50-a repeal tests how far police reforms go

Officer personnel records are now open to the public, but what's next?

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Weeks of non-stop protests seemed to accomplish what nearly two decades of advocacy couldn’t: State lawmakers in Albany passed a slew of bills last week intended to reshape policing throughout New York.

Chief among them was the repeal of a law known as Section 50-a, which kept police officer disciplinary records away from the public.

The repeal came after vigorous calls at both the state and local levels to increase police transparency. Section 50-a was first enacted in 1976, part of an effort to protect the identities of state employees, like law enforcement. But in the nearly 45 years since, it has drawn the ire of police transparency advocates who claim the law was a stumbling block for those seeking to improve police-community relations.

The package that repealed Section 50-a included nine other bills aimed at changing how police function, and how much autonomy law enforcement has over those functions. One law, for example, establishes an office for special investigations, which will automatically investigate any instance where someone dies in police custody. Another bans the use of chokeholds by police departments — a move outlawed by the New York Police Department in the 1990s — and makes it possible to charge officers with a felony if a chokehold ultimately kills someone.

State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, who cosponsored all 10 bills, said the package of new laws is just one step toward rethinking the role of police in New York state.

“Obviously, one bill does not solve all of our problems,” she said. “I think the biggest thing we are seeing across the country right now — and especially in New York — is a real need to reimagine what law enforcement and public safety are.”

But what exactly are the benefits of repealing Section 50-a? And what ultimate impact will it have on policing? Lauren Jones is a researcher at the Vera Institute of Justice, an organization dedicated to resolving race and class disparities in the criminal justice system. Her work is centered around building resources for those trying to navigate their way through Manhattan’s criminal court system while reducing the use of jails.

Increasing access to police disciplinary records, she argued, is important.

“So, 50-a is something that advocates have been trying to change for a very, very long time,” Jones said. “It had prevented people who were in the criminal justice system from seeing the disciplinary records of officers who they had encounters with. So, when there was misconduct, it was impossible to see whether a police officer had been involved in misconduct before.”

The first key impact of 50-a’s repeal is that it enables the public to keep a closer watch on smaller police departments who do not always get the amount of watchdog attention as larger agencies like the NYPD, Jones said. The second impact is the ability to identify and target systemic problem spots within police departments.

“We’ll see whether there is a process of holding officers to account and making sure problems are addressed,” Jones said. “If we see a police officer with not one, not two, but 10, 11 complaints against them — and the police department’s not doing anything to address it — that allows us to find a larger problem.”

But increased transparency alone will not solve all the problems people have with policing, Biaggi said, adding it’s important to place the entire criminal justice system under a microscope.

“Making these disciplinary records public is not going to undo a system of violence, of systemic racism, or any of the issues we have seen,” the senator said. “If we pass all the laws we want and don’t change the system under which the laws are functioning, then all we’ve really done is add another layer of policy that is not going to make it into the public discourse.”

For Jones, this most recent package of laws from Albany only gets slightly closer to the overall goal of reimagining the social approach to public safety. Something made much easier by one bill in the package that forces police departments to collect and publish data including the racial demographics of those they arrest or question.

“I think we know that there is racial bias in the system. We know that black and Latinx people are targeted at a much higher rate,” she said. “We need to be thinking about how we can reduce what police are responsible for, because over the years we have come to rely on police as the catch-all for all of our problems.”

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