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Eric Garner case shows why police secrecy law is wrong

A large crowd demonstrates at Foley Square in

A large crowd demonstrates at Foley Square in New York City Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014 in the wake of a Staten Island grand jury's decision not to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner on July 17, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

What if Eric Garner's death in a confrontation with NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in 2014 hadn't been videotaped?

The public or Garner's family might never have gotten meaningful information about what happened that day on Staten Island. Unfortunately, they still haven't gotten any meaningful information on whether, in his past, Pantaleo had ever been accused of wrongdoing or disciplined for it.

This secrecy is all due to an unwise state law, cemented into place by police unions, known as 50-a. It keeps officers' personnel records secret unless a judge releases them.

The Legal Aid Society, which provides legal representation to low-income New Yorkers, is still being stymied in its attempts to find out how many times the city's independent Civilian Complaint Review Board has had complaints about Pantaleo, and what the board did in response.

That's despite the fact that a judge has ordered the release of those records. State Supreme Court Justice Alice Schlesinger in July rejected the claim by city lawyers that 50-a did not apply to the narrow information Legal Aid sought. She pointed out that the CCRB had regularly given out such information in the past to lawyers who requested it. The city and Pantaleo's lawyers are appealing that ruling in an attempt to twist this bad law even further to shield both the officer and the city.

Pantaleo is seen choking Garner to the ground in that July 17, 2014, video. However, a Staten Island grand jury did not indict him, even though the city's medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide. The city has since settled a civil case with Garner's family for $5.9 million, but taxpayers have no way to know whether that was a fair settlement without knowing Pantaleo's work history. The Justice Department is investigating whether the officer violated Garner's civil rights. Meanwhile, Pantaleo remains on modified duty, stripped of his gun and badge.

New Yorkers have a right to know when officers are accused of transgressions, and what inquiries find. It's true whether videos capture the action or not, whether citizens are dead or merely mistreated. A law that keeps such information from the public is a travesty, and must be changed.


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