New Legislation Implementing Police Reform in New York
In the wake of an historic wave of protests, sparked by the death of George Floyd, New York became one of the first states to enact an expansive package of police reform bills. In addition, the New York City Council enacted a series of laws that will have a significant impact on members of the New York City Police Department.
Among the series of laws enacted by the Legislature, the centerpiece was the repeal of Civil Rights Law 50-a (CRL 50-a), which had shielded from public disclosure, certain police records containing disciplinary actions and misconduct complaints. The statute was enacted in 1976 to prevent what was then perceived as efforts by defense counsel to utilize information contained in police personnel records to cross-examine and impeach officers during trial in an overly aggressive and unfair manner. Cf. People v. Gisendanner, 48 N.Y.2d 543 (1979).
Prior to the repeal of CRL 50-a, New York and Delaware were the only states that had provided statutory protection to police officer personnel records. With the repeal, New York has joined 12 other states in promoting transparency of police disciplinary procedures.
Under the new law (L. 2020, Ch. 96, eff. June 16, 2020), Section 50-a of the Civil Rights Law is repealed and, as a result, police personnel files are now to be treated in the same manner as other police records for the purpose of discovery. The new law did, however, amend the Public Officers Law to require certain limited information to be redacted when personnel files are disclosed.
Thus, before providing records, a law enforcement agency must redact certain personal information, including medical history, home address, personal phone numbers, email addresses, Social Security numbers, and the like. In addition, the agency can redact records pertaining to a “technical infraction.” A technical infraction is defined as one that does not involve interaction with members of the public; is not of public concern; and is not otherwise connected to a police officer’s investigative, enforcement or training responsibilities. Technical infractions might include uniform violations or untidy stationhouse lockers.
Going forward, it remains to be seen what effect these reforms will have on the operation of police agencies and on the criminal justice system itself.
Barry Kamins, a partner at Aidala, Bertuna & Kamins and author of New York Search and Seizure (Lexis/Nexis 2020), is a former New York Supreme Court Judge.
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