On Tuesday, the New York City Police Department announced it would begin posting redacted summaries of police misconduct investigations to its website—with the names of the officers in question omitted. The stab at transparency, conveniently devoid of accountability, has drawn criticism from the Legal Aid Society and the New York chapter of the ACLU, who have been fighting to release police misconduct records since 2016.
Not 24 hours after the announcement, NYPD lawyers were in appellate court, arguing that state secrecy laws prevented them from releasing any more information.
The appeal is the latest in a years-long battle over the interpretation of Section 50-a of a 1976 civil rights code, which the NYPD has only recently invoked to prevent the public and members of the press from viewing police misconduct records at all.
For decades, disciplinary and promotion records known as “personnel orders” hung on clipboards in the NYPD’s press room for journalists to peruse at their leisure. In mid-2016, the agency stopped adding new pages, and shortly after receiving a FOIA request from the Legal Aid Society, the agency removed the clipboards altogether.
“It is not a transparency issue,” a spokesperson for the NYPD told the New York Times at the time. “It is not a change of policy. It is simply a mistake that D.C.P.I. is correcting because the state law prohibits us from disclosing that information.”
Since the 40-year-long mistake was corrected, the NYPD has been the subject of scrutiny and scandal, particularly since BuzzFeed and the New York Post published investigative stories based on leaked personnel orders in the last months. The BuzzFeed investigation found officers threatening to murder people, claims of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior with minors, and hundreds of officers involved in physical assaults, improper use of force, and driving under the influence. All of them were put on probation, a light, year-long disciplinary measure during which officers continue their duties as usual, with full salary.
Since the 2016 disappearance of those clipboards, the NYPD has argued in multiple courts that releasing any officer’s disciplinary information violates state law. The city’s largest police unions have said that even the plan to post summaries of misconduct reports is “plainly illegal,” calling it a breach of privacy and state law. But as the Legal Aid Society pointed out, proceedings against other city workers are made public.
On Wednesday, during the arguments in favor of the NYPD’s interpretation of the 50-a law, an agency lawyer said the department had simply not realized before 2016 that providing the press with information about taxpayer-funded employees’ misconduct was illegal.
“Oh, so no one was paying attention to it?” Justice Rosalyn Richter asked. “So no one cared?”
“Yes,” city lawyer Aaron Bloom replied.