlook the disclosures that have historically been made,” Failla said, noting that the NYPD had previously published disciplinary records in recent years at NYPD headquarters.

“Any injunctive relief that I would order, could not put that particular horse back in the barn,” she added.

And yet this ad hoc collection of union legal cowboys is desperate to do just that. The horse cannot be re-barned but maybe enough union members' money can be blown delaying the inevitable. This will be the trophy brought back to the rank-and-file. Money was spent in an attempt to thwart transparency. And -- in the absence of any real victories -- this will have to do.

Maybe in the end the courts will decide the repeal of 50a violates the many, many collective bargaining agreements the city has agreed to over the years. If so, New York City needs to let these expire and write new ones that actually give taxpayers a bit more bang for their buck. Accountability is a must. The city's unions continue to insist it's a luxury even the nation's largest city can't afford.

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Filed Under: 50a, katherine polk failla, new york, nyc, nypd, police misconduct, police unions, transparency


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  1. icon
    Narcissus (profile), 2 Sep 2020 @ 1:21am

    Re: No, the gander gets sawdust, not sauce.

    I think the problem here is not a lack of transparency, it's a lack of proper oversight.

    I'm not a fan of releasing the police records and neither am I a fan of releasing arrest records, including pictures, and I'm definitely not a fan of the so-called perp-walks. As mentioned above, regular citizens will experience real consequences as a result from having their face plastered all over the news, even if they are later exonerated.

    In theory everybody subscribes to the "innocent until proven guilty" idea but let's face it, if you see somebody that is arrested and walked out to the police car in the early morning in his underwear with his doughy belly hanging out and his hair in a mess you're going to assume that guy is guilty as hell.

    On this side of the pacific in many countries the identity of the accused are protected quite stringently, with full co-operation of the press. So, faces are covered with those black strips over the eyes and names are shortened to initials. Sometimes it gets a bit ridiculous even, for example if everybody knows who the accused is. However in principle I support this. Even if you're proven guilty, re-integrating into society is hard enough after a prison sentence without having been publicly exposed.

    I do have a certain amount of sympathy for the argument that opening the records up would increase the risk for the police and firefighters. But, I also believe in consequences! So if you make mistakes or, as in many cases, break the law, you should be properly punished. Either by being demoted or fired or having pay docked. If you break the law you should face the same consequences as other people and, if the transgression is serious enough, of course you should never be allowed to enforce the law again, nationwide.

    So, I think a much better solution would be to have better oversight, which is possible. Perhaps create a committee that includes civilians and/or judges to oversee complaints. Perhaps there could be an independent organization with far reaching authority to which you can submit your complaints. Something. Don't say that it is impossible because many countries manage it reasonably well.

    However, since that doesn't exist yet, I do think the records should be public until oversight improves. It's the only way you can work towards justice. Perhaps that is also a discussion that can be had with police unions: Transparency or proper oversight. Although that needs a bit more civic responsibility from the unions than they've shown so far.


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