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New York to repeal police transparency law 50-a

Like many of you, we have been appalled by the steady stream of videos showing unwarranted force by police officers against predominately peaceful protests. Amidst a national re-examination of the laws and culture governing policing, there has been renewed focus in New York on repealing the state law commonly known as “50-a,” which limits the disclosure of police personnel records, including disciplinary complaints, absent either the written consent of the officer or a court order.   

The history of 50-a is complicated. Passed in the 1970s, the law’s original stated purpose was to prevent defense attorneys from frivolously requesting police records to cross-examine officers at trial. But whatever the law’s original intent, a series of New York State court decisions have dramatically expanded its reach. By 1999, New York courts had moved the law outside of the litigation context entirely, extending the 50-a shield to record requests made by the public and the press. Subsequent court cases have gone so far as to outright prohibit the disclosure of disciplinary records, even when the records are redacted, anonymized, or aggregated. At the same time, the NYPD has taken steps to eliminate other avenues to obtaining these records. For example, the longstanding practice of posting officer disciplinary records outside of the public information office at New York Police headquarters for use by beat reporters was cancelled in 2016. At some point In the past few years, all police records were removed from the city’s public archives.

Add it all up and New York State is a strong contender for the nation’s least transparent jurisdiction when it comes to disclosure of police misconduct. But pressure has been mounting for its repeal, especially after 50-a was invoked in 2014 to shield the disciplinary records of Daniel Pantaleo, the officer that fatally choked Eric Garner. The coalition of interests pushing for repeal is diverse, including activists, lawmakers, civil liberties and good government groups, the New York City Bar, and even the government itself. New York State’s Committee on Open Government, the body responsible for overseeing and advising on the state’s freedom of information laws, has criticized or outright called for the repeal of 50-a in each of its annual reports stretching back to 2013. In 2019, even NYPD commissioner James O’Neill called for 50-a reform following the release of an NYPD-sponsored report on the department’ disciplinary system. In recent days, moderate Long Island Senators, Bill de Blasio and (more importantly) Governor Andrew Cuomo have also explicitly endorsed repeal.

The repeal of 50-a is a crucial step forward for government transparency.Our commitment to transparency as a means of ensuring public accountability and government responsiveness is as relevant here as it is the context of our traditional anti-corruption activities. The nearly impenetrable bar to obtaining disciplinary records under current law prevents meaningful oversight of police activity and encourages officers to behave more violently than they would if they were subjected to public scrutiny. This feeds a loss of trust in the police and government more generally, especially in minority communities, fueling anger and disengagement, and undermining the strength of our democracy.          

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New Yorkers need to be extra careful when filling out complicated absentee ballots (or absentee ballot applications) if they plan to vote by mail in the upcoming primaries. Fortunately the Gotham Gazette has published a handy guide to help you get it right. All registered voters should have received an absentee ballot application but, if not, the guide explains how to request one and fill it out. The guide also identifies easy to make mistakes on the absentee ballot and key upcoming deadlines to keep in mind.

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We recommend taking advantage of expanded access to vote by mail but, if you still feel like voting in person, you can use this poll site locator tool to figure out where you can vote during early voting and on election day. 

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The New York Board of Elections has agreed to send out accessible ballots to voters with disabilities following a lawsuit by several disability advocacy groups, writes City Limits. The accessible ballots will allow voters that might struggle with paper ballots absent assistance to cast their ballots independently and in private. For example, a voter with impaired vision might receive their ballot in an e-mail. They are then able to interact with this ballot through an assistive technology like a screen reader, which can convert on screen text into speech or braille.

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Upcoming events and actions:

Our #FixNYDemocracy campaign is underway! Soon we’re going to start reaching out to candidates and making sure they commit to giving New York a stronger democracy. If you’re interested in becoming involved, please reach out to RJ at repusnyc@gmail.com.

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Thank you for reading! If you’re interested in getting involved locally:

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Please write repusnyc@gmail.com with any comments, tips, or suggestions.

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The Take

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