For almost half a century, Section 50-A of a New York state law sealed personnel information about police officers, firefighters and corrections officers. Some of it is truly personal: home address, family information, even data about a police officer who might once have had substance problems. That information may become public Monday, with state legislators and Gov. Andrew Cuomo planning to repeal that legal provision of the Civil Service Law and open up information.
What is really at issue are the records about complaints made about officers, particularly by civilians about official violence. Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said it is only a problem for officers who break the rules.
"Every officer that is operating in the State of New York has the ability to follow police procedures, to follow the training that they have been given and to make sure they treat every person they come into contact humanely and professionally," Brown said.
Police unions pushed for the law and have fought its repeal. Their big claim is that it will open up officers to people who want their addresses and that family information for whatever purpose.
Buffalo Police Benevolent Association trial counsel Thomas Burton said there are reasons why the information is secret.
"For obvious reasons, there has to be protections if certain officers, let's say, have arrested a real bad guy who threatens their family, of course, for undercover officers, and it goes on and on," Burton said, "and that's the primary reason for that statute that was passed years ago."
Many criminal justice advocates have said the issue is only those discipline records, so the public can help force out officers who are bad actors on the street. The information can surface in court cases, where a judge can release it, particularly in federal courts. Removing an officer is usually contingent on the rules in a union contract and removals under that can be fought in court.
However, State Assembly Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes said the law will be changed -- and for good reason.
"This guy in Minnesota, you try to take him to court, they are going to bring up everything about Floyd, everything about his background. They are going to bring up everything about the people who was in the car with him, 'cause there were three other people with him. They're going to bring up everything about them. You're not going to be able to find not one thing about the officer because it's sealed. You can't even see it," she said.