New York votes to make long-secret police conduct records public in wake of George Floyd protests

New York state’s Democrat-led legislature on Tuesday voted to repeal a decades-old law that had previously guaranteed police misconduct records were shielded from the public record.

Lawmakers in the Empire state have drawn on the momentum caused by the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 while in the custody of Minneapolis police, and subsequent protests to act on a package of police accountability bills.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo had already said Monday that he intends to sign the new legislation that will make police disciplinary records subject to the Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, requests, which are usually made by media – but can be made by any American. The governor noted that records are already available for other government employees, such as teachers and toll takers.

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“Their records will be available,” Cuomo said. “It is just parity and equality with every other public employee.”

The state law in question, known by its section title, 50-a, was passed in the 1970s to prevent criminal defense attorneys from subjecting officers to cross-examinations about irrelevant information in their personnel file. It also applied to jail guards and firefighters.

But over the years, the law also draped a veil of secrecy over most records of alleged police misconduct. Formal complaints about excessive force by officers are not public in New York. Police departments have cited the law in refusing to say even whether officers have been punished.

“The silver lining on this incredibly dark cloud is that the sun is finally starting to shine on injustice. Maybe it’s the unmistakable, and in my opinion indisputable, video evidence that we saw a live murder on TV, but it’s done something to the consciousness of America,” state Sen. Jamaal Bailey, D-Bronx, who sponsored the bill, said in a floor speech before the legislation passed.

“I don’t know if there could be a more meaningful piece of legislation for me and this body because it’s way more than just policy,” he continued, according to NY Daily News. “There’s a time to not only correct what we thought and knew to be a flaw in the state law, but to correct misconceptions that many of us have carried for too long for things that we can never experience.”

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In 2016, 50-a gained attention when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio argued the law prevented the release of disciplinary records of the police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner.

Garner, an unarmed black man, died in 2014 in Staten Island after he was placed in a chokehold by police and recorded saying "I can't breathe' – the same phrase that galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement and which Floyd repeated before he died on May 25.

Since Floyd's death, de Blasio said Sunday he's committed to defunding the New York City Police Department -- the latest objective advocated by Black Lives Matter.

The leaders of a coalition of police unions argued in a statement Monday that releasing law enforcement members’ public records, including complaints, could leave officers facing “unavoidable and irreparable harm to reputation and livelihood.”

“We, as professionals, are under assault,” Pat Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, representing rank-and-file NYPD officers, said during a press conference Tuesday, according to NY Daily News. “And this in a backdrop of a night when we had seven shootings (in Brooklyn) in seven minutes.”

Critics of the repeal include Republican state Sen. Patrick Gallivan — a former sheriff in Erie County, home to the state’s second-largest city, Buffalo — who noted the overwhelming number of complaints against officers are deemed unfounded.

“I think people are calling for a reform that doesn’t get at any of the problems that we face as a society,” Gallivan said in an interview with the Associated Press.

The repeal passed along party lines in both the state Senate, 40-22, and the state Assembly, 101-43, Tuesday evening, with no Republicans endorsing the new bill making police disciplinary records public.

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Other bills aimed at increasing police accountability that passed in the New York state legislature this week included the “Eric Garner Bill,” which bans police chokeholds, and another that makes it easier to file civil lawsuits against people who call 911 and falsely accuse someone of criminal activity based only on their race or background.

A bill passed that will ensure all state troopers are fitted with body cameras, and another requires police officers to provide medical and mental health attention to those held in custody, WNBC reported.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.