ISSN 2330-717X

Court Rules Communities United For Police Reform May Intervene In NYPD Misconduct Database Case – OpEd

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A federal court ruled Tuesday that Communities United for Police Reform (CPR), represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, may intervene in a lawsuit brought by five New York City police unions, as well as corrections and firefighter unions, that seeks to block the City from publishing officer misconduct and discipline information and roll back the historic repeal of N.Y. Civil Rights Law § 50-a.

The unions sued the City in July, after the New York State legislature repealed 50-a, a law that had shielded the records from the public, and the de Blasio administration announced plans to release a searchable NYPD misconduct database. Also last Friday, the court denied the unions’ request for a preliminary injunction blocking release of the records during the duration of the litigation.

CPR sought to intervene in the police unions’ attempt to re-entrench police secrecy because, they argued, they were best suited to represent the interest in community safety and that the City of New York would not properly represent the interests of communities and families fighting for police accountability. In the past, the City had, in fact, sought to expand the secrecy of 50-a and sided with police unions.

“We appreciate that the court allowed Communities United for Police Reform to intervene in the police unions’ litigation that aims to rollback the repeal of New York’s main police secrecy statute, 50-a,” said Mark Winston-Griffin, spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform. “The fact that the injunction request was largely denied is an important step in ending the police unions’ attempt to use the courts to continue to hide police misconduct and subvert the will of New Yorkers and the New York state legislature”

On July 22, a federal judge halted the release of the information at the police unions’ request. In the motion filed earlier this month, CPR sought to become a party in the case to lift the restraining order blocking the release of vital public records and to speak on behalf of communities who have been impacted by police violence and have long advocated for racial justice and police accountability. 

As part of the intervention request, CPR noted that the City and the agencies the City represents as defendants (which include the NYPD and CCRB) have often sided against the interests of the community as it relates to police secrecy and the #Repeal50a organizing effort. In fact, the de Blasio administration greatly expanded the reach of 50-a through their defense of NYPD secrecy over the past several years.

CPR’s motion to intervene was supported by multiple declarations, including from NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams; Constance Malcolm, the mother of Ramarley Graham (killed by NYPD in 2012); Natasha Duncan, the sister of Shantel Davis (killed by NYPD in 2012); and retired tennis star James Blake, who was slammed to the ground by an NYPD officer in 2015.

“I think it is important for the Court to also understand the perspectives, interests, and rights of people like me.” said Constance Malcolm, mother of teenager Ramarley Graham. “I do not think [the City and the agencies the City represents as defendants] can do this.  I know that CPR can.”

CPR had emphasized the importance of intervening in the lawsuit, given that both the police union plaintiffs and many of the defendants—including the de Blasio administration and the NYPD—long opposed full repeal of 50-a. As recently as 2018, New York City corporate counsel represented the NYPD, advocating for an expansive interpretation of the protections of 50-a. Thus, CPR had argued, unless a party committed to the transparency, accountability, and public scrutiny of policing participates in the case, the democratically-won repeal of 50-a in the New York State Legislature could be rolled back through the courts.

The repeal of 50-a has been a centerpiece of the racial justice and police accountability movement in New York state because police departments and police unions have consistently sought to shield police misconduct and discipline information from public view. #Repeal50a was a common sign and chant at protests across the state in the weeks before the repeal, with celebrities and others using the hashtag on social media. 

“Communities United for Police Reform is uniquely positioned to represent the interests of New York City communities impacted by police violence,” said Baher Azmy, Legal Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights.  “The court’s acceptance of its participation in the case ensures that the legislative repeal of 50-a will serve the interests of transparency, accountability, and, ultimately, justice that inspired demands for repeal.”

“Clearly the Court appreciated the importance of CPR’s participation in this case both in granting intervention and in denying the Unions request for preliminary relief. CPR is gratified that it will have the opportunity through this litigation to protect its own organizational interests in transparency and the interests of the communities most impacted when misconduct and disciplinary records are kept secret,” said Christopher J. Cariello, attorney at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP. 

Additional Background

In June 2020, the New York State legislature passed – and Governor Cuomo signed – the historic repeal of 50-a, the infamous police secrecy law that served to hide police misconduct and discipline from the public. Communities United for Police Reform (CPR) led the statewide coalition that organized for #Repeal50a.

On July 14, the five NYPD police unions, along with the corrections and firefighter unions, filed a lawsuit in state court to block the City of New York from publishing databases with police, corrections or firefighter misconduct information that isn’t substantiated and final. On July 15, a state court judge issued a stay, temporarily preventing the City from publishing the planned databases. 

Soon after, the case was moved to federal court. On Wednesday, July 22, the federal judge issued a TRO (temporary restraining order) on the City, ordering them not to move forward with any database that includes information related to misconduct or discipline that has not been substantiated and final. 

Through their litigation, the police unions are seeking to use the courts to roll back 50-a , re-entrench police secrecy, and undermine the public’s right to transparency and access to information.

Communities United for Police Reform (CPR) is an unprecedented campaign to end discriminatory policing practices in New York, and to build a lasting movement that promotes public safety and reduces reliance on policing. CPR runs coalitions of over 200 local, statewide and national organizations, bringing together a movement of community members, lawyers, researchers and activists to work for change. The partners in this campaign come from all 5 boroughs, from all walks of life and represent many of those most unfairly targeted by the NYPD.

Orrick’s pro bono program has been praised for the dedication of its lawyers to supporting diverse causes with tangible results—including high-profile immigration disputes, civil rights litigation and grassroots global development through an innovative impact finance and social enterprise initiative. Orrick strategically allocates its pro bono resources to ensure that each lawyer’s work has the maximum impact for the client and the community.

*The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. \

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