Amid protests, effort to repeal controversial police law makes headway

Activists involved express optimism, say momentum is stronger than ever.

June 5, 2020, 2:15 PM

As protests over the killing of George Floyd continue across the country, momentum in New York to repeal a decades-old police transparency law appears to be gaining steam, according to activists and legislators involved in the effort, in what they say would be a major step forward in the fight for police reform.

The controversial New York State law in question, titled '50-a', shields essentially all state and city police personnel records from public view and mandates that they be kept confidential, effectively offering blanket protection to officers who have been accused of misconduct. Those who oppose the law say it prevents police from being held accountable, and ultimately feeds the divide between law enforcement and the communities they are meant to serve.

"[50-a] is an iron curtain in front of police that are abusive," said Monifa Bandele, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform (CUPR), an organization that has been working to repeal 50-a in New York for four years. She pointed out that Derek Chauvin, the police officer accused of murdering George Floyd in Minneapolis, had 17 prior complaints in his record-- a critical piece of information that she said would not have been publicly available in New York.

The law was originally adopted nearly half a century ago in 1976 "in order to prevent criminal defense lawyers from using such records in cross examination of police witnesses during criminal prosecutions," according to the New York State Assembly, but has expanded over the years.

In recent years 50-a has received renewed scrutiny as it has been invoked during instances of police brutality. It was 50-a that prevented the record of of the police officer who killed Eric Garner in 2014, Daniel Pantaleo, from becoming public.

The New York City Police Department said it is open to reforms, but amid the ongoing protests and violent outbursts by some agitators, the city's powerful police union sharply criticized an effort to repeal the law, a move it saw as potentially arming "extremists" with "confidential records" that could be used against officers.

PHOTO: In this handout provided by Ramsey County Sheriffs Office, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin poses for a mugshot after being charged in the death of George Floyd.
In this handout provided by Ramsey County Sheriffs Office, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin poses for a mugshot after being charged in the death of George Floyd.
Ramsey County Sheriffs Office via Getty Images

Repeal bill in the works, momentum strong, activists say

At the memorial service for George Floyd on Thursday, Reverend Al Sharpton specifically mentioned the need to change laws such as 50-a in the fight for police reform. "If they stop you they find out everything you ever did. Why don't we know when policeman have a pattern?" Sharpton asked.

Officially, only three states -- California, Delaware and New York -- have laws that specifically make police records confidential, according to the ACLU. But issues surrounding police transparency permeate communities across the county, experts say, and the longstanding debate in New York over questions of accountability and transparency is indicative of the same debate happening across the country.

"New York is the most secretive state in the country when it comes to public access to information about police misconduct," Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told ABC News in an interview. "That's a a searing indictment of the lack of political courage that has allowed the current state of affairs to persist for way too long."

A successful repeal of the law in New York could signal major change for the rest of the country. "For better and for worse, what happens in New York has an impact beyond New York," Lieberman said. "Changes in policing in New York will have an impact nationwide."

Those involved in the fight are optimistic it may actually get done. Momentum to pass a bill repealing the law, which has already been introduced, has never been stronger. Bandele said people are eager for tangible reform in the wake of public outcry about police brutality in America, and CUPR is looking to "strike while the iron is hot."

"I hear people you don't usually hear talking about constitutional law talking about 50-a, talking about police secrecy in New York," Bandele said. "On every level of the community people are aware."

Even on an online petition, started by three young friends, has gone viral. Over 100,000 people have signed their names in just three days.

"It speaks to the fact that people want to do something," Kit Wu, one of the petitions co-founders, told ABC News. "People want to do something that actually changes their institutions and right now, 50-a is the exact issue that allows them to."

New York Senator Brad Hoylman said his office has received nearly 2,000 emails in one today calling for reform.

“I can’t overstate how rare and how massive that is for a state legislature,” Holman said in the tweet on Tuesday. He later added his office is getting about 350 emails an hour. "I’m confident in saying that I’m getting more emails in support of police reform right now than I have gotten on any issue in recent memory, maybe ever," Hoylman said.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has also expressed support for reforms. “I would sign it today,” Cuomo said when he was asked if the bill were to be passed.

