For more than forty years, New York Civil Rights Law section 50-a has harmed New Yorkers by shielding the release of police officers’ “personnel records,” including in the aftermath of substantiated complaints of misconduct. With the aid of numerous New York Court Appeals decisions, this statute progressively transformed from a relatively nuanced protection for testifying officers during trial, to its ultimate status as an outright bar to virtually all public disclosures. In fact, the New York Court Appeals has even held that section 50-a supersedes New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), thereby prohibiting even redacted FOIL disclosures. By prioritizing secrecy rather than accountability, the section 50-a system threatens the public’s essential oversight power over police, and harms those who fall victim to misconduct. Moreover, these longstanding concerns are only exacerbated because police departments are typically ineffective self-regulators and often promote cultures that perpetuate misconduct. Despite this cascade of public policy failures, the New York State Legislature largely ignored calls for change, and only altered course in June of 2020 after the historic public demonstrations that occurred in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. Although inconceivable weeks earlier, the legislature promptly repealed section 50-a and the governor signed the bill into law just days later. While undoubtedly rendered moot immediately prior to publication, this note proposes an unadopted alternative solution to the section 50-a problem, which includes amending the statute and reasserting FOIL’s preeminence over the disclosure of police records in New York. This remedy is derived after a careful analysis of the varying disclosure laws adopted across the United States, represented here by Connecticut, Massachusetts, and California. With a goal of promoting high levels of public accessibility to police records, this note urges for the adoption of a system much like the one used in Connecticut, which prioritizes FOIL disclosures while carefully weighing law enforcement’s legitimate privacy concerns. After decades of secrecy, this straightforward approach will ensure that police records, like all government documents, belong to the people.
Jeffrey T. Hazelton,
The People’s Business: The Case for Amending New York Civil Rights Law Section 50-a,
85 Brook. L. Rev.
Available at: https://brooklynworks.brooklaw.edu/blr/vol85/iss3/8