Opening police personnel records would make law enforcement departments more transparent and help address issues of brutality, according to proponents of police reform.
As it stands, the records are confidential and not subject to inspection without the written consent of the officer. The privacy rule is known as 50-a, and it prevents the public from knowing whether a police officer has been disciplined. The rule also applies to firefighters, paramedics and corrections officers.
Repeal of 50-a has long been a goal of advocates of police reform, and it is getting renewed push after the death of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police.
Repeal of 50-a was the first of 12 pieces of legislation highlighted by the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus during a series of statewide news conferences June 4.
Events were held from the Bronx to Buffalo. A video news conference in Rochester convened by Assemblyman David Gantt included Monroe County legislators Vince Felder and Sabrina LaMar, Mayor Lovely Warren, City Council President Loretta Scott and the Rev. Lewis Stewart.
Gantt was not able to participate, but Felder read a statement from him that called for people of all colors to push for substantive police reform.
The package includes legislation that would create a special prosecutor to investigate alleged offenses by a police officer; require medical attention for persons under arrest; provide for local independent oversight of police; and expand use of body cameras for state police. Legislation also would establish the crime of strangulation.
Local law enforcement officials, including the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, said they were reviewing the legislation.
“Law enforcement in Monroe County is very professional has a good relationship with our community,” Gates Police Chief James VanBrederode, president of the Monroe County Chiefs Association, wrote in response to a request for comment.
“Two-way transparency is a good thing,” he wrote. “We spend countless hours building relationships and knocking down barriers. No law enforcement leader wants a rogue cop on the job. As changes in policing are made, all we ask is for a fair shake; that we are judged by an unbiased lens and that we don’t become labeled.”
Warren said Rochester Police Department already banned chokeholds. The department does de-escalation training and requires verbalization prior to using any type of force when time allows.
“Part of our training includes exhausting all available alternatives depending on the immediacy of the threat,” she said. “Officers are required to intervene upon seeing an officer act in a manner not consistent with these procedures.. When they fail to do so, here in Rochester we have held them accountable.”
Felder said the speaker of the Assembly and the majority leader of the Senate would bring the bills up as soon as possible.
“Right now it’s the hot topic because of all the unrest in this country,” he said. “America has a way of getting excited about things and then forgetting about them.”
At least two protests calling for police reform and speaking out against racism were scheduled for Rochester on June 5. Several have been held in the days since the May 30 Black Lives Matter event at Martin Luther King Jr. Park.
Scott said proponents of reform would like to see all the proposed legislation passed.
She said because 50-a prevents the release of information about police, citizens don’t know about any discipline for an officer found to commit wrongdoing. She said 50-a significantly affects the ability to implement the Police Accountability Board.
The PAB is tied up in court over whether it can mete out discipline.
Proponents of repeal said that when it comes to personnel records, police officers should be held to the same standard as health care workers, whose discipline is public.
On their face, the proposed bills would open up police practices to the public. Asked if the bills could, in some way, hinder public safety, Warren answered, “That’s a bridge too far. … We’re talking about very specific reforms in the state of New York that many of them have been called for for a long time.”
Warren said that a community can be protected without citizens having to worry about the protectors.
“We will not tolerate the brutality that has been going on for generations,” she said. “We have to be very careful about how we portray this, as if it has to be either or. It needs to be both. We all know we need a community and police department that work together.”