“Last month, a New York state judge issued a sweeping order mandating that the NYPD make major reforms to its practices and systems for using sealed arrest records—records the NYPD has been illegally using to spy on and target millions of people for the past 46 years.”
In 2012, co-author Natasha Duncan’s sister, Shantel Davis, was shot to death by the NYPD. As Natasha’s family roiled in shock and tried to grieve this devastating loss, the NYPD illegally leaked information about Shantel’s arrest history—much of which was sealed—in a transparent attempt to turn the public against her. In life and in death, the NYPD found ways to illegally target and violate Shantel.
Natasha’s experience is not unusual; the NYPD routinely gives the press sealed information when it suits their political purposes. Last August, the city held a press conference about a report that included the sealed records information of 10 New Yorkers in violation of a court order. The Court later ruled it was a violation of the law, but the damage was already done.
It is high time that the NYPD be required to change. Its unlawful use of these records has primarily harmed Black and brown New Yorkers who bear the brunt of the NYPD’s over-policing of low-income communities of color.
For example, author Jain’s client, a young Latino man identified as R.C., was arrested for a 2015 robbery in the Bronx after his picture from a 2011 sealed arrest charge was used in three photo arrays shown to the victim. Despite being out of state at the time of the robbery, R.C., who lived upstate in Wappinger Falls at the time, was forced to commute 75 miles to the Bronx for 10 separate court appearances, causing him to lose his job and abandon plans to go to college. Prosecutors dropped the case the following year, but again—the damage was already done.
Last month, a New York state judge issued a sweeping order mandating that the NYPD make major reforms to its practices and systems for using sealed arrest records—records the NYPD has been illegally using to spy on and target millions of people for the past 46 years.
The NYPD’s decades-long resistance to complying with this important law ends now. The court’s order gives teeth to the sealing laws, which were enacted in 1976 to ensure that people are not stigmatized by arrests that were dismissed or resolved in someone’s favor.
The court’s order will require the NYPD, for the first time, to revamp its systems, remove private, sealed arrest records from its databases, prohibit access to sealed records by the vast majority of the police force, and prohibit the use of sealed documents in predictive policing models and algorithms.
Let us be clear: Privacy and civil rights are not at odds with law enforcement or accountability. Under the order, nothing prevents the police from obtaining access to sealed records with a court order, and police may still be able to use sealed data to compile statistics, both to comply with public reporting laws and learn where best to allocate policing resources—but not to surveil and humiliate people.
It is shameful that the NYPD continues to fearmonger about the law’s effects. These laws are important civil rights protections to reduce racial disparities in policing since Black and brown communities always have been and continue to be harmed by overpolicing and racially biased policing.
New Yorkers deserve to feel safe in the protections the legislature enacted decades ago. Given the NYPD’s historic disregard for this law, we should all be demanding that the NYPD follow through on the court’s mandate to clean up its act.
Natasha Duncan is the sister of Shantel Davis, who was killed by police in 2012. Niji Jain is the senior staff attorney in the Impact Litigation Practice of The Bronx Defenders.