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NYPD needs transparency in discipline of officers, panel says

A panel of three outside experts says the NYPD's internal discipline system is hampered by a state law - controversial section 50a - that Albany needs to change.

NYPD Chief of Department Terence A. Monahan, right,

NYPD Chief of Department Terence A. Monahan, right, speaks to Commissioner James P. O'Neill during a media availability at 1 Police Plaza on Friday. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

The NYPD needs to be more transparent about how it disciplines officers and it can do that by letting the public see police personnel files, an independent panel says.

A panel of three outside experts says the NYPD's internal discipline system is hampered by a state law — controversial section 50a — that Albany needs to change.

The three-member panel, led by former Securities and Exchange Commission chairwoman Mary Jo White, found that, although “imperfect,” the NYPD generally delivered fair disciplinary outcomes for the country's largest police department. The trio reached its conclusions after looking at disciplinary cases from 2016 to 2017.

White, and panel members former Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Robert L. Capers and retired Manhattan federal District Judge Barbara Jones, agreed that section 50a of the state’s civil rights law needed to be changed to allow greater public access to the police disciplinary process. The law prevents the disclosure of police personnel records that are used “to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion.”

Court have ruled that section 50a requires keeping under wraps any record that may be considered a personnel record, even preventing disclosure under the state Freedom of Information law.

In a statement that accompanied Friday's 57-page report, the panel said the NYPD process, in which the police commissioner is the final arbiter, “generally produced fair results” and found no basis for the view that higher-ranking officers consistently received better treatment under the disciplinary system than lower-ranking officers.

For years the department regularly published final disciplinary rulings but, in 2016, department attorneys advised and the city corporation counsel ruled that 50a prohibited disclosure of such records. Court have upheld that position and the independent panel said the law must change.

“The [disciplinary] processes are there but nobody can see them and until [section] 50a is amended there is nothing more important,” said Jones at a news conference announcing release of the report.

At a separate news conference, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill, who commissioned the independent study last year, said he accepted the recommendations of the panel and appointed first Deputy Commissioner Benjamin B. Tucker to head a 10-member internal special implementation panel to get things underway in the next 30 to 60 days.

At the top of the list, said O’Neill, is departmental support for changes in section 50a to “increase transparency and enhance accountability” and to avoid any unwarranted expansion of the law. The panel recommended that although some records may be kept confidential, broader access to some materials should be permitted under the Freedom of Information law.

Patrick Lynch, head of the Police Benevolent Association, in a statement denounced the panel's findings.

“When we see a panel of distinguished law enforcement figures bowing to the demands of anti-police, pro-criminal advocates, it is clear that public safety in this city is headed down a very dark path,” Lynch said.  

“The panel’s recommendation to shred the confidentiality protections for police personnel records will put all New Yorkers in jeopardy. Criminals will exploit this supposed ‘transparency’ in order to escape justice, and police families will be exposed to even greater threats and harassment,” Lynch said.

But O’Neill was uncompromising in his support of the panel's recommendations. He also backed immediate publication of police trial room calendars, as had been done years ago, and setting up a penalty matrix, similar to sentencing guidelines used by federal judges. Cops brought up on charges can receive minor punishment, such as docked vacation days, all the way to dismissal from the force.

O’Neill also agreed with the panel's recommendation for stronger discipline of cops who give false statements. The panel said the NYPD should consider bringing charges against cops suspected of making false statements under a provision of the Patrol Guide that allowed for termination.

Although the panel did not find favoritism or political pressure in the current disciplinary process, the members did find NYPD decision makers “are potentially susceptible to external pressure and inappropriate influences.” As a result, the panel recommended improving procedures to shield the process from such influences. O’Neill told reporters that Tucker’s committee was going to look at designing a system to ward off political pressures.

With legislative changes in section 50a being a top recommendation, the city will likely have to lobby hard in Albany. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has come out in support of changes in the law, applauded the “thoughtful reform proposals.”

White, who also once served as chief U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, said legislative changes were key.

"The public’s confidence in the department to hold its own accountable, depends on its openness and candor and indeed the department's mission itself depends upon the public’s confidence,” White said.

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