Update: On Monday, New York lawmakers announced plans to repeal 50-A this week, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo agreeing to sign it. “Their records will be available,” Cuomo said, citing a massive community outcry as the driving force to reform this measure. This is one of multiple police accountability bills that are currently moving through legislature, and will guarantee the right to record police activity in response to the police killing of George Floyd.
This article was originally published on June 5, 2020.
As the mass uprisings across the country continue, protestors and advocates are trying to hold public officials accountable for making real reforms. In New York state, Communities United for Police Reform and New Kings Democrats, along with over 50 other political groups, are pushing a campaign to repeal the 50-A law — a state law that prevents the public from being able to access officers' disciplinary records. The statute is routinely used to keep the public from learning about police misconduct and failed disciplinary actions.
50-A has received an increasing amount of scrutiny since 2014, when high-profile incidents of police violence like the killing of Eric Garner gained national attention. During that time, the NYPD repeatedly cited 50-A in its refusal to disclose the disciplinary history of Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who choked Garner to death.
“It’s problematic since the NYC Police Commissioner has a substantial amount of discretion as to when officers are disciplined for misconduct and the severity of that discipline. 50-A means the public can’t hold the police department as a whole accountable,” Caitlin Kawaguchi, Communications Director for the New Kings Democrats told Refinery29. “Repealing 50-A is part of the Safer NY Act, a larger package of bills to increase police transparency and accountability that we’re advocating for as partners of Communities United for Police Reform.”
However, New York state Senator Kevin Parker and assembly member Robert Carroll have co-sponsored the bill to repeal 50-A, stating that the time for police transparency is now. As of Friday, June 5, constituents in New York have sent over 100,000 emails, made over 20,000 phone calls, and spoken out constantly on social media to urge public officials to repeal 50-A, according to Communities United for Police Reform. On June 2, Senator Brad Hoylman tweeted that his office had received nearly 2,000 emails from constituents demanding that 50-A be repealed on that day alone. The following day, Senator Liz Krueger tweeted, “My office has never received so many emails supporting a bill in such a short period of time as we have for #Repeal50A over the last two days."
“If 50-A is repealed, it can make it easier for public officials who oversee the police force to have those individuals fired, suspended, and properly reprimanded so they no longer are out on the streets working,” Assemblyman Carroll told Refinery29. “But you won’t know those things and won’t be able to do that if all of these records are sealed and secret.”
New York is currently one of the worst states in the country when it comes to police transparency, and 50-A is a serious reason for that, according to Kawaguchi. “50-A prevents the public from accessing a police officer’s disciplinary records by essentially making all police personnel files confidential. This means that if a police officer is testifying in a case, there’s no way to know if they’ve lied in prior testimonies, or when the press is reporting on police violence, there’s no way to know if the officer has a pattern of misconduct,” says Kawaguchi. Ultimately, this means that the public can’t hold the commissioner accountable for police violence.
Repealing 50-A is only a starting point, says Kawaguchi, but advocates’ hope that, by shedding a light on disciplinary records, New Yorkers will see that our police disciplinary processes are not only not working, but are also putting more people in danger, because police cannot be held accountable for the violence their communities endure.
“This has clearly created a culture of impunity within the Police Department, which has been on full view these past few days [with protests]. We’ve seen cops beat and pepper spray peaceful protesters and ram police vehicles into crowds. These cops are doing it because they know they can get away with it, and 50-A is what’s been giving them cover,” explains Kawaguchi.
The assembly majority is meeting today to discuss repealing the law, but while Assemblyman Carroll says it’s likely that assembly members will move to appeal it, they also require Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign off on it — and there is always a chance he could veto it, although he’s stated he’s open to reforms to the NYPD.
“It is highly likely that something will be done about 50-A in the next week and I’m hopeful it’s a simple repeal of the law, but I think the discussion that will go on is whether it will be a straight repeal or if there are different points of view,” says Carroll. Ultimately, for the law to be fully repealed, the New York Assembly, the New York Senate, and the governor would all have to move to repeal the state law, and Governor Cuomo would have to give final approval.