ALBANY – Chautauqua County’s Senate representative in Albany says there’s already been unintended consequences of the recent repeal of a state law that protected members of law enforcement from disclosing disciplinary records.
Earlier this month both the State Senate and Assemblyman approved the long-stalled reform of the state’s 50a statute — which since the 1970s had routinely been used to keep the public from learning about police misconduct and disciplinary actions taken against police officers, correction officers, and fire fighters.
The repeal of the statute came in response to protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black Minnesota man who was killed when a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. But even before Floyd’s death, a 50a repeal effort had been gaining steam in the legislature. The law became a point of contention in New York City following the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner at the hands of then-NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose disciplinary record was shielded in secrecy.
With the State Senate falling to Democratic control after the 2018 Elections, and with the Floyd’s death gaining national attention from protesters and demonstrates calling for immediate reforms, the effort was made in Albany at the start of this month to repeal the statute. The bill ultimately passed along party lines in the Senate by a vote of 40-22 and in the Assembly by a vote of 101-43. It was signed by governor Andrew Cuomo at the start of last week.
Sen. George Borrello (R-Irving), who represents all of Chautauqua County in the upper chamber in Albany and who was one of the 22 Republicans to vote against the repeal, released a statement this week denouncing the repeal and pointing to what he says are unintended consequences that will impact the budgets of local governments across the state.
According to Borrello, officials in the Town of Cuba recently received a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request from an out-of-state organization called MuckRock, demanding copies of all police personnel files that contain complaints of misconduct, including accusations that were found to be groundless after investigation. The request is for information dating back to the 1970s. MuckRock has stated that they have made this request of every policing agency in New York State.
“This is why I voted against the repeal of 50-a,” Borrello said in his statement to the media. “At a time when localities are struggling to meet their regular expenses because of the crushing impact that COVID-19 has had on their budgets, it is outrageous that they will now be required to devote precious staff time and taxpayer dollars towards searching, copying, faxing and emailing decades-old personnel files containing groundless claims, even those where the officers involved have been deceased for decades.”
Borrello said that for many police departments across the state, the small reimbursement that they are entitled to collect from a requesting organization won’t even begin to cover the costs with researching, assembling, and sending out the requested information. He also said that services to the public may even be impacted due to the time and resources required to fulfill the FOIL request.
“What good will this information serve?” Borrello asked. “It will wrongly tarnish officers who had unsubstantiated complaints lodged by vengeful criminal defendants and serve as fodder for lawsuits by trial lawyers looking to line their pockets. Taxpayers will be picking up the tab for this phishing expedition. That’s why a thoughtful analysis that included the potential financial impact and unintended consequences should have been done.”
“This is another example of why knee-jerk reactions for political reasons are costly,” he added.
Meanwhile, advocates – including New Yorkers United for Justice – and legal organizations such as the Legal Aid Society and the New York Civil Liberties Union, had pushed for the repeal of 50-a in the name of transparency.
“Our criminal justice system, in order to build and maintain public trust, must be transparent,” said New Yorkers United for Justice chief strategist Khalil Cumberbatch. “Even more so as it relates to law enforcement agencies — and that means accountability and public scrutiny for police.”