As the national conversation about police-community relations intensified in recent months, New York State open-government advocates escalated their fight against a statute that allows law-enforcement agencies to keep most personnel records secret, the Columbia Journalism Review reports. A report to the governor and the state legislature last week urges repeal of a law authorizing police departments to keep “all personnel records used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion” confidential. The statute was enacted in 1976 to protect officers who serve as witnesses for the prosecution during cross examination by criminal defense attorneys.
The Committee on Open Government, the public body that issued last week's report, wrote that “such secrecy is unwarranted and defeats [Freedom of Information Laws'] goal of transparency and accountability.” “My feeling is that it is among the worst statutes enacted in this state,” said Robert Freeman, committee director. “The group of public employees who have the most power over people's lives are the least accountable…The scope of 50-a seems to be expanding all the time. Where does it end?” Critics say the law has been stretched to cover not just simple performance reviews but investigations and reports pertaining to police misconduct. The law's defenders insist it is necessary to keep police safe. James Miller of the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association told the Albany Times-Union, “[M]aking detailed personal information available to convicted criminals will potentially put our officers and their families at risk.”