A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday to uphold a state law allowing the public release of New York City Police Department officer disciplinary records. The decision represents a major win for criminal justice reform advocates and a crushing blow for police unions that opposed public access to records.
The law in question is Senate Bill S8496, a police reform law passed last June that repeals 50-a, a law used by police departments to protect personnel records of officers. Since its passage, unions representing the NYPD, the New York City Fire Department and the New York City Department of Correction have blocked its implementation, engaging the city in a contentious legal battle. According to reporting from the New York Daily News, the unions argued that making the records public would harm future job opportunities for public safety personnel and put their safety at risk. They also argued that the release of files constituted an invasion of privacy and violated the officers’ collective bargaining rights, Gothamist reports.
A three-judge panel in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously rejected the union arguments and upheld a lower court ruling allowing the release of disciplinary files.
“Despite evidence that numerous other States make similar records available to the public, the Unions have pointed to no evidence from any jurisdiction that the availability of such records resulted in harm to employment opportunities,” the court wrote in a 20-page decision. “We fully and unequivocally respect the dangers and risks police officers face every day. But we cannot say that the District Court abused its discretion when it determined that the Unions have not sufficiently demonstrated that those dangers and risks are likely to increase because of the City’s planned disclosures.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio was pleased with the decision, writing in a statement, “Good riddance to 50-A. We look forward to releasing this data and will seek clarity from the court regarding when these records can be released.” In June in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, de Blasio promised his constituents that his administration would publish NYPD disciplinary records in a public database.
According to Hank Sheinkopf, a spokesperson for the unions, the unions are reviewing their options for appeals. He noted that they would be continuing the legal fight by focusing on privacy protections associated with the state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), per the New York Daily News.
“Today’s ruling does not end our fight to protect our members’ safety and due process rights,” Sheinkopf said in a statement. “The FOIL law provides exemptions that allow public employers to protect employees’ safety and privacy. We will continue to fight to ensure that New York City applies those exemptions to our members fairly and consistently, as they do for other public employees. Politics must not be allowed to relegate firefighters, police officers and corrections officers to second-class status.”