Nearly nine months after New York lawmakers, inspired by mass protests over police brutality, repealed a law that kept the discipline records of officers secret for decades, the New York Police Department on Monday began publishing some of the sealed information.
The department released partial disciplinary records for all 35,000 active police officers dating back to 2014 in an online database, along with redacted copies of decisions by judges in administrative trials.
The publication of the records was a major turning point for New York City and its police department, the largest in the country. For 44 years, the state’s civil rights law had prevented the public from seeing the majority of misconduct records, and police unions and their allies in the Legislature had fought to keep it that way.
But the political landscape shifted over the summer after George Floyd’s death ignited nationwide protests against racism and police brutality. Within weeks, the Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, repealed the statute.
And last month, a federal appeals court rejected a last-ditch legal challenge from police unions, which argued that releasing the records would put officers in danger and harm their careers.
The records, some of which were previously released by the city’s civilian police watchdog agency, make up one of the largest public databases of police discipline in the country. Their release comes as the nation struggles with a debate about the future of policing and public safety.
“We’re living in this period where police legitimacy is being questioned,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington. “What this says to me is the New York City Police Department is taking a huge step toward greater transparency.”
The city’s Department of Correction also published a database on Monday containing hundreds of disciplinary records for guards dating back to 2019. The agency is expected to release more data over the coming weeks.
The newly released Police Department files shed light on how officials have handled a variety of accusations against officers, ranging from serious matters like unjustified shootings and falsifying official statements to lesser infractions like failing to log encounters in memo books or wearing uniforms improperly.
Before the secrecy law, known as 50-a, was repealed last year, New York was one of more than 20 states that did not make police disciplinary records public. Its repeal put New York in the company of states like Florida and Ohio, which permit police records to be released to varying degrees. Maryland is considering making police records public.
With the release of the records, New York City joins Chicago and other cities that have proactively published some misconduct records online.
Proponents of opening New York officers’ records to public scrutiny say that allowing the public to know whether officers have been held accountable for misconduct is crucial to repairing the department’s tarnished image, making it harder for problematic officers to escape significant punishment.
But union leaders had argued that the release of records would heighten safety risks for officers and unnecessarily harm their career prospects.
The profiles published on Monday include summaries of complaints against officers and the outcomes. They also list officers’ work histories and training, as well as promotions and commendations. At a news conference on Thursday, Assistant Chief Matthew V. Pontillo likened an officer’s record to a baseball card.
The online records also include what Chief Pontillo called a “library” of the redacted decisions by administrative judges who presided over departmental trials dating to 2017. The department will eventually release decisions from as far back as 2008, he said.
Pending cases and cases in which officers were not disciplined are not included in the data.
Other records — like complaint forms and videos or reports used as evidence in administrative proceedings — were not included and must be requested under the state’s freedom of information law, the police said.
The release of the records followed more than 50 years of litigation and tension over police discipline in the United States. In New York City, that debate reached a fever pitch after the death of Eric Garner in police custody on Staten Island in 2014 set off demonstrations.
The city went to court to block the release of disciplinary records of Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who placed Mr. Garner in a banned chokehold that proved fatal. The records were eventually leaked to a news website. A grand jury did not indict Mr. Pantaleo, and five years later he was fired by the department after a departmental trial.
The 50-a statute was one of the most restrictive in the country and prevented the release of personnel records for police officers, firefighters and corrections officers without a court order or the person’s consent.
It was intended to prevent defense lawyers from using unrelated disciplinary files to impeach officers on the witness stand, but in practice it was used to shield almost all records from public view. As a result, the outcomes of complaints largely remained secret.
People who filed complaints with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, for instance, were often kept from learning the outcomes of their cases. Even people who filed complaints about police abuse could not learn whether the officers who had harmed them had been accused of or punished for misconduct in the past.
The city first announced plans to publish disciplinary summaries proactively online last summer, after the Legislature removed the law. Police unions, joined by those representing firefighters and corrections officers, sued in federal court and won a temporary delay.
By then, however, the Civilian Complaint Review Board had already released records of nearly 324,000 allegations it had investigated over the past 35 years. After the unions’ case was thrown out and a stay was lifted last week, the civilian watchdog agency published a more current online database of its own containing the records of 83,000 officers.