Last Thursday, the New York Police Department announced that it would stop releasing officer discipline records to the public. Police Commissioner Bill Bratton explained that the sudden decision to withhold information came after the realization that the practice was in violation of Section 50-a, a state-level law that classifies such records as “confidential and not subject to inspection or review” without a lawful court order.
This announcement puts an end to the kind of journalistic investigation that has helped cases like Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Akai Gurley reach national prominence, propelling the issue of the police’s use of lethal force to the forefront of American politics. By blocking journalistic access to police discipline records, the NYPD has made it more difficult to probe the details of suspect cases such as these.
What’s most perplexing is the timing of the announcement — 40 years too late. Originally enacted in 1976, Section 50-a was designed to prevent defense attorneys from undermining the credibility of police witnesses before they’ve taken the stand. Even after the law was first put into place, however, the NYPD continued to release discipline reports to the public.
At the time the law was put into effect, the NYPD was still reeling from the Knapp Commission Report, which detailed rampant corruption in all levels of policing. Mobsters and drug dealers were regularly paying off police officers to ignore drug transactions, sell out informants, provide armed protection and even hire hitmen to kill witnesses. Even that damning report had its detractors from within the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, who only fell silent after the French Connection scandal revealed the instrumental role the NYPD played in the heroin trade.
The choice to ignore Section 50-a was made consciously in response to widespread public distrust of the police. It was a way for the NYPD to build up its credibility with transparency and a way to demonstrate that the police would be held accountable to the public. It was more than just a gesture of goodwill — it marked an important step forward for much needed police transparency, particularly amongst the myriad cases of the NYPD abusing its authority throughout the decades.
All that is changing. By turning to Section 50-a and further obscuring the actions of individual officers, the NYPD has demonstrated a complete unwillingness to listen to public demand for greater accountability. Rather than taking further steps to heal the wounds that high-profile police misconduct has made, the police have taken this opportunity to shrink further from the public eye, as if to actively flout the renewed cries for police accountability that their own actions have incited.
We need more transparency, not less. It’s time for the NYPD to stop ducking behind defunct legislation and start owning up to the problems of racism and excessive force among its ranks.
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A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, September 6 print edition. Email Richard Shu at [email protected].