We Must Reform State Law Keeping Disciplinary Actions Secret

February 8, 2019

Op-Ed by Police Commissioner James P. O'Neill published in the Friday, February 8, 2019, print issue of the New York Daily News

In 2018, crime in New York City hit another record low. In 1990, there were more than 2,200 murders; last year, fewer than 300.

The NYPD produced these historic gains with a systemic focus on the people and places driving crime.

The next-level crime reduction will be achieved by working with community members, candidly discussing problems and sharing responsibility for safety together.

This is the vision behind our neighborhood policing philosophy, and since its introduction in 2015, we have forged deeper connections with the people we serve, in every community.

For neighborhood policing to maximize its potential, however, there must be mutual trust between the police and the public. And nothing builds trust like transparency and accountability.

Last week, an independent panel of distinguished experts published the results of its seven-month review of the NYPD's discipline system. I personally asked for this review, because we must always strive to get better, and I accepted each of the recommendations they put forth.

This includes reforming what's known as section 50-a of the New York State Civil Rights Law.

By law, 50-a prohibits the disclosure of public employees' personnel records — including the discipline records of cops — without specific authorization by the courts or the individual.

While the NYPD made available some disciplinary information in years past, that practice required reconsideration given the law. Since 2016, multiple court rulings have upheld 50-a, blocking public access to these records.

This law must be changed so the NYPD can publicly disclose discipline information. The best proposal would make public an officer's name, charges, documents and outcomes after the completion of a process. This information would be published online, foregoing the need for a public information request, and would feature both NYPD and Civilian Complaint Review Board discipline cases.

And body-worn camera footage shouldn't be subject to 50-a withholding.

If the law is reformed in this way, the public and the press will have more information and transparency than before — more than prior to 2016, and before court decisions reinforced the restrictions of 50-a.

While reforming 50-a, we must also address legitimate officer safety concerns. Officers have seen protests at their homes and death threats to themselves and their families — even before the facts of an incident were fully known. Direct threats against officers increased from 151 in 2017 to 154 in 2018, in addition to general threats against the police averaging 150 per year during the same period.

In one brazen case, one man attempted to send bombs targeting police officers at their homes, resulting in the death of an innocent citizen. The suspect wanted revenge against the cops who had arrested him years earlier.

In the internet age, where personal information may be a Google search away, releasing personnel records in cases where there are allegations but the facts are not fully known, or in cases where there is a clear and explicit threat, is a risk to officer safety.

However, in the vast majority of discipline cases, a reformed 50-a would allow for the disclosure of disciplinary cases after they have been adjudicated — providing the public greater transparency than before.

The NYPD doesn't fear scrutiny; we welcome that discussion. And we don't bristle at accountability.

That's because we know that the dedicated individuals who become cops want to fight crime and help people. And the numbers back that up. The NYPD and CCRB adjudicate 600-700 disciplinary cases per year — from a department of 36,000 cops, responding to literally millions of calls for service, and millions more interactions with the public every year.

Our officers overwhelmingly follow the rules, and serve New York City bravely.

New York City has never been safer. To drive crime even lower, the NYPD and our 8.6 million residents must work together. Transparency — and trust — should fuel that collaboration.