NYPD squad car, file image.

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Panel: NY law hinders police discipline transparency

February 01, 2019 - 4:59 pm

NEW YORK (AP) -- The New York Police Department should take steps to increase transparency and accountability in its officer disciplinary process, but it faces a serious obstacle in a state law that keeps case personnel records secret, a panel of criminal justice professionals said on Friday.

Two former U.S. attorneys and a former federal judge said they found the disciplinary process generally works well but recommended the NYPD adopt a series of improvements.

"We found a complex disciplinary system, which is imperfect, but which generally seems to deliver fair disciplinary outcomes,'' said Mary Jo White, one of the former U.S. attorneys.

Police Commissioner James O'Neill enlisted the trio last June in an effort to make sure discipline practices are fair and effective. He said Friday that the department accepts all of the recommendations, and he appointed his top deputy to implement some within 60 days.

But the largest union, the Police Benevolent Association, slammed the panel on Friday, saying it was ``bowing to the demands of anti-police, pro-criminal advocates.''

The union, which has been fighting transparency efforts, said the recommendations lacked enhanced accountability for supervisors and did nothing to prevent meritless or fabricated complaints from ``derailing cops' careers.''

The panel, in a report on its findings, suggested that the department divulge annual disciplinary statistics and enlist a liaison to help police misconduct victims get access to case information.

It said the department should strengthen its enforcement and penalties for officers who make false statements and for officers who commit domestic violence.

It also said the department should back changes to a state law, known as 50-A, that currently prevents the release of information on the outcomes of specific disciplinary cases.

Department trials are open to the public, but punishment details are kept secret. Officers' disciplinary records aren't public under state law.

"The most frequent complaint we got, frankly, was the lack of transparency,'' White said. ``You don't know whether to have confidence or not if you don't have the information to show what's actually being done, what the outcomes are, consistency in outcomes. It's very hard to judge when you don't have that transparency.''

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the report ``should serve as a wake-up call'' to Mayor Bill De Blasio's administration ``that the NYPD cannot continue to run a secret disciplinary system that prevents the public from learning important information about the people sworn to protect them.''

"Meaningful accountability requires real transparency and real consequences,'' she said.

Critics say the current disciplinary process should be handled by an outside agency, but the panel said it found the NYPD is ``doing an effective job'' that largely goes unseen because of the secrecy law.

"This is an example where changing a law can make a huge difference,'' said Barbara Jones, the former judge. ``The results are there. The processes are there, but nobody can see them.''

The panelists, who also included former U.S. Attorney Robert Capers, said they spent seven months reviewing cases from 2016 and 2017 and had the department's full cooperation.

They said they spoke with former police commissioners and victims of police misconduct and looked at how other departments handled discipline. They said they were also aided in their review by police watchdog groups, the unions representing officers, and others involved in the system.

As commissioner, O'Neill has the final say on department discipline. The panel said it found he takes his duty seriously and conscientiously and that should remain the case.

However, they recommended that the commissioner start providing detailed explanations when he modifies a disciplinary settlement or a trial judge's decision.