When Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, knelt on the neck of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, for nearly nine minutes last month and killed him, the public quickly learned about Chauvin’s troubling disciplinary history. News reports revealed that at least 17 complaints had been leveled against Chauvin over almost two decades in the department.
Had Chauvin been a New York City police officer—or an officer anywhere in New York state—none of his records would have been public. For more than 40 years, New York has had one of the harshest laws governing the release of police disciplinary records in the nation, shrouding powerful police departments in veils of startling secrecy. The law, known as 50-A, exceeds virtually all in America in the way it blocks public requests for more information on problematic officers.
But now, thanks to the mass protests against police brutality convulsing New York City every day, 50-A could be repealed as soon as this week.
“I want every racist police officer in jail,” said state Senator Jessica Ramos, a Queens Democrat who vigorously supports the repeal push. “I hear a unified voice, across the state, calling for a full repeal.”
Relatively obscure for decades, 50-A burst into the public eye in 2014 when an NYPD officer, Daniel Pantaleo, placed Eric Garner in a choke hold, killing him.
Like the Floyd case, Garner’s death set off waves of protest across New York City. Fury only grew when Pantaleo’s disciplinary history was blocked from public release. For advocates of police reform, accountability begins with understanding who patrols the streets, and why some problematic officers are allowed second and third and fourth—and more—chances.
In addition to shielding the records of dangerous officers like Pantaleo, 50-A helps hide the internal administrative trials the NYPD undertakes against officers who have committed wrongdoing. Journalists and members of the general public do not have to be told when trials are held, which officers are under investigation, and the ultimate outcome. It was only through political and public pressure that journalists were able to follow Pantaleo’s department trial at all.
The controversial statute, section 50-A of New York State’s Civil Rights law, technically keeps the “personnel records” of police officers, firefighters, and corrections officers “confidential and not subject to inspection or review” without permission from the officer. The law was passed in 1976, during an era of rising crime and growing police power. Its initial intent was narrower in scope: to prevent “harassment” by defense attorneys who sought to impeach officers with “unsubstantiated” prior bad acts.
Over the years, interpretation of the law would grow more expansive, aided by the courts. The Republican state senator who sponsored the bill would go on to declare that the intent of 50-A was never to block the public disclosure of police misconduct. At the same time, it was clear to criminal justice reform advocates that 50-A would wreak havoc for accountability efforts, coming at a time when police were fighting back against laws to bring more transparency and oversight to departments.
Police unions, politically potent in New York, showered contributions on Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike to safeguard the statute and defeat any effort at repeal or even reform. As crime began to decline in the 1990s, police unions would threaten politicians with slowdowns or strikes if any attempts were made to check their power.
“What the police unions found was that they could play the crime card. They could say, ‘If you tie our hands, tie the hands of police officers, we will not be able to fight crime and crime will go up and you, the citizen, will be the victim of crime,’” said Samuel Walker, a police historian and professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. “Enough mayors and city council members understood that and they were terrified.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who has governed New York since 2010 and risen to national prominence during the coronavirus crisis, had never forcefully backed a repeal of 50-A or included it as a part of his legislative agenda until Saturday, June 6, when he finally called for the law to be taken off the books. Until 2019, Republicans—with Cuomo’s help—controlled the state Senate, and these lawmakers enjoyed close relationships with police unions like the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which represents NYPD officers.
Cuomo’s longtime contention had been that localities can release these records anyway, but the courts have always sided with the police unions’ interpretation of 50-A, said Daniel O’Donnell, a Manhattan Democratic assemblyman and former defense attorney.
Now, Democratic legislators in the state Senate and Assembly are moving quickly to repeal 50-A, along with passing other criminal justice reform measures, this week. For days, Cuomo had said he would be open to a “reform” of the law, stopping short of saying he would support getting rid of it entirely. On Friday, Cuomo unveiled his “Say Their Name” criminal justice reform agenda, which initially did not specify that 50-A would be repealed.
Before Saturday, there was fear that Cuomo could foil the repeal effort by supporting other bills in the state Senate that would simply narrow the 50-A exemption to cover only records relating to officer performance and promotions or keep the law but add a provision to permit civil review boards to seek the release of specific records.
Cuomo’s tone seemed to shift as the protest movement maintained its size and pitch and Democrats in the state legislature indicated they would be willing to pass a law repealing 50-A with or without Cuomo’s backing.
“We have a right to know who is policing us,” said state Senator Jamaal Bailey, the Bronx Democrat who is carrying the 50-A repeal bill in the Senate. “The recent convergence of events with George Floyd—and on the heels of the Amy Cooper incident in Central Park—illuminated for people exactly what the black experience was with policing.”
If 50-A is struck from the books, New York will join much of America, with police personnel records subject to the same disclosure laws as any civil servant’s, and members of the public would be able to file Freedom of Information Act requests to find out about past misconduct.
Still, said Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, even if 50-A is repealed, the reform movement will have a long way to go to rein in the NYPD and other New York police departments. More transparency, Vitale argued, won’t be enough to keep police from harassing or killing unarmed civilians—or even change how police discipline their own.
“It doesn’t change disciplinary procedures and doesn’t make it any more likely an officer will suffer administrative consequences.”