In recent weeks, a Buffalo police officer was suspended for allegedly slapping around a defendant in handcuffs and then demanding an onlooker turn over cellphone video on the incident.
Two more officers were suspended without pay last week because they were present when a bar patron suffered serious brain injury at the bar where they were employed as security.
Police internal affairs investigators are investigating both cases.
But if internal discipline is ever meted out against those three officers, the public probably will never know. Nor will the public know if the department ever disciplined them in the past.
In short, the disciplinary history of any police officer in New York is cloaked in secrecy.
Unlike most other types of public employees, a record of disciplinary actions taken against a police officer cannot be unearthed by a request for records under the state’s Freedom of Information Law.
Since the mid-1970s, New York Civil Right Law has kept confidential the records used “to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion” for police officers. The law has even been expanded over the years to protect corrections officers and professional firefighters.
Because of Civil Rights Law Section 50-a, only a court order or the employees themselves can unlock the records for public inspection.
“The result of Section 50-a is that those government employees who have the most power over our lives are the least accountable,” said Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the New York Committee on Open Government.
Keeping the disciplinary records secret was intended to protect officers from being embarrassed or harassed when they testified in court about unrelated arrests. But Freeman said that is a hollow argument because judges control the courtroom, and a judge can tell a lawyer that such questions are out of bounds if they are in fact out of bounds.
Freeman contends that once an officer or corrections officer retires or resigns, their personnel records can become public because the employee is no longer eligible for “continued employment or promotion.” Some appeals court judges have agreed with that argument in specific requests for records under the Freedom of Information Law.