Federal appeals court rules police misconduct records are public


A federal appeals court has ruled police misconduct records are public records — dismissing a major lawsuit attempting to limit their release.

The ruling Tuesday by the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals ends the seven-month legal challenge brought by a coalition of police, fire and correction unions, which followed the repeal of a state law that kept police personnel records confidential.

“We have considered the Unions’ remaining arguments and conclude that they are without merit,” the three-judge panel wrote, affirming the lower court ruling in August.

One of the main arguments unions’ attorneys argued was that the release would violate two of the union contracts, which allows for low-level violations to be removed from officer personnel file on appeal.

The judges wrote in their dismissal state records laws supersede any union deals.

“[T]he NYPD cannot bargain away its disclosure obligations,” the ruling says.

Union lawyers also tried to make the case that making the records public could affect future job prospects and put the officers in danger.

Both those arguments were dismissed, with the judges writing “future employers were unlikely to be misled by conduct records,” and “the Unions have not sufficiently demonstrated that those dangers and risks are likely to increase.”

“We fully and unequivocally respect the dangers and risks police officers face every day,” the judges wrote, noting “that many other States make similar misconduct records at least partially available to the public without any evidence of a resulting increase of danger to police officers.”

The appeals court had temporarily halted the release of public records until the judges heard arguments on the case.

The ruling is expected to lift the veil on misconduct records in New York — which have historically been shielded from public view under state law 50a.

The law was repealed in mid-June as part of a package of police reforms in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

Following the repeal, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Civilian Complaint Review Board announced they would publish a database of complaints against cops — spurring the legal actions from the unions.

De Blasio hailed the ruling, saying, “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.”

A statement from the coalition of unions said, “Politics must not be allowed to relegate firefighters, police officers and corrections officers to second-class status.”

“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.”

The NYPD started shifting away from the use of 50a in its records denials over the last two years as the repeal movement gained traction among city and state officials. 

Instead, the department began citing the records disclosure exemption from The Public Officers Law: “if disclosed would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”


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