Police reform activists and experts react to 50-a repeal

Chairperson at Black Lives Matter New York Hawk Newsome at a protest at Times Square on June 7, 2020.
Chairperson at Black Lives Matter New York Hawk Newsome at a protest at Times Square on June 7, 2020.
Black Lives Matter New York
Chairperson at Black Lives Matter New York Hawk Newsome at a protest at Times Square on June 7, 2020.

Police reform activists and experts react to 50-a repeal

Advocates explain why having more transparency is important in the movement to end police brutality.
June 12, 2020

After a long fight, a state law that shields police disciplinary records from public view will soon be repealed. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he would sign into law this week a bill passed by the state Legislature on Tuesday that repealed Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights Law, which keeps the personnel records of police officers, firefighters and corrections officers “confidential and not subject to inspection or review,” without the officer’s permission.

“Repeal 50-a” has become one of the legislatively focused rallying cries in New York for people protesting police brutality and systemic racism in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky. But it’s not the only policy change that advocates and activists say are necessary to end police brutality and racist policing.

Hawk Newsome, chairman of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, told City & State that while repealing 50-a is a step in the right direction, it’s still just one step in a longer march toward justice. “I know the governor is taking steps in the right direction,” Newsome said. “But Gov. Cuomo has the chance to do something epic and historic, and set a precedent for the rest of the country that Joe Biden can also pick up and pick up a lot of votes.”

To comprehensively battle police brutality, Newsome said, New York lawmakers need to embrace some of the proposals that groups like his have been backing for years. That includes prosecuting police officers who file false reports, defunding police departments, and prosecuting law enforcement officials who deny help to a person displaying signs of medical distress.

One step that Newsome is less excited about? New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement that the city will paint “Black Lives Matter” on a street in each borough. “I never got one phone call,” Newsome said, arguing that it’s only now that lawmakers are starting to listen to Black Lives Matter leaders. “I would have told him to keep his street painting and give us real justice.”

To weigh in on what the repeal of 50-a does to combat police brutality – and the problems that remain despite its repeal – City & State reached out to a slate of experts and advocates: Hawk Newsome; Alexis Hoag, a civil rights lawyer and research scholar at Columbia Law School; Joo-Hyun Kang, director of Communities United for Police Reform; Zara Nasir, deputy director of community organizing and advocacy at the New York City Anti-Violence Project; Michael Hardy, executive vice president and general counsel at the National Action Network; and Chivona Newsome, co-founder of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, a Democratic candidate for New York’s 15th Congressional District and sister of Hawk Newsome. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What will – and what won’t – the repeal of 50-a do for efforts to combat police brutality in New York?

Alexis Hoag: 50-a’s repeal is huge! It gives victims of police misconduct access to the very information that can help hold officers accountable for violating the rights of people they are meant to serve. However, additional steps are necessary to address the NYPD’s disproportionate use of force against black people. In 2018, 56% of the people subjected to police force were black. The repeal fails to address this disparity.

Hawk Newsome: It gives a bit of transparency to people, so that’s a step in the right direction. But it won’t prevent police brutality. Because in places where this type of stuff is public information – where people actually know what’s going on with the police – they still have police brutality. Nothing short of detailed legislation that will send cops to jail will stop police brutality.

Joo-Hyun Kang: New York had the worst in the nation loophole, called 50-a, that was used to hide police misconduct and discipline. It was a statewide statute that carved out unnecessary and harmful secrecy around abuse committed by police, fire and correction officers to shield police misconduct and failed police disciplinary processes from public view. The law passed this week will provide much-needed transparency on police misconduct and discipline in New York state and help address the systemic lack of accountability for officers who engage in misconduct. New York’s Freedom of Information laws will, as always, protect private information about officers – like their home address – but finally the public will be able to access information about police misconduct and the failure of too many law enforcement agencies to hold their officers to account and take any meaningful action when they hurt people or communities.

Zara Nasir: The notorious police secrecy 50-a statute in New York state has been used to keep New Yorkers in the dark about consequences for officers even after serious or deadly incidents. The repeal 50-a bill pushed by Communities United for Police Reform – of which NYC Anti-Violence Project is a member – creates privacy protections for survivors of police violence, complainants, witnesses and family members, and makes it harder for police departments to hide information about misconduct and discipline, currently permitted to be redacted in Freedom of Information Law requests.

While Communities United for Police Reform is working on many different fronts to end police brutality in New York state, including the #NYCBudgetJustice #DefundNYPD campaign, 50-a is both a tremendous step in getting justice for families whose loved ones have passed due to police violence, like Eric Garner, Mohamed Bah, Kawaski Trawick and many others. Because of 50-a, consequences police officers have faced for misconduct or violence have often been hidden, and demanding accountability has been difficult if not impossible in many circumstances. Repealing 50-a makes it harder for police departments to keep secret and protect abusive police officers, and thus helps break down the culture that allows such incidents to take place in the first place.

Michael Hardy: Justice delayed is justice denied. For too long, Section 50-a of the New York state Civil Rights Law has been a roadblock to the pursuit of justice. In 2014 when Eric Garner cried out “I can’t breathe,” 50-a was one of the primary obstacles to giving the pursuit of justice any breath to right the wrong that was done to Mr. Garner. In life, accountability is generally the rule for all persons. In New York state, 50-a provided an exception to the rule of law for police and other law enforcement officers. In repealing 50-a, the state Legislature has created a path for transparency, accountability and equality in the courts and the public square. Any time you can shine a light in corners where people feel they can hide, you force them to act more cautiously and more responsibly. That is what the citizens of the state of New York truly want – public officers and law enforcement that really do act with courtesy, professionalism and respect.

Chivona Newsome: Black Lives Matter of Greater New York has fought a very long time for the repealing of Section 50-a. The NYPD can no longer hide its abusive practices against communities of color. Although this is a step in the right direction, repealing 50-a would be largely meaningless if the information of police brutality could not be utilized to prosecute police officers who brutalize black and brown people. Ending qualified immunity will make it easier to hold police officers accountable within the justice system and give victims access to legal damages. 

More legislation is needed to protect the public from law enforcement. We need to tear down the “blue wall of silence” by prosecuting officers who falsify reports. The political power of police unions needs to be dismantled, including lessening their influence in local and state governments, and ultimately decertifying and disbanding their unions entirely. A special prosecutor is needed to investigate the misconduct of law enforcement. Federal, state and local district prosecutors have an inherent conflict of interest in investigating a member of the law enforcement office that they work with. An elected civilian review board should be implemented to replace the current Civilian Complaint Review Board to investigate public complaints against the police department. Lastly, law enforcement must be demilitarized and defunded – by closing the pipeline between the military and the police by eliminating programs that sell military-grade equipment to police departments, provide military training to officers, or find veterans jobs in the police force. Local and state government agencies (should) divert funds from law enforcement and reinvest funding into vulnerable communities to build stronger, safer and productive communities.

Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.