The inescapable truth behind the NYPD's decision to distort a state law into the shape of its own secrecy is that this is a government agency that plays by its own rules.
By abandoning an interpretation of state law stretching back four decades, through multiple mayoral administrations, both Democrat and Republican, the NYPD is robbing Gwen Carr, Eric Garner’s mother, of the most basic right to know whether the officer who brutally killed her son would even be placed on modified duty, much less held accountable for the unjustified taking of a life. For the victims of police violence and their grieving mothers, justice has no greater enemy than the NYPD's culture of concealment.
Withholding information about civil rights abuses under the guise of state Civil Rights Law is as profound a betrayal of the public as the lives lost to police violence. Contrary to Mayor de Blasio's claim that he is helplessly bound by law, two judges ruled that nothing in state law prohibits the release of disciplinary records.
Since appealing the judge's decision is a choice rather than a legal obligation, the mayor should take responsibility for making a conscious policy decision. If the mayor – who was elected on a platform of police reform – wanted to disclose NYPD discipline records then why on earth would he challenge a court decision affirming that very preference? The logical thing to do would have been to let the decision stand.
The latest controversy over the NYPD's secrecy is a cautionary tale to those in public office. If the NYPD, marching to the beat of its own drum, is willing to unilaterally reinterpret a poorly written statute, one could only imagine how the department would approach a similar agreement that is not even in writing – especially as time passes and the people responsible for that agreement leave office. Poorly written laws and wink-and-handshake compromises, with open-ended language or no language at all, lend themselves to reinterpretation at the stroke of a pen, giving the NYPD carte blanche to skirt around standards of accountability and transparency
The only thing worse than a poorly written law is no law at all at all. With a poorly written statute, there is at least the possibility of legal recourse and clarity from a judge. But with no law at all, the public has nothing.
A city agency that willfully discards a 40-year tradition of disclosing disciplinary decisions is demonstrating that it cannot be trusted to govern fairly when playing by its own rules.
In the end, it is the political establishment that enables the NYPD’s culture of concealment, by consistently failing to pass laws with clear standards for accountable and transparent policing. The Right to Know Act, in affirming the public's right to be informed and protected in their daily interactions with the police, is precisely the kind of law that upholds the highest principles of good government: accountability, constitutionality and transparency. The City Council should stand firmly for those principles by codifying these standards into law.
In a free and open society, the people have a right to know – not only their own rights, but also the names and records of officers who repeatedly violate them. Law enforcement officers who abuse the power to kill should never be shielded from public scrutiny. The NYPD's imagined right to conceal must give way to the public's actual right to know.
Ritchie Torres represents Council District 15 in the Central Bronx; Antonio Reynoso represents Council District 34, and Carlos Menchaca represents Council District 38, both in Brooklyn.
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