New York State Senator Jamaal Bailey, a co-sponsor of the bill, told ABC News he has "no reason but to think positively" about the bill chances of passing, which he said would be a step forward for both the public and law enforcement alike.

"If we are able to enact meaningful reform with the repel of 50-a, we can finally start going towards an area where accountability and trust are valued above all, as opposed to the current system where many people are in fear of police," Bailey told ABC News in an interview.

On Monday, CUPR sent a letter to the leaders of the New York State Senate demanding they pass the bill. Eighty-five prominent organizations, including the Innocence Project and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, signed on as well.

They said they have yet to receive a response, but when reached by ABC News, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins referred to a previous statement, which said the state Senate and Assembly "will be developing a legislative package based on the ideas put forward. We intend to act on them next week."

"I think now is the time to do it, the elected officials are all getting on the record that they think there should be justice for George Floyd," Bandele said. "Its performance and not bravery, and real courage would mean crating systems for justice right here in New York."

PHOTO: In this March 4, 2020, file photo, Mayor Bill de Blasio is shown at a press conference in New York.
In this March 4, 2020, file photo, Mayor Bill de Blasio is shown at a press conference in New York.
Europanewswire/Gado via Getty Images, FILE

Experts said 50-a has only gotten stricter under New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has broadened the definition of what records can be considered classified under the law to include nearly all personnel records. Lieberman called the interpretation "bizarre and very harmful."

De Blasio has recently voiced his support for repeal of the law, but experts remain skeptical. He has mentioned or been asked about 50-a at least five times this week alone.

"We need 50-a repealed," he said on Monday. "Let's do that in the month of June."

"I'll believe it when i see it," Lieberman, from the NYCLU, said of de Blasio's promise. "He's been protesting so loudly that he's trying to repeal it, but the only time he says that is when he's criticized."

"I am aware of no affirmative action by New York [City] to get 50-a repealed," Lieberman added.

A spokesperson for Mayor de Blasio did not immediately return a request for comment from ABC News.

Union bucks reform attempts, decries lack of protection for police

Reform on 50-a has largely been bucked but the law enforcement community and strong police unions, which argue a repeal of the law would release officers' personal information a subject them to privacy and safety issues.

Last week, the New York Police Benevolent Association President lashed out at the Governor for his comments wanting to change the legislation.

“Last night, we saw violent criminals targeting New York City police officers with bricks, brass knuckles and Molotov cocktails, for no reason other than the uniform we wear. It is inconceivable that Governor Cuomo would want to arm those extremists with confidential police personnel records, so that they bring their weapons to our front doors,” PBA President Patrick J. Lynch said in a statement. “ We cannot protect New York if politicians won’t even provide the bare minimum protections for us and our families.”

Experts and advocates involved in the discussion say there is no bases this argument. "Nobody wants, and nor would repealing 50-a, provide for access to personal information that would jeopardize the privacy and personal safety police officers, they know that," Lieberman said. Bandele, from CUPR, called it a "false talking point" and a "lie."

A report on the law by the Civil Rights Committee and the Criminal Court Committee in the New York State Bar association found "no evidence that this transparency endangers officers in those states [that have already repeal 50-a laws] or inhibits the administration of justice."

The New York Police Department said they are looking forward to working with legislators to get a bill passed.

“The NYPD has long advocated for reforming the law," said a statement provided to ABC News. "Department executives have spoken publicly about the need for fairness and transparency in the law and have testified in Albany in support of an amendment to accomplish that.”

Sonia Y. Wiggins-Pruitt, the Chairwoman of the National Black Police Association told ABC News, her organization is behind true police reform and is in favor of more transparency.

“I think we’re past the point of having dialogue, anything that is standing in the way of true transparency into a police officers disciplinary records, we should be taking a quick look at that. If there is some steps that have to be taken to ether change or repeal that law, absolutely, the National Black Police Association will stand behind that,” she said.

Asked what would happen if efforts to repeal the law did now prevail?

"I don't even want to think about that," Lieberman said. "I can't imagine the rift between police department and New Yorkers getting deeper. There's no choice here."

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