Leaders of 30 major law firms in New York are urging the “swift repeal” of a provision of the state’s civil rights law that they say keeps police misconduct records hidden from the public.
Larren Nashelsky, chair of Morrison & Foerster, led the group in signing a letter asking New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislative leaders to quickly repeal Section 50-a of the New York State Civil Rights Law. The group also includes representatives of Sullivan & Cromwell; Weil, Gotshal & Manges; Cravath, Swaine & Moore; and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.
The letter comes amid nationwide protests and calls for social justice following the death of George Floyd, a black man, while in police custody in Minnesota. The law firm leaders outlined as “urgent demands for reform of police procedures and laws in order to prevent” misconduct.
“The death of George Floyd while in police custody and other killings of unarmed black people have particular resonance in our State with its diverse population and our own history of police misconduct, including Eric Garner’s death in Staten Island nearly six years ago,” they wrote.
Legislative leaders have say they have the votes to pass a repeal. Cuomo has said he would sign it, likely as part of larger police reform measure.
The repeal of Section 50-a would be “an immediate and concrete step to increase police accountability and help identify problematic officers in order to hopefully prevent further atrocities,” the letter said.
The law provides that “[a]ll personnel records used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion” of police officers, firefighters, and correction officers shall be considered “confidential” and subject to disclosure only with the subject officer’s consent or by court order.
The New York City Bar Association found in a report this month that Section 50-a is “a major barrier to police accountability,” Nashelsky wrote.
Nashelsky and the other law firm leaders noted that repeated rulings by New York courts “have expanded the meaning of ‘personnel records’ protected by Section 50-a so that today, virtually no information is available to the public about a police officer’s record of substantiated misconduct or disciplinary penalties imposed internally, even when those records are maintained by an independent review board.”
The law’s repeal “will not prevent police records from being withheld when there are legitimate reasons to do so,” the law leaders said. It “will remove the special layer of secrecy applied to the personnel records of police officers, correction officers, and firefighters, but it will not remove the many adequate protections that exist elsewhere in New York law.”
Separately, the state bar association on Monday announced the creation of a task force on racial justice and police brutality in light of protests that erupted following Floyd’s death.