NY Times Editorial on Pantaleo Decision
WEDNESDAY, JULY 29, 2015

The New York Times carried an editorial today on Justice Alice Schlesinger’s ruling to release the summary of substantiated misconduct findings against Police Officer Pantaleo. The Legal Aid Society successfully brought the case.




The New York Times
Stop Hiding Police Misconduct in New York
By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
JULY 29, 2015

A state judge in Manhattan acted in the public interest this month when she ordered the city to release a summary of substantiated misconduct findings against the police officer who used a chokehold against Eric Garner last year during an arrest that led to Mr. Garner’s death.

If the city appeals, which seems likely, the court proceedings will provide an opportunity to limit the reach of a state law that has been used to hide the employment records of police officers, even some who have committed crimes. The law is the only one of its kind in the nation.

The state statute says that an officer’s personnel record cannot be publicly released or cited in court without judicial approval. It was enacted in 1976 to prevent criminal defense lawyers from using the state’s Freedom of Information Law to request personnel records for information to use against the police in trials. But the definition of “personnel record” has grown so broad that some courts and municipalities have interpreted it to shield almost any information.

Under a broad interpretation, the disclosure law might even be used to block public access to footage from the body cameras that officers are increasingly asked to wear to monitor their conduct, warned a report last year by the New York State Committee on Open Government, which advises government, the public and the news media on freedom of information and privacy matters. As things stand now, the committee noted, the law has served “to make the public employees who have often the greatest power over the lives of New York’s residents the least accountable to the public.”

The case decided earlier this month by the State Supreme Court judge, Justice Alice Schlesinger, involves New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent agency with subpoena power to investigate and make recommendations to the Police Department on disciplinary matters. The case landed in court after the review board denied the request of the Legal Aid Society, which sought a summary of substantiated complaints lodged against Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who used the chokehold on Mr. Garner.

The request focused on basic information: the number of complaints against Officer Pantaleo in which misconduct had been found before Mr. Garner’s death and what recommendations, if any, the board had made to the Police Department regarding those findings. The board released such summaries for a time during 2014, but ended the practice after the city law department said it violated state law.

Justice Schlesinger said the requested summaries should be released, noting that the review board is an independent, investigative agency — not part of the Police Department — and that the summaries were limited in scope and dealt only with complaints in which police misconduct was found to have occurred.

This narrow ruling applies only to the Pantaleo case. But it points once again to the distressing fact that New York’s disclosure law gives the public far less access to information about police officers than workers in virtually any other public agency.

The state Legislature needs to bring New York’s disclosure laws in line with the 41 states that apply the same standard to all state employee misconduct records, including police officers. In the meantime, the courts and cities should interpret state law in a way that brings transparency to the disciplinary process.