Last spring, after the Black Lives Matter protests had begun, the New York Legislature voted to change a portion of civil rights law that had blocked police disciplinary records from public disclosure. The section of the law, known as 50-a, had made the records confidential, meaning that even the most serious repeat offenders might be shielded from scrutiny. The repeal of 50-a was celebrated by groups that had sought transparency and welcomed by elected officials and some police brass who had been stymied in attempts at reform.
Not everyone was happy. Many of the state’s police rank and file saw the move to see through the so-called blue wall as intrusive and even potentially dangerous to them personally. It seems that the police unions were taking the “protect” part a little too seriously and the “serve” part a bit less so. Through legal action, they sought to keep the records away from the public’s eyes. But this led to the obvious impression that they had something to hide. That may not be the case in the state’s many local police departments, where complaints against officers might be related to inconsequential matters or come from individuals trying to make a point because they were angry about a speeding ticket, for example.
Now, in a closely watched case, a federal appeals court has said that the City of New York must begin releasing the records. East End police officials have said they were waiting for the outcome of the case — notably to which they were not party — before sharing any complaints. It is now clear that the time has come for them to open up the records without any further stalling.