On Monday, June 8, 2020, Larren M. Nashelsky, chair of Morrison & Foerster, together with over 30 leaders of major law firms with offices in the State of New York, wrote to Governor Cuomo and the leaders of the State Legislature to urge the repeal of Section 50-a of the state’s Civil Rights Law. The letter came as the Legislature convened to consider a response to the tide of frustration, grief, anger, and calls to action that has swept across the state and the country since George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis.
As explained by the New York City Bar Association in its recent legislative report, Section 50-a—written as a modest protection for police personnel records—has been expansively interpreted by New York courts to prevent disclosure of police disciplinary records, even substantiated incidents of police misconduct and disciplinary decisions concerning those incidents. Section 50-a has grown into an immense barrier to the accountability for police misconduct that is so urgently needed to build confidence in our police departments, especially among communities of color.
Section 50-a provides that “[a]ll personnel records used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion” of police officers, firefighters, and correction officers shall be considered “confidential” and subject to disclosure only with the subject officer’s consent or by court order. In one ruling after the next, New York’s courts have expanded the meaning of “personnel records” protected by Section 50-a, so that, today, virtually no information is available to the public about a police officer’s record of substantiated misconduct or disciplinary penalties imposed internally, even when those records are maintained by an independent review board.
“Continuing to shield records of police misconduct from public disclosure is unacceptable,” Mr. Nashelsky wrote in the letter. “Repeal of Civil Rights Law Section 50-a will provide the public with much needed transparency about police misconduct and will, we hope, help prevent future acts of brutality by bringing sunlight to potentially problematic law enforcement officers,” he added. “As leaders of the Bar, we need to build the public’s trust in law enforcement and help eradicate racism in our institutions.”