Police Secrecy Law Keeps Public in the Dark About Police Misconduct

By Erin E. Evans, NBC News

The mother of Eric Garner stood outside of the New York Police Department’s headquarters in the rain on Monday to remind supporters that the fight for justice in her son’s death isn't over.

"Eric is crying from heaven 'cause he sees his mother and his family out here still trying to fight for justice for him," Gwen Carr told several people standing in the rain with signs that read #FireNYPD Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer involved in his death.

"It's been five years — five years we've been on the front lines trying to get justice, and they're still trying to sweep it under the rug," she said.

New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo leaves his house on May 13, 2019, in Staten Island, New York.Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / AP file

New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo leaves his house on May 13, 2019, in Staten Island, New York.Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / AP file

The family has been largely kept in the dark by the NYPD due to a police secrecy law that has clouded transparency in the case.

They were initially denied access to Pantaleo's disciplinary recordsand were unable to see evidence from the grand jury investigationinto the case, due to a state civil rights law — Section 50-a — that bars access to police officers' personnel records.

Section 50-a is considered a harmful roadblock in the quest for building trust and maintaining safety between police and their communities, according to several organizations that are fighting for its repeal.

Enacted in 1976 under New York's Freedom of Information Laws, the law's purpose was to "protect police officers from harassing cross-examination by defense counsel in criminal prosecutions based on unproven or irrelevant material contained in their personnel files."

Yet recent administrations have used broader interpretations of the law, effectively eliminating access to those files unless dictated by court order. In 2018, BuzzFeed News released secret internal files of more than 300 active New York City police officers who had committed offenses that would merit firing.

The law makes police misconduct in New York state more secretive than in any other state in the country, according to a report by the New York State Committee on Open Government.

It’s taken five years and multiple investigations for disciplinary proceedings to be brought against Pantaleo, who has been on administrative duty since Garner’s death on July 17, 2014.

Pantaleo has been charged by the Civilian Complaint Review Board or CCRB, an independent police oversight group, with reckless use of a chokehold and intentional restriction of breathing. The hearing will determine whether Pantaleo will face firing or any other disciplinary actions.

But because of Section 50-a, if he is not fired, it would take a court order for the Garner family to find out if he will be disciplined at all.

The Pantaleo disciplinary trial is expected to last two weeks, according to The New York Times.

Garner was killed during an encounter with police on Staten Island over the alleged sale of untaxed loose cigarettes.

Video of Pantaleo wrapping his arm around Garner’s neck while other officers tried to place him under arrest spread across the internet. His last words, "I can't breathe," became a rallying cry at protests against police brutality across the United States.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill have vowed to demand for changes in the state law. When reached for comment, the NYPD referred NBC News to a February op-ed O’Neill published in the New York Daily News where he said the department “doesn’t fear scrutiny,” adding that transparency has gotten better.

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