Freedom of Information,
Government & Corporate Investigations
On Friday, June 12, 2020, New York State passed a package of police reform bills in response to weeks of widespread demonstrations. The reform measures (1) ban the use of chokeholds by law enforcement officers, (2) give the state attorney general power as a special prosecutor in cases of police-involved deaths, (3) ban false race-based 911 calls, and (4) repeal a controversial provision of state law — known as “Section 50-A” — which kept law enforcement officers’ disciplinary records confidential.
Section 50-A, which dates back to 1976, allowed police, fire, and corrections departments to keep disciplinary and personnel records secret. This effectively prevented the public from obtaining copies of such records under New York’s Freedom of Information Law. Thus, when assessing an instance of alleged police misconduct, Section 50-A made it more difficult to obtain copies of the involved officers’ disciplinary files, which made it more difficult to determine if that officer had been involved in other incidents in the past or had been the subject of prior investigations or disciplinary actions.
However, the repeal of Section 50-A makes those disciplinary records subject to Freedom of Information Law requests from journalists and the public, and therefore publicly available. Previously, such records were exempt from disclosure under Section 50-A because the Freedom of Information Law does not require state or local agencies to make records available if they are “specifically exempted from disclosure by state or federal statute.” Public Officers Law §87(2). The repeal of Section 50-A means that police disciplinary records can now be made public, including complaints that have not yet been substantiated.
Civil rights leaders have applauded these reforms, especially the repeal of Section 50-A, which was long-considered a barrier to holding public officials accountable for misconduct. Supporters of the reforms argue that the repeal of Section 50-A will restore and improve public faith in government and law enforcement communities, just as the Freedom of Information Law has done for several decades, by shinning a light on (and thereby allowing public scrutiny of) allegations of official misconduct. Opponents of these measures fear that making such records publicly available unnecessarily exposes police officers to risk, invasion of privacy, and stigma.
While politicians may debate the wisdom of repealing Section 50-A, one thing is certain: the public now has greater access to records which had previously, and for a long time, been shrouded in secrecy.
If you have questions about how to submit requests for, and obtain records under, the Freedom of Information Law, contact an experienced attorney for help!
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