New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to sign into law a measure that opens up the state’s police discipline records to the public.
The files had been kept secret under a controversial section of New York’s civil rights law, known as 50-a. It made law enforcement personnel records exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).
Lawmakers voted Tuesday to revoke Section 50-a. Earlier this week, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press wrote a letter urging legislators to repeal the statute. The letter called the measure “an insurmountable barrier to press and public access to law enforcement records of police misconduct in New York.”
The action to open officer records and misconduct complaints to FOIL requests is part of a larger package of police reform bills making their way through the Democratic-dominated State Assembly and Senate in the capital, Albany. The measures include bills to provide body cameras to state troopers and ensure officers provide medical and mental health attention to people in custody.
While many of the bills included in the package were proposed years ago, legislative action was spurred by the death of George Floyd, a black man who was heard saying that he couldn’t breathe while a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck. Floyd later died in police custody.
The New York legislature also passed other accountability measures, guaranteeing the right to record police activity and making it easier to file lawsuits against people making race-based 911 emergency phone calls.
On Monday, lawmakers unanimously passed a bill banning chokeholds and mandating that a police officer who injures or kills somebody through the use of “a chokehold or similar restraint” can be charged with a Class C felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The new bill is named for Eric Garner, an African American man who died in New York in 2014 after he was subjected to a police chokehold during an arrest. Garner, like Floyd, was heard saying, “I can’t breathe,” shortly before his death.
“The legislation that will be passed over the coming days will help stop bad actors and send a clear message that brutality, racism and unjustified killings will not be tolerated,” New York Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said in a statement.
New York police unions view the legislation as an unjust attack on police.
“The message has been sent very clearly to police officers by our elected officials: We don’t like you,” Richard Wells, president of the Police Conference of New York, a statewide union, told reporters. “We don’t respect you. We will not support you. We want you to go away.”