On Friday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made history when he signed into law a batch of police reforms that had quickly moved through the State Assembly and Senate in the wake of nationwide protests against racist police violence.
Repealing Civil Service Law 50a, a 1970s law which kept the personnel records of police officers, firefighters and corrections officers confidential, was the most aspirational of the reforms to be signed, as many of the others had already been implemented at smaller, more local levels. Additionally, it’s the reform that could have the most material impact on policing, barring any type of major funding scale-backs, as it introduces at least some level of the accountability and transparency that police have avoided for years.
Local law enforcement officials are lukewarm on the repeal of the law that has shielded records, citing concerns that it would end up revealing too much about officers and violate their workplace privacy.
“I would say that if there is a compelling rationale to request a summary of an officer's record based upon just cause and legal standing, then I would support such in the spirit of transparency,” Ithaca Police Department Chief Dennis Nayor said. “If so, then all requests should first be reviewed through the Department Administration, City Attorney's office, and HR Department to verify the legitimacy of such requests. Due to the nature of our profession and the risks associated, limits should be placed upon what is releasable since various elements of personal information (addresses, phone numbers, birth dates, family information, etc.) must remain protected.”
Theoretically, one would think police departments would be able to redact any information deemed too personally invasive to an officer while still releasing the bulk of the information contained in personnel files.
Tompkins County Jail Supervisor Ray Bunce said that the law as it was previously written did allow for personnel records to be released if they were relevant to a criminal proceeding against the officer, but that the release of the records would deteriorate trust in law enforcement for irrelevant reasons.
“Personnel files are for work related information, not criminal information,” Bunce said. “Personnel files are in place to keep a record of work related concerns and to show a history of how supervisors attempted to change any behaviors that did not meet the department standards. This information is not for public knowledge as it can undermine the public trust that a person should be able to have in a public servant who acts in accordance to the department’s policies and procedures.”
Tompkins County Sheriff Derek Osborne said he was recently asked if he was already complying with the spirit of the repeal before it was actually carried out; Osborne said he wasn’t, because doing so would have been a misdemeanor. Now, he said his concern is how far the law will go.
“Although I understand why some are seeking to repeal, I have some concerns as to what is being asked for,” Osborne said. “If a supervisor writes someone up for being late to work is that something the public feels they need to know about? If so, I think that's a bit over the top. How is this legislation defining discipline? I don't think any of us knows. Anyhow, I'll leave legislation up to the legislators and will execute whatever comes my way.”
Ithaca Police Benevolent Association President Eric Doane joined others in drawing lines between personal information and things like conduct reports. He would not comment further, though.
“Our only concern is that no personal information should ever be released,” Doane said. “There are too many unanswered questions to comment further because we just do not know what the details are and I do not want to speculate.”
Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick voiced the strongest support for the move.
“I do support repeal of 50a,” Myrick said, having brought it up in comments before protesters at a rally on the Commons on June 7. “Any time an officer violates a use of force policy we should know about it.”
When asked about the repeal, Tompkins County District Attorney candidates Ed Kopko and Matt Van Houten, the incumbent, both said they support the repeal of the bill in the interest of law enforcement transparency.
“There should be a nationwide registry of all rogue police officers, so that they can no longer work as rogue police officers,” Kopko said. “This law is a needless hindrance to good police work. Good police officers don’t have disciplinary records.”