The New York Times – Decisions are pending on two lawsuits that seek the release of the disciplinary records of New York City police officers accused of misconduct or abuse.
Just as the year got underway, Mayor Bill de Blasio and his police commissioner, James P. O’Neill, summoned reporters to the glassy atrium of the Brooklyn Museum to announce some good news.
For the first time in decades, New York City had counted fewer than 1,100 shootings in a calendar year and murders were near historic lows. The 2016 numbers were broadcast by a bevy of publicity techniques: news releases, data dumps, YouTube videos. The point was clear: Get the information out.
But even as their media teams sprang into action that day, officials in both City Hall and the Police Department were engaged in a fight against the release of a different and less flattering sort of material: the disciplinary records of New York City police officers accused of misconduct or abuse.
That fight is being waged by two civil rights groups that have separately sued the city to make the records public. Both of their lawsuits are now awaiting decisions in a Manhattan appeals court.
Few states give their police officers more protections from public scrutiny than New York, which is home not only to the largest municipal police force in the country but also to an aggressive corps of reporters.
Many of those protections stem from a 1976 state law, Section 50-a of the New York civil rights code, which forbids the public issuance or citation in court of officers’ personnel records without judicial approval.
Just last week, an officer in the Bronx, Richard Haste, was summoned to the Police Department’s internal court — known as the trial room — to decide whether he had acted improperly when he fatally shot an unarmed black man, Ramarley Graham, 18, inside the man’s apartment in 2012.
Officer Haste’s trial room proceeding was, like all such matters, very different from the typical courtroom case: While it was open to the public, the department will not release its final disposition or the police judge’s written analysis of whether Officer Haste should be acquitted or found guilty.
One of the lawsuits is challenging this practice and stems from a Freedom of Information request that the New York Civil Liberties Union served on the Police Department in 2011 in which it asked for a decade’s worth of judicial decisions in trial room cases and their ultimate outcomes.
“The Police Department’s disciplinary process is completely secretive,” said Chris Dunn, a lawyer who filed the suit for the civil liberties union. “Our lawsuit is designed to the give the public a window into what’s happening to police officers accused of abusing or mistreating civilians. Right now, nobody knows what happens, and that makes police accountability impossible.”
The Police Department initially denied the civil liberties union’s request, citing Section 50-a and saying that the trial room documents, if made public, could expose its officers to harm.
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