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Cuomo signs bill making NY police disciplinary records public after decades of secrec

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Cuomo signs bill making NY police disciplinary records public after decades of secrec

06.12.20 12:30 PM

NEW YORK — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill Friday that claws back an obscure state law that has allowed police departments to keep disciplinary records secret, ushering in a new era of transparency and marking a major victory for civil rights activists in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.

The bill — passed by the Legislature this week as part of a package of law enforcement reforms — repeals 50-a, a section of New York law that dates back to 1976 and lets police, fire and corrections departments keep disciplinary and personnel records under wraps for all employees.

In 50-a’s place, the legislation adds language that makes such records subject to Freedom of Information Law requests from journalists and the public, shining a light on the well-guarded files after decades of secrecy.

During a signing ceremony at his Manhattan office, Cuomo hailed the repeal of 50-a as a game-changer that was a long time coming.

“The truth is this: Police reform is long overdue, and Mr. Floyd’s murder is just the most recent murder,” Cuomo said. “It’s about being here before — many, many times before.”

The governor added, “Today is about enough is enough.”

In the next breath, Cuomo announced he’s signing an executive order that requires the roughly 500 police departments across New York to develop a plan by April 1 to address systemic racism in their ranks. If a department doesn’t follow through, Cuomo said he will strip it of state funding.

“We’re not going to be as a state government subsidizing improper police tactics. We’re not doing it,” Cuomo said. “And this is how we’re going to do it.”

Joining the governor were State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Yonkers Democrat, State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Stewart-Cousins, who played a large role in shepherding the 50-a repeal through the Senate, echoed the governor’s sentiment and stressed that the battle for justice isn’t over.

“We know this isn’t a cure,” she said. “We know that this is the beginning, but it’s a move to bring justice to a system that has long been unjust.”

Sharpton, who has led the push for police reform for decades, was widely praised by Cuomo for “standing up” and “making sure the people of this nation heard every time every injustice happened.”

Sharpton returned the favor and gave Cuomo a particularly hearty pat on the back for his executive order threatening to defund police departments.

“He has raised the bar,” Sharpton said.

In addition to amending 50-a, Cuomo signed three other long-sought police reform bills approved by the Legislature amid widespread civil unrest over Floyd’s caught-on-camera death at the hands of a white Minneapolis cop.

One measure grants the state attorney general’s office the ability to investigate and potentially prosecute incidents when a person dies in custody or after an encounter with a police officer. Another makes it a hate crime to call 911 to report false claims based on a person’s race.

Also included in the batch is the “Eric Garner Act,” which bans officers from using chokeholds and allows prosecutors to charge cops if they do and injure or kill someone. Garner died after being put in a chokehold by NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo on Staten Island in 2014. His death — and a final cry of “I can’t breathe” — helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement.

Pantaleo, who wasn’t fired until August 2019, was able to keep his disciplinary records from public view thanks to 50-a, making the law a point of contention in the aftermath of Garner’s death.

Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, attended the Friday signing. As Cuomo put ink on the bill, Carr mused: “It was a long time coming, but it came.”

Police unions and Republicans say repealing 50-a could expose sensitive information about officers and prevent them from doing their jobs.

However, just like other city and state records subject to Freedom of Information Law requests, personal details, such as phone numbers and home addresses, cannot be divulged to the public.

The four bills signed by Cuomo on Friday are the cornerstones of a package of 10 pieces of legislation passed by the Democrat-led Senate and Assembly this week.

The remaining bills, which Cuomo is also expected to sign, implement a ban on race-based profiling, mandate state police to wear body cameras and require police departments to provide medical training to officers, among other provisions.

By Ellen Moynihan, Denis Slattery and Chris Sommerfeldt
©2020 New York Daily News
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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