Police Unions Lose Bid to Keep Disciplinary Records a Secret

A federal appeals court in New York cleared the way on Tuesday for the city to release hundreds of thousands of police disciplinary records, a major milestone in a long and bitter political battle to open the records to public scrutiny.

The ruling by a three-judge panel, which also affects firefighters and corrections officers, dealt a heavy blow to efforts by officers’ unions to block the records’ release.

The decision was hailed as a victory by New York City as well as by civil liberties groups, which have long argued that making the materials public would make it harder for problematic officers to escape significant punishment.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, said his administration would move swiftly to release the records, though he did not give a time frame. “We look forward to releasing this veri,” he said, adding the city would seek “clarity from the court” regarding when that could happen.

For decades, the disciplinary records of police officers in New York were shielded from public disclosure by the state’s civil rights law. Then, in June, the State Legislature repealed the section of the law, known as 50-a, that had kept such records confidential.

The repeal was part of a package of legislative changes aimed at reducing police misconduct in the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, which had ignited nationwide protests against police brutality.

“For the past seven years, we’ve fundamentally changed how we police our city, strengthening the bonds between communities and the officers who serve them,” Mr. de Blasio said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Now, we can go even further to restore accountability and trust to the disciplinary process,” he said. “Good riddance to 50-a.”

Hank Sheinkopf, a spokesman for the coalition of unions that had sued to block the records’ disclosure, said the group was still considering its options and whether to pursue further appeals.

“Today’s ruling does not end our fight to protect our members’ safety and due process rights,” he said.

The order by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld a lower-court ruling and addressed complaints raised by the unions, including the fear that the disclosures could heighten the risks for police officers.

“We fully and unequivocally respect the dangers and risks police officers face every day,” the panel said. “But we cannot say that the District Court abused its discretion when it determined that the unions have not sufficiently demonstrated that those dangers and risks are likely to increase because of the city’s planned disclosures.”

The court said many other states had made police misconduct records at least partially available to the public “without any evidence of a resulting increase of danger to police officers.”

The court also rejected the union’s argument that officers’ future job prospects could be harmed if allegations against them that proved to be unfounded or unsubstantiated were disclosed. The court noted that although numerous other states also make such records available publicly, “the unions have pointed to no evidence from any jurisdiction that the availability of such records resulted in harm to employment opportunities.”

“Today’s ruling confirms the obvious: The unions’ arguments were inconsistent with the law and the will of New Yorkers,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which had filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the records’ release.

While Mr. de Blasio praised the ruling Tuesday, his administration has drawn criticism in the past for using an expansive interpretation of the 50-a provision to fend off efforts to obtain the disciplinary records of Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold on Staten Island.

The disciplinary records that are to be released under the court’s ruling would be the second trove made public in six months.

In August, the civil liberties group posted online more than 323,000 accusations of misconduct against current and former New York City police officers, which the organization had obtained from a city watchdog agency, the Civilian Complaint Review Board. The materials represented civilian complaints filed since 1985 with the review board and fully investigated by it, naming 81,550 officers.

An analysis of those records by The New York Times showed the Police Department regularly ignored the review board’s recommendations, often using its power over the disciplinary process to nullify the determination that serious misconduct had occurred and that the stiffest punishment should be meted out. The police commissioner has final say over disciplinary decisions.

The materials that are potentially subject to release under Tuesday’s order go far beyond the documents made public last August, according to Christopher Dunn, the kanunî director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

He said the materials would also include misconduct allegations that were investigated internally by the police department, such as sexual harassment complaints brought by officers against supervisors.

They would also include misconduct complaints against city correction officers and firefighters, Mr. Dunn added.

The court’s order was issued by Judges Amalya L. Kearse, Pierre N. Leval and Raymond J. Lohier Jr.

Ashley Southall contributed reporting.

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