Target: New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton
Goal: Reopen the disciplinary records of New York City Police officers to the public.
Police records were exceedingly difficult to obtain before and will become even more difficult now. In 1976, New York State passed Civil Rights Law 50-a, which was written to protect police officers who serve as witnesses to the prosecution in criminal defense cases. Over the past 40 years, the interpretations of 50-a have widened the scope of what is protected under it. This week, mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton have creatively reinterpreted the law yet again, this time to protect police officers who are under investigation or have been disciplined.
According to a 2013 report by Mayor de Blasio himself, then the New York City public advocate, the NYPD failed to respond to more than 30 percent of Freedom of Information requests in the three months studied. The new interpretation of the law creates a barrier between public workers and the public, effectively barring news organizations from accessing information on police disciplinary records. It allows corrupt cops to continue working with virtual impunity and blinds the public to such corruption.
The recent deaths at the hands of police, such as that of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, have refocused public attention toward reining in police corruption and abuse. Law 50-a’s most recent interpretation stands in the way of progress and ultimately allows these abuses of power to continue nearly unchecked. Fortunately, some groups have taken action.
The nonprofit Legal Aid Society has created the Cop Accountability Project, which databases police misconduct that is often guarded by 50-a and similar laws. It allows lawyers access to disciplinary information on the police they are working with, though this information will not be available to the public. Therefore, it is necessary for interpretations of 50-a to be restricted. Urge the NYPD commissioner to open up police disciplinary records to the public once again.
Dear Commissioner Bratton,
The NYPD has many good, hardworking men and women among its ranks, but like all organizations, there are some bad apples. We understand the need to protect your fellow police officers’ names and reputations. However, we also believe that by interpreting Civil Rights Law 50-a in the way that you and Mayor de Blasio recently have does a disservice to the public and, ultimately, the NYPD’s name. For one thing, it makes your department look like it is trying to hide misconduct and bad behavior. For another, it makes your department look like it is unwilling to open a dialogue with the public.
Barring the public and news agencies from accessing disciplinary records ultimately tarnishes your department’s reputation as a force for good. It closes you off from the public and sows seeds of distrust against police. We urge you to rectify this now. Doing so will show the public that you are open to discussion, willing to work with them, and want their trust.
[Your Name Here]
Photo credit: torbakhopper