USA TODAY Network New York sues Westchester town for withholding police disciplinary files – Yahoo News

Town of Greenburgh Police Department on Friday, August 13, 2021.

Town of Greenburgh Police Department on Friday, August 13, 2021.

Gannett Co., Inc., the parent company of The Journal News, sued the Town of Greenburgh on Monday for failing to disclose the disciplinary files of its police officers following a public records request.

As part of a statewide push to obtain the disciplinary records of police officers, the USA TODAY Network New York filed a Freedom of Information Law request with Greenburgh’s police department in May 2021.

The year prior, state lawmakers had voted to repeal Civil Rights Law 50-a, a statute originally enacted in 1976 to protect the credibility of police officers on the witness stand. Over the ensuing decades, the law became expansively applied to shield all manner of disciplinary records from public view.

But in June 2020, following the killing of George Floyd and the groundswell of public protest that it sparked, state lawmakers decided to move on from over four decades of secrecy and open up disciplinary records for public consumption.

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“USA TODAY Network New York journalists have spent considerable effort pursuing police disciplinary records since 2020 because they shed light on the quality of policing in our communities,” said New York state editor Michael Kilian in a statement.

Kilian added: “When members of the public see these records, this can provide impetus for improvements where needed and also deter officers from future abuses. And disclosure sends a signal to victims of police violence or other misconduct that their experiences can and should be known.”

Greenburgh, located in Westchester County, denied the request for its officers’ disciplinary files on the grounds that records created before 50-a was repealed would not be affected by the change in law. The town also claimed that complaints ultimately deemed to be unfounded could remain hidden.

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Moving through the courts

The majority of courts to address these questions and other requests for open access have sided in favor of transparency, including the powerful federal appeals court in Manhattan. However, a few state judges have ruled against disclosure in certain cases.

Greenburgh has relied on these decisions for its position, citing the opinion of one judge in Rochester who held that the repeal of 50-a would not automatically apply to a wide swath of disciplinary records.

Attorneys for Greenberg Traurig, the law firm representing Gannett in its public records litigation, wrote in Monday’s lawsuit that the town’s argument “misses the mark.”

“Courts throughout New York state have repeatedly confirmed that the repeal of Section 50-a applies retroactively—and for good reason,” the firm said.

They also emphasized that “the text of the repeal bill requires disclosure of law enforcement disciplinary records, without exceptions or carve-outs.”

In response to a request for comment, Greenburgh Supervisor Paul Feiner said: “The town board will discuss this matter. We are reviewing the arguments made by lohud.”

Gannett has also sued the Village of Herkimer, in the Mohawk Valley region, for its police disciplinary files. That lawsuit remains pending. As a network, the company has sent out more than 500 public records requests to cities, towns and villages across the state, seeking disciplinary information about police officers and other public officials.

Questions about the scope of 50-a repeal will not be settled statewide until they are heard at the appellate level, where at least one lawsuit has recently wound up. This is a process that could take months or years.

The New York Civil Liberties Union led its own push to pry open the disciplinary files of police officers in New York City. After months of legal jousting, the organization published hundreds of thousands of complaints on its website dating back to the 1980s.

A scan of the NYCLU database makes clear that just a small fraction of complaints made by civilians against police officers are ultimately substantiated.

But the NYCLU database only involves New York City officers, and the court decision allowing its publication doesn’t extend to municipalities in the suburbs or upstate. If local governments elsewhere are allowed to withhold records they deem unsubstantiated or unfounded, the vast majority of disciplinary records could remain hidden from public view.

The catch-all personal privacy protections in the law are often cited to continue to withhold these complaints, the very kinds of transgressions at the heart of the debate over disciplinary files.

Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell, a years-long repeal advocate and sponsor of the Assembly’s repeal bill, said in an interview that these protections have nothing to do with the work of public servants such as police officers.

“If their kid had a breakdown at a psychiatric hospital, that’s personal,” he argued. “It’s not personal when you’re walking the streets of New York and we give you a gun. That’s not personal. That’s your job.”

Asher Stockler is a reporter for The Journal News. You can find him on Twitter at @quasiasher or send him an email at astockler@lohud.com. Reach him securely: asher.stockler@protonmail.com.

About this project

USA TODAY Network New York, has partnered with MuckRock, the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, University at Buffalo School of Law Civil Rights & Transparency Clinic and Syracuse University to ensure that the public has full access to these records as outlined in the legislation.

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Gannett sues Greenburgh town for police disciplinary records