‘The public needs to be informed of all disciplinary actions, not just major infractions … The “minor rule violations” provision defeats the purpose of repealing Section 50-a.’
Last week’s decision by a federal appeals court, holding that the New York Police Department (NYPD) is permitted to disclose police officer disciplinary records, was greeted with some acclaim. “Good riddance to 50a,” said Mayor Bill DeBlasio, referring to Section 50-a of the state’s Civil Rights Law (the section that prohibited releasing details about a police officer’s disciplinary record to the public), which the New York State Legislature repealed last June.
Little noticed, however, was the tail end of the court’s opinion, in which it confirmed the NYPD could continue to keep secret from the public what the bill repealing Section 50-a called “minor [discipline] rule violations.” And, unlike the main thrust of the opinion, which allows the NYPD to disclose disciplinary records only while the court decides on the merits of the case challenging the repeal of Section 50-a, the court’s rationale behind maintaining secrecy over “minor rule violations” suggested a degree of finality.
The court’s opinion stated that minor rule violations consist of matters unimportant to the public, such as wearing an improper uniform or reporting late to work. The NYPD’s disciplinary system, however, does not make such a clear delineation between actions that amount to minor or major violations of its disciplinary code. Because the department maintains complete control over its system of accountability, it is able to categorize any incident as it sees fit, regardless of the injury caused to a member of the public. In fact, there are numerous instances in which an officer’s actions caused serious injury to a person’s life or liberty, yet the NYPD has categorized these incidents only as violations of its internal rules.
For example, officer Craig Yokemick, who threw his radio at an unarmed Kenneth Banks’ head, causing Banks’ death, was disciplined only for violating NYPD Patrol Guide rules against throwing his radio. Similarly, officer Richard Neri, who shot and killed an unarmed Timothy Stansbury on a Brooklyn rooftop, was sanctioned only for failing to secure his weapon. Both incidents, involving serious issues concerning the loss of life, were punished as “minor rule violations” by the NYPD; if these incidents occurred today, the disciplinary outcomes of neither would be disclosed.
Indeed, just last week it was revealed that Detective Gregory Howard, who is accused of sexually assaulting a confidential informant and extorting sexual favors from her, was punished only with the loss of 40 vacation days – why such a small penalty for such heinous accusations? Because the detective was charged only with the “minor rule violations” of “violating confidential informant procedures [and] failing to document investigative actions.” Thus, under the logic of the legislation, neither the alleged victim nor the public could be informed of Detective Howard’s penalty.
Thus, by having complete control over how to categorize an incident involving a member of the public, the NYPD is able to determine how transparent discipline will be in any such incident; this is not how a transparent system is supposed to work. Ideally, in a transparent system of discipline, the public would know not just why some officers are disciplined, but why some officers are not disciplined, not just why some conduct is subject to discipline, but why similar conduct is not subject to discipline.
The public needs to be informed of all disciplinary actions, not just major infractions. After all, the purpose of transparency is to make the workings of government understandable to its citizens; the “minor rule violations” provision defeats the purpose of repealing Section 50-a by not clarifying why the NYPD makes the discipline decisions it does.
Nevertheless, the court’s ruling on the issue of “minor rules violations” is precisely the goal the NYPD desired: the language of the bill repealing Section 50-a tracks almost exactly the changes requested by the NYPD when it testified in 2019 before the state legislature, and while the exhilaration of repealing Section 50-a was ongoing, the department simply worked the details of the legislation in its favor.
It should be possible to avoid such an outcome in the future. Much of the power of the NYPD rests on its occlusion of the details as to how it actually functions. It is incumbent upon us working to make the NYPD truly transparent and accountable to the people it serves to become knowledgeable about how these details work against our interests and how we can make use of them to achieve our goals. In the case of the repeal of Section 50-a, the NYPD came with an understanding of how to utilize these details to reach the outcome it wanted, while those working for transparency came only with a desire for change.
Christian Covington is an attorney and a master’s student in political science at CUNY Graduate Center.