NYPD (79569)
NYPD/Police Credit: Bill Moore photo

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 “Now that 50-a has been repealed, the police unions are attempting to continue their campaign to keep police misconduct hidden.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.

In response, de Blasio filed a motion to dismiss the petition. This week, New York State Supreme Court Judge Joan A. Madden began to hear arguments in the city’s motion to dismiss the petition. Gwen Carr said that it’s been too long to not have justice served.

“It’s been over six years since the NYPD killed my son, and it’s been over six years of cover-ups and delays by Mayor de Blasio, the NYPD and others when it comes to disciplining and firing all the other officers besides Pantaleo who engaged in misconduct related to Eric’s murder,” said Carr at a media briefing. “Mayor de Blasio and his people want to make it seem like everything has been dealt with, but we all know that’s not true. There’s unfinished business that the mayor, the NYPD and others want to sweep under the rug when they should have already fired the other officers besides Pantaleo who lied, illegally leaked sealed records, did nothing to intervene when Eric cried ‘I can’t breathe’ 11 times and other misconduct. I look forward to this case moving forward tomorrow.”

Attempts to contact the city for a response were unsuccessful for this story.

“CPR has been on the frontlines of the police accountability movement for years and fought tenaciously and successfully for the needed repeal of 50-a,” stated Darius Charney, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “No organization has more expertise on policing transparency and accountability or more credibility in representing the interests of the communities most affected by discriminatory and unlawful policing.”

In another incident, in 1999, then New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani leaked the juvenile records of Patrick Dorismond. Dorismond, a security guard, was accosted by undercover cops and eventually shot and killed during the ensuing scuffle. Giuliani said that Dorismond was “not a choir boy,” but Dorismond was literally a choir boy growing up.

But the coalition of law enforcement and firefighter unions believe that this leaked information is a bridge too far.

“…This lawsuit defends the basic rights of individuals to privacy and equal protection, and the presumption of innocence unless proven otherwise after a lawful proceeding,” said Sheinkopf. “An internet data dump—containing documents describing unproven unadjudicated allegations against innocent brave public safety employees, who dutifully go to work each day, and put themselves in harm’s way to protect New York City’s 8.5 million residents and 60 million visitors each year—is not fair by any measure. It would leave these essential public servants with fewer rights and protections than other city employees.”

Constance Malcolm, the mother of police brutality victim Ramarley Graham, believes that the status quo needs to go.

“Under Mayor de Blasio, the city expanded 50-a’s harmful impact and has historically played an obstructionist role in police accountability, including efforts to repeal 50-a,” said Malcolm during a virtual news conference. “The city consistently bends to the will of the NYPD instead of holding the NYPD accountable, and cannot represent CPR or the public’s interests in this litigation.”