Press Releases

City Bar Urges Repeal of Civil Rights Law 50-a to Allow Public Disclosure of Police Records Relating to Police Misconduct

The New York City Bar Association has issued a report supporting pending legislation to repeal Civil Rights Law 50-a (CRL 50-a), to allow for the public disclosure of police records relating to police misconduct (A.3333 sponsored by Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell). In addition to the City Bar, 32 organizations throughout New York City and New York State have indicated their support for repealing CRL 50-a. (See full list below.)

The report, issued by the City Bar’s Civil Rights Committee and Criminal Courts Committee, notes that in New York (one of only three states in the nation that gives specific protection to police officers’ records) CRL 50-a shrouds evidence of police misconduct from the public. CRL 50-a has been interpreted so broadly that New York State’s Committee on Open Government, in its annual report, stated that police misconduct in New York State is more secretive than in any other state in the nation. And without transparency, officers are less accountable to the communities they serve. 

“No other state in the country hides police misconduct from the public like New York,” said Phil Desgranges, Chair of the City Bar’s Civil Rights Committee. “CRL 50-a has become a means to shield officers from public accountability and it impedes racial justice. The Legislature should repeal it so New York can catch up to other states that prioritize accountability and public trust over secrecy.”

The original purpose of CRL 50-a was to prevent disclosure of “unverified and unsubstantiated” civilian complaints—not to prevent disclosure of substantiated civilian complaints. However, the death of Eric Garner – and the revelation that the police officer involved in the case had four prior substantiated complaints for abusive stops and searches – led to renewed focus on the law. “As the Garner case exemplifies,” the report states, “policies and practices that appear to prioritize protecting officer misdeeds over strengthening community trust divide communities of color from the police departments that are meant to protect them.”

Citing the history of the law’s judicial interpretation, the report notes that, “in addition to public disclosure being stymied by the courts, litigants have struggled to discover police misconduct even with a judicial subpoena. CRL 50-a puts the burden on lawyers to demonstrate how material they cannot access is relevant to their case.”

The report notes the safeguards already provided by New York’s Public Officers Law, which prevents records from being disclosed when they constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, are compiled for law enforcement purposes, or endanger the life or safety of any person, among other circumstances. In addition, the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) provides all government entities with a process for reviewing and responding to requests for records.  

“How can it be that those public employees having the most power and authority over peoples’ lives are the least accountable?” said Bob Freeman of the New York State Committee on Open Government. “Section 50-a has it backwards. Repeal of section 50-a would require government agencies to disclose or withhold records regarding police officers based on the same standards as those applicable to other public employees. It’s time for the Legislature to level the playing field.”

“Civil Rights Law 50-a was passed in 1976 to prevent impeachment of police in the courtroom based on ‘raw and unverified’ allegations of prior misconduct, not misconduct that was substantiated by the City’s own agencies,” said Tina Luongo of The Legal Aid Society. “This law was unnecessary then and is unnecessary now. Judges already act as gatekeepers in the courtroom to prevent cross examinations based on unreliable allegations. In order to access this information under CRL 50-a, attorneys for the accused are forced to blindly argue that the information they can’t access might be relevant to their case. This is an impossible burden. Combine that with the distrust in the police that secrecy around their disciplinary system foments and it is clear that this law must be repealed.”

“The de Blasio administration has touted the NYPD’s neighborhood policing program as a mechanism to strengthen the Department’s relationship with communities of color,” said Marne Lenox, Assistant Counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. “But Civil Rights Law 50-a and its overly broad interpretations erode faith in the NYPD and compromise community engagement with the police. To truly instill public trust, New York must repeal 50-a and lift the veil of secrecy that has for far too long shrouded the NYPD’s misconduct.”

“When police officers who serve our community are investigated for misconduct, we need more information, not less,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Details about how the police department holds its officers accountable should not be kept secret from the public. The police establishment has increasingly hidden behind 50-a to thwart efforts towards police accountability and transparency. Repealing 50-a is a critical step towards ensuring that the public can be an effective check on police abuse.”

“Civil Rights Law 50-a was never enacted to conceal substantiated claims of police misconduct from the public,” said Paula T. Edgar, President of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association. “Yet today, it’s used to prevent citizens from knowing if police officers accused of wrongdoing have a history of abuse. In order to establish and rebuild trust in our communities and society-at-large, we need to know that police officers who engage in questionable or illegal practices are being held accountable. Civil Rights Law 50-a has no place in a fair and transparent government.”

“No other public officer in the state enjoys the level of protection from public scrutiny as do the police,” said Betsy Gotbaum, Executive Director of Citizens Union. “Not only are they charged with maintaining public safety, but also the police are often a source of influential testimony, which can have mortal implications for people’s lives. They also carry lethal force. In the face of such grave responsibility, why are police officers shielded from public oversight?”

“New York State can no longer afford to have a state law that conceals police misconduct and the lack of discipline for it from the public,” said Mark Winston Griffith, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform. “It allows for the law to be misused in order to hide more and more information about the lack of accountability when police officers abuse civilians and their power. Changes to the law that maintain secrecy about our public agencies and officials will not be sufficient. The state legislature must repeal 50a to truly protect the public safety of all New Yorkers by being on the side of police transparency and accountability.”

The report urges the Legislature to repeal CRL 50-a, citing the following reasons:

  1. New York would join several other states in promoting transparency of police disciplinary systems. There is no evidence that this transparency endangers officers in those states or inhibits the administration of justice.
  2. Concerns of the law’s original sponsors over the privacy of police officers are adequately addressed through the privacy protections of FOIL.
  3. Judges are already charged with restraining lawyers from asking irrelevant, immaterial and abusive cross examination questions.
  4. Revising CRL 50-a will not address concerns that police departments will continue to seek, and courts will grant, broad interpretation of what types of records qualify as “personnel records” that can be protected from disclosure. Merely tweaking the definition of “personnel records,” as one bill proposes, would not prevent widespread categorizing of information, as “personnel” files. Members of the public or media may not have the resources to litigate FOIL cases in the courts and challenge these interpretations.
  5. Without the repeal of CRL 50-a, recent police reform efforts will be rendered wholly ineffective.

The report, which documents how the evolution of CRL 50-a has defeated FOIL’s goal of accountability and transparency, urges the Legislature to repeal the law and to join other states in prioritizing public transparency of police misconduct.

The report can be read here.

Supporters of CRL 50-a Repeal:

Arab American Association of New York


Bronx County Bar Association

The Bronx Defenders

Center for Constitutional Rights

Center for Law and Justice 

Citizens Union

Communities United for Police Reform

Drug Policy Alliance


Five Borough Defenders                                          

Girls For Gender Equity, Inc.

Innocence Project

Invisible Institute

The Legal Aid Society

Long Island Black Bar Association

Malcolm X Grassroots Movement

Metropolitan Black Bar Association

Moms Rising
NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund

Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem

New York City Bar Association

New York Civil Liberties Union

New York Communities for Change

New York County Lawyer’s Association, Civil Rights and Liberties Committee

New York State Committee on Open Government

New York State Defenders Association

Picture the Homeless

Reinvent Albany

UAW Local 2325 – Association of Legal Aid Attorneys (AFL-CIO)



Youth Represent

About the Association
The New York City Bar Association, since its founding in 1870, has been dedicated to maintaining the high ethical standards of the legal profession, promoting reform of the law and access to justice, and providing service to the profession and the public. The Association, through its 24,000 members, continues to work for political, legal and social reform, while implementing innovative means to help the disadvantaged. Protecting the public’s welfare remains one of the Association’s highest priorities.