Records standoff between NYPD and Vance continues

NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill speaking at City & State's Protecting NY Summit in July 2018.
NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill speaking at City & State's Protecting NY Summit in July 2018.
Ali Garber
NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill speaking at City & State's Protecting NY Summit in July 2018.

Records standoff between NYPD and Vance continues

But police commissioner expects compromise on state records-shielding law.
July 17, 2018

The New York Police Department hasn’t met Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s demands for access to internal police disciplinary records and investigative reports, but Police Commissioner James O’Neill is confident the two sides will reach an agreement.

“We’re working with Cy, we’ve been working resolve this for a while. We have a very good working relationship with the district attorney,” O’Neill said at City & State’s Protecting New York Summit on Tuesday. “After a while we’ll figure out what’s the right way to go and what’s the right thing to do. And we usually get there.”

The Manhattan DA’s office and the NYPD have been arguing for weeks over how and when the police department must hand over records to prosecutors, with prosecutors pushing for more access and the NYPD hoping to limit it.

On Tuesday morning, O’Neill suggested there’s room for negotiation. “I’m not sure if (Vance) needs total access to our disciplinary records. It’s important in some cases,” he said.

The dispute is one facet of the larger issue of shielding police disciplinary records under the state civil rights law 50-a. During a later discussion at the City & State event, city and state officials on a panel about police-community relations and trust in law enforcement discussed the issue at length.

New York City Councilman Donovan Richards, chairman of the Committee on Public Safety, has been critical of the NYPD’s interpretation of the records-shielding law, calling it a way to skirt the responsibility of transparency and accountability. On Tuesday, he pointed to the April death of Shaheed Vassell, an unarmed black man shot and killed by police in Brooklyn.

“The community still doesn’t know which officers were involved in that particular incident,” Richards said. “We hurt ourselves in not being transparent.”

Margaret Garnett, executive deputy attorney general for criminal justice in the state Attorney General’s Office and the head of the division that has oversight over police shootings of unarmed victims in the state, said that 50-a hasn’t impeded any criminal investigations. “It’s not a shield for exposure to prosecutors,” she said.

Garnett noted that the law is meant to protect officers from retaliation while they are under investigation, saying that some officers have required around-the-clock protection at their homes after being accused of misconduct.

Advocates for transparency say 50-a is abused by the NYPD and inconsistently applied, although the department has made some small concessions. O’Neill has publicly supported changes to 50-a, saying it is “causing problems for the NYPD” and that it’s “not helping us move forward in certain areas.” His boss, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, has also expressed concerns, and had his team in Albany lobby for it to be overturned. But such efforts face opposition from police unions and the state Senate’s Republican majority. Bills introduced this session to change 50a died in committee.

Richards said he’ll be pushing to change the law in Albany.

“We’ll be really ramping up advocacy around ensuring that this bill moves,” he said. “We need a repeal. We shouldn’t shield those who are bad actors.”

Jeff Coltin
is a senior reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.