The nation’s largest organization of public defenders is building a “cop accountability” database, aimed at helping defense attorneys question the credibility of police officers in court, reports Slate. The database was created by the Legal Aid Society, a New York–based nonprofit that represents 230,000 people per year with a staff of more than 650 lawyers. The database so far contains information about accusations of wrongdoing against 3,000 New York officers, and is being used regularly by Legal Aid lawyers.
The project aims to create a clearinghouse for records of police misconduct—something the NYPD itself does not make public—and to share it with defense lawyers all over the city, including those who do not work for Legal Aid. At a time when police departments are being criticized for a lack of transparency, the Legal Aid database represents a bold attempt to track officers with a history of civil rights violations and other kinds of misbehavior, and force judges, prosecutors, and juries to take the officers' past actions into consideration when adjudicating cases. If a defense attorney can call into question the credibility of an arresting officer, she might be able to convince a judge to let a defendant out of jail without bail, or maybe to dismiss the case entirely. Information about an officer's past misconduct can serve as a bargaining chip during plea negotiations.