The unfolding story of the Daniel Prude case has been a testament to the importance of transparency laws in police accountability. In New York State, Rochester officers killed a black man in March of this year, but managed to suppress the facts surrounding the situation through this summer, until members of Prude’s family were able to obtain video footage of the incident under public records laws and release it to the public this month.
After months of no action, the Rochester Police Department suspended seven officers; days later, the New York Attorney General announced that she would empanel a grand jury to investigate the death; days after that, the police chief stepped down and was then removed from office before his planned resignation.
In an environment where police routinely evade significant consequences for brutality, these developments are important to note and may provide meaningful guidance—not just to journalists seeking to uncover the truth about police violence, but also to advocates interested in greater police accountability. Meanwhile, police unions have resolved to shield violent officers from facing accountability through the press or through disciplinary processes.
In New York state, that conflict was cast into stark relief in the demands of Black Lives Matter protests against police violence this summer, which included the repeal of Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights Law. Section 50-a shielded “personnel records [of police officers] used to evaluate performance” from public access. Press organizations have spent decades calling for the repeal of 50-a.
On June 12, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a repeal of the law. In July, the police union sued the city of Buffalo over efforts to disclose disciplinary records. Freedom of the Press Foundation signed an amicus brief last month, led by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) and joined by a host of press organizations, against the lawsuit.
New York City police unions also sued over the release of records in July. In August, the New York Civil Liberties Union prevailed in litigation and published some 300,000 records of NYPD misconduct it obtained through the state Freedom of Information Law. In related litigation, the police unions yesterday obtained a stay of the release of additional records.
The NYC Police Benevolent Association president claimed that the repeal of 50-a will result in “the unfettered release of police personnel records will allow unstable people to target police officers.” Needless to say, journalistic investigations in the past have shown that NYPD disciplinary records are worthy of bringing to public attention. In 2018, an anonymous whistleblower sent sealed disciplinary records against about 1,800 NYPD officers to Buzzfeed, which it published as a database and analyzed. It found that at least 250 of those employees were accused of using excessive force. It also found that at least 319 employees kept their jobs despite committing offenses that warranted dismissal. Without these records, journalists would not have been able to communicate these troubling facts with the public and stir legislative change.
In Buffalo as well, police have shown themselves willing to do everything in their power to resist the mission of repealing 50-a—to increase police accountability—much to the detriment of the public and the press. The NYPD attempts to limit journalists in their ability to inform the public about officers in their community who abused their authority to hurt people, especially in racially charged scenarios.
RCFP’s brief in Buffalo describes how the unions’ resistance to disclosure keeps the repeal of Section 50-a from doing what it was supposed to do: “making available a universe of previously-hidden data that is necessary to public oversight of the criminal justice system and enabling New Yorkers and the broader public to have informed, meaningful public debate about police culture, conduct, and reform.”
The NYPD has not only been resistant to disclosing information to the press, but also to complying with its own disciplinary processes, working to preserve the secrecy that it has operated under for decades. ProPublica found that the NYPD has been refusing to meet legal obligations to share key evidence with NYC’s Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), especially since Black Lives Matter protests started this summer. In the CCRB’s investigations into reported incidents of police violence, it usually conducted about 200 officer interviews a month, but they were only able to do six in total in all of June and July of 2020. It turns out police unions have been telling its officers to refuse remote video interviews, citing privacy concerns.
To advocate for the press’s ability to inform the public about officers with violent histories, in New York and across the nation, is to prioritize the safety of Black communities. And though 50-a was finally repealed, the fight for police accountability in New York is far from over. It will be important to keep vigilant and continue pushing for accountability, especially as acts of police brutality keep hurting communities and NYC protestors start to call for investigations and lawsuits against the NYPD for inflicting severe injuries and unlawfully detaining people during protests. As stated in our amicus brief, when it comes to holding police officers accountable, “now is not the time for half measures.”