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Police Privacy – or Police Secrecy?

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May 30, 2012

NEW CASSEL, N.Y. - A New York law that keeps details of internal police investigations and disciplinary actions sealed is being criticized, especially for its role in a fatal domestic-abuse case involving police inaction on Long Island.

The law, known as "50-a" - in effect since the 1970s - is designed to protect the privacy of police officers and prevent bad marks on their personnel files from being used against them in court. Its critics say the way the law is applied by Long Island police keeps the public from knowing how the police are policing themselves.

Joe Lo Piccolo, president of the Nassau County Criminal Courts Bar Association, explains.

"It prevents the public from knowing what went wrong, and then learning whether the police have done anything to correct."

"50-a" is under scrutiny as a result of a fatal domestic-abuse case in New Cassel, Long Island, in 2009. A 700-page report of police inaction in the case of murder victim Jo'Anna Bird remains sealed to the public and press because of a gag order in the settlement of a lawsuit brought by the victim's family.

Bob Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, acts as an ombudsman on issues of transparency. As a government employee, his job performance records can't be hidden - and he dislikes the fact that "50-a" can seal those of others.

"It serves as a shield regarding public employees who have the most power over our lives. Those public employees are the least accountable as a consequence of Section 50-a."

Lawyers trying to probe police malfeasance are further hampered by "50-a," Lo Piccolo says, because it makes the very existence of investigatory and disciplinary files difficult to determine.

"The problem is, an attorney can ask to unseal these files, but we have to know these files exist in order to do that."

Freeman believes Long Island police could release the reports with identifying information redacted. He rejects the law's original rationale of protecting officers in court.

"We've all seen enough TV shows to have heard objections any number of times when irrelevant material is sought to be introduced. The judge has control over the courtroom. My belief is that the basis for this legislation is simply misplaced."

The law has been expanded to cover firefighters and jail guards. Critics of "50-a" say the job performance of sanitation workers, clerks, teachers, and even judges is a matter of public record - and that police officers' conduct should be, as well.

The text of "50-a" is online at supnik.com/ny51.htm.

Mark Scheerer, Public News Service - NY