NYPD’s Lack of Disciplinary Record Transparency Frustrates Prosecutors
by Betty Nelander
Disciplinary records of New York Police Department officers who arrest people have been closely shielded. Even the district attorneys, who sometimes must decide whether to charge arrestees with crimes based on an officer’s word, have often been out of the loop.
But now a news organization has revealed the secretive disciplinary records of NYPD officers from 2011 to 2015. And the public can see that hundreds of employees committed eye-opening offenses.
The internal records obtained by BuzzFeed through an anonymous source and verified by its investigation revealed officers were disciplined for offenses ranging “from lying to grand juries to physically attacking innocent people.”
“Many of the officers lied, cheated, stole, or assaulted New York City residents. At least fifty employees lied on official reports, under oath, or during an internal affairs investigation,” said BuzzFeed. “Thirty-eight were found guilty by a police tribunal of excessive force, getting into a fight, or firing their gun unnecessarily. Fifty-seven were guilty of driving under the influence. Seventy-one were guilty of ticket-fixing. One officer, Jarrett Dill, threatened to kill someone. Another, Roberson Tunis, sexually harassed and inappropriately touched a fellow officer. Some were guilty of lesser offenses, like mouthing off to a supervisor.”
The department’s lack of transparency is now a subject of litigation, with BuzzFeed suing the NYPD in the New York Supreme Court for “restricting access to officer disciplinary trial transcripts and other information” despite court precedent. In the past, other organizations also have sued for this reason.
“The NYPD imposes a level of secrecy on disciplinary hearings that is unheard of in most government proceedings—including the military’s. It’s also unconstitutional,” BuzzFeed spokesman Matt Mittenthal said in a statement.
Overall, the internal records posted on a searchable database at BuzzFeed.com reveal about 1,800 NYPD employees disciplined in the five-year span. Some of the offenses merited firing, but the officers remained on the force.
Still, an officer’s word is sometimes key in criminal cases, especially when very few felony cases actually go to trial, BuzzFeed reported. Many of the accused pleaded guilty, at times for lesser penalties, in deals with prosecutors. Their decisions should be made with full disclosures in hand.
Manhattan District Attorney’s Office general counsel said in a May 18, 2018, letter to the NYPD that there’s been “little progress” in talks about “pre-trial disclosure obligations” and the need for better access, including outcomes of police officer disciplinary proceedings and access to preliminary investigation worksheets and all video surveillance feeds.
“These limitations frustrate our ability, not only to prepare for trial, but to make early assessments of witness credibility, explore weaknesses in a potential case, and exonerate individuals who may have been mistakenly accused,” wrote general counsel Carey Dunne.
In response, NYPD Deputy Commissioner Phil Walzak, said in a statement June 2, 2018, that the department responds promptly “to prosecutors’ requests for information about officers’ disciplinary histories” and that “relevant police documents and video” are shared.
The question, then, is why are the outcomes of misconduct hearings under wraps even though the trials themselves are open to the public? The answer appears to be Section 50-a of the New York Civil Rights Code that shields certain police personnel records. Currently, the police union is fighting the NYPD in court to prevent plans to release redacted opinions in NYPD disciplinary trials.
Whether there will be change remains to be seen, although Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill have said they will fight for it on the state level.
Sources: buzzfeed.com, law.com/newyorklawjournal, medium.com
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