More than two years after New York lawmakers repealed the state law that shielded police disciplinary records from public view, court challenges and outright resistance by some police agencies have combined to hobble what was supposed to be a new era of police accountability and transparency, the USA Today Network reports. The 2020 vote to repeal Section 50-a of the state's Civil Rights Law, which created an exemption to the state's public records law, came in the wake of George Floyd's murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. More recent police-involved incidents that have left residents dead or injured have fueled further pushes for more transparency around police actions. But, as soon as the repeal efforts opened long-sealed doors, the roadblocks to full transparency become immediately apparent.
Government agencies from Syracuse to New York City sought to shield access to disciplinary records that were created prior to 2020, when 50-a was repealed, or disciplinary matters that did not result in a finding of guilt. Records turned over by court order suggest that these filters would make only the tiniest sliver of law enforcement disciplinary records available to the public. Some courts have looked the other way. A state Supreme Court judge in Rochester ruled in 2021 that releasing these records would "deprive these officers of their contractual ... rights" and other rulings shielded records of unsubstantiated allegations. The first appeals court to weigh in on these issues provided moderate encouragement to open government advocates. Last last year, appellate justices in Rochester reined in the attempts of departments in Rochester and Syracuse to withhold disciplinary records. In reference to a lawsuit originally brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the court ruled that records must be released upon request, even if the allegations of misconduct were found to be unsubstantiated. That decision still left open the door to redacting the most critical information from disciplinary files, and only time will tell how much information the public and the media will be able to access from local departments about officer misconduct.