In the wake of widespread protests against police violence and racial injustice, New York lawmakers voted on Tuesday to repeal Section 50-a of the state’s Civil Rights Law, a provision used to keep police disciplinary records secret.
The move comes days after the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press strongly urged New York officials to repeal Section 50-a, arguing that it has become an insurmountable barrier for both the press and public to access law enforcement records of police misconduct.
Since the 1970s, Section 50-a of the New York State Civil Rights Law has shielded police personnel records used to evaluate performance from public disclosure under the state’s open records law. New York is one of only two states that specifically makes records of police misconduct confidential.
“Not only does Section 50-a make New York an outlier, lagging behind other states in law enforcement transparency, it is unnecessary,” the Reporters Committee wrote in a June 7 letter to New York state legislators and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “Repealing 50-a is a necessary step not only to ensuring police accountability, but also to restoring trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
The Reporters Committee’s letter marked the organization’s latest fight against the secrecy provision, which has recently come under scrutiny as police face criticism for their handling of protests sparked by the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer.
In 2016, the Reporters Committee led a coalition of media organizations in an unsuccessful fight to access the shielded disciplinary records for the white New York City police officer who killed 27-year-old Eric Garner with a fatal chokehold.
Last year, the Reporters Committee submitted testimony to the New York Senate Standing Committee on Codes, arguing that 50-a “has been repeatedly invoked to override the presumption of government transparency that is fundamental to New York’s democratic system of government.” The testimony followed an op-ed Reporters Committee Legal Director Katie Townsend published in the New York Daily News, lamenting that the law “has morphed into a virtually impenetrable wall of secrecy.”
In the most recent letter to New York officials, the Reporters Committee supported the bill passed on Tuesday by the state Assembly and Senate, as well as other pending bills that would more broadly repeal Section 50-a.
The state legislature has recently begun advancing other bills aimed at reforming the police. Among them are the “Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act,” which prohibits the use of chokeholds by law enforcement, and a bill to clarify a person’s right to record police activity.
Gov. Cuomo, who recently expressed support for repealing Section 50-a, is soon expected to sign the legislation into law.
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.
Photo by Matt H. Wade