Amid calls to abolish the police — which would likely make most of us safer in most situations — the New York State legislature has enacted a welcome reform: on Friday, the measure to repeal Civil Rights Law 50-a was signed into law. That means cowardly cops can no longer hide behind this phony privacy law to keep people from finding out about discipline against them.
Groups like the Innocence Project and the New York City Bar Association have been pushing for the law’s repeal for at least eight years. In recent weeks, they were joined by the families of victims of police violence. Hats off to the legislature for bringing about this important and politically fraught reform (up next: break the police unions).
What does the repeal mean to our cases? A lot. We now expect to be able to get complete disciplinary records for the officers who shot and killed Miguel Richards in 2017. We represent his family along with the Law Offices of Daniel McGuinness. We had to fight for years to get unredacted versions of the body camera tapes, which showed the officers appallingly neglect Mr. Richards as he lay bleeding after officers needlessly shot him. How many other people did these same officers neglect? How many did they shoot? What prior acts of dishonesty might they have committed?
We’ll also get disciplinary records for the Queens detectives who framed Felipe Rodriguez for the murder of Maureen Fernandez in 1987 and our client Alvin Alston for a murder that took place a week earlier. We will get records for the Buffalo detective who plied the key witness, an alcoholic, with beer to secure a conviction of our client James Pugh for a murder in 1993. Even in federal cases, we look forward to routine disclosure of background information of NYPD officers who put their credibility in issue.
In cases where we represent women inmates raped by corrections officers, we will get disciplinary histories not only for the rapists, but also for the fellow officers and administrators that enabled them.
But the repeal of 50-a is just a first step in comprehensive police reform or abolition. Its value depends on the quality of the underlying investigative material disclosed. Police disciplinary officials need to be bold in challenging the “bad apples” protected by police unions for the law to have any meaning. The culture of police impunity must end.