For almost fifty years, police disciplinary records in New York state have been kept confidential under the state’s Civil Law Section 50-a. The information important for identifying abusive officers — their personnel histories, disciplinary records, citizen complaints, and other citations — have been kept out of public view.
The lack of scrutiny allowed repeat perpetrators of officer misconduct to keep on their beats or quietly shift to other precincts without accountability. Victims of police abuse and their families were left with little recourse for justice; journalists and the public were kept in the dark.
For years, families, accountability, and civil rights advocates have pushed for the elimination of the statute. Last week, that fight came to an end when Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law a repeal of Section 50-a. Now a new one begins.
MuckRock and the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information are taking on an unprecedented records requesting project, filing requests for the newly available data with every police department in New York State. The 50-a request language:
Materials responsive to this request include all complaints— internal, external, and civilian — and include records disclosing the names, badge numbers, and personnel identification of each officer involved and/or serving as a witness, as well as all available details of the incident/complaint: date, time, location, nature of the incident, description of the incident, nature of the investigation, investigatory materials, the disposition of the case, and any subsequent materials related to the execution of any resultant discipline. Responsive materials include all complaints and allegations against any officer, employee, or representative of this policing agency, regardless of whether that complaint or allegation resulted in any investigation or disciplinary action.
Responsive materials also include all records of use of force by officers, including records disclosing the names, badge numbers, and personnel identification of each officer involved and/or serving as a witness, as well as all available details of the incident: date, time, location, nature of the incident, description of the incident, nature of the use of force, subsequent investigatory materials related to the use of force, the disposition of any investigation into the incident, and any subsequent materials related to the use of force.
Though police departments are generally expected to retain disciplinary records for at least three years, there are likely plenty of records outside of the retention schedule requirements, outside of common knowledge, that are now potential fodder for the shredder. In fact, that’s exactly what happened when California updated its transparency laws a few years ago.
We would hate to see that happen.
These records can help families, researchers, journalists, policymakers, and historians, so we’ve also enlisted the help of New York-based attorney Cory Morris, who crafted a preservation and litigation hold notice alerting the agency that requires them to protect requested documents.
We want you to follow along.
We’re filing each request publicly, so you can see every response. If there are specific requests you would like updates on, log in or register for a free account and then click the “Follow” button at the top of the request page. We’ll also be sending updates in our weekly newsletter.
We know that there will be plenty of negotiations that will need to take place over the phone and over the coming months. We expect we’ll encounter both forthcoming FOIL officers as well as a lot of resistance.
We’re currently recruiting local partners across the counties of New York to join our effort following up and reporting on the process. If you know of a newsroom or nonprofit organization in New York state that would be interested in this project, please let us know. Until then, happy filing.
Image via New York City