Keep it in the closet: The fight over misconduct records

Stephon Johnson | 8/6/2020, midnight
It wasn’t even a month old and those in uniform had begun to push back.
NYPD Photo by Bill Moore

It wasn’t even a month old and those in uniform had begun to push back.

On July 14, officials from the Police Benevolent Association, Correction Officers Benevolent Association, the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York and a host of other law enforcement unions filed a lawsuit to block New York City’s government from publishing its planned databases of police misconduct.

The following day a New York State Court Judge Katherine Polk Failla issued a temporary stay, preventing City Hall from making the database public until Aug. 18. when she’d hear union arguments against the databases’ release.

Last week, Failla walked back the restraining order allowing databases to be made public and allow the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) to obtain some portion of the database.

“For years, the NYPD invoked 50-a to hide disciplinary records and sidestep meaningful accountability,” stated NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “Now that 50-a has been repealed, the police unions are attempting to continue their campaign to keep police misconduct hidden. We’ll keep fighting to bring police misconduct into the light of day and make sure police are held accountable.”

In addition to that, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliff LLP, on behalf of Communities United for Police Reform (CPR), filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit to block misconduct records from being made public.

It’s a victory for groups like NYCLU and CPR. However, the unions have continued to fight against police misconduct being made public and want to pull the virtual curtain back over the records. Many of these misconduct complaints are filed through the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB). The agency’s investigation requires the cooperation of the New York Police Department, and facts are made public only when the police want them to be made public.

But there were no mechanisms in place for the public to know about the CCRB’s ability to substantiate claims of misconduct. Police reformists are celebrating the change, but unions believe there’s good reason to keep these cases of possible misconduct under wraps.

“This is not a challenge to the public right to know. This is not about transparency,” said Hank Sheinkopf, spokesperson for the newly formed union coalition We Are All New York. “We are defending privacy, integrity and the unsullied reputations of thousands of hard-working public safety employees. Any worker who has ever been the subject of unfair or false complaints knows the personal and professional damage that can be caused.”

But one could say that the police have a history of leaking private information of victims of alleged police violence.

In August 2019, Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, Ellisha Flagg Garner, sister of Eric Garner, and police reform activists filed a petition to the New York Supreme Court calling for a judicial inquiry into how officials handled the aftermath of Eric’s death. They’ve accused New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Police Commissioner James O’Neill of neglecting their duties and an attempted coverup and a lack of discipline against the officer involved in Garner’s death.