Queens prosecutors have agreed to release internal records on police officers whose honesty has been challenged by judges or who have been sued for misconduct in civil suits.
However, in a letter to WNYC/Gothamist on Monday, the DA’s office said it would not release records of substantiated misconduct found during internal investigations by the NYPD or the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
The limited disclosure, which is estimated to take place in one to two weeks, comes after attorney Gideon Oliver filed an appeal to Queens prosecutors on behalf of Gothamist/WNYC under the state Freedom of Information Law.
In April, Gothamist/WNYC was the first to reveal that the Queens DA had built its own office credibility database, collecting substantiated misconduct allegations, criminal matters, adverse credibility findings and civil lawsuits. Prosecutors say they use the database to help determine whether they need to make disclosures to defense counsel about officer witnesses’ potentially suspect credibility. Some former prosecutors, however, have told Gothamist/WNYC that such lists are used to help DAs push for early plea deals— without disclosing officers’ problems to defense.
Tim Rountree, attorney-in-charge of the Legal Aid Society’s Queens criminal practice, praised the DA’s decision.
He said the release sends a public message that prosecutors care about accountability.
“Sometimes we look for this information but we hit a brick wall,” Rountree said. “Having the DA saying, ‘We have this list, we want to share this information with you,’ is just huge for our clients.”
Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, attacked the release.
“I believe most of these decisions we’re seeing are political decisions,” he said in a telephone interview. “What we have is an anti-police atmosphere [such] that every elected official is catering to the squeaky wheel of people who are claiming that police don’t do what’s right. The longer they go down this path, the more you’re probably going to see things get worse in this city.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Queens District Attorney's Office said the disclosure should not be construed politically.
“The law gives clear guidance to prosecutors on the disclosure of this information to defense attorneys and we follow that guidance. The Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requires us to provide certain information to the press or anyone who makes a proper request and that is what we will do in response to this request.”
The forthcoming records will include files from the Queens DA’s Law Enforcement Officer Witness database, but will withhold others, including substantiated misconduct findings officers receive from the police department.
To justify these withholdings, the Queens DA cited section 50-a of New York’s civil rights law, which shields the release of officer personnel records and has been interpreted expansively by appellate courts over the past decade.
Queens prosecutors cited a 1999 Court of Appeals decision which contended that 50-a is meant to stymie the “abusive exploitation” of personally damaging information in police personnel records. Gothamist/WNYC’s reporting on officers’ substantiated misconduct records, the DA argues, could create a situation that 50-a is supposed to stop.
“While you may not have any intention to embarrass or humiliate the officers with this information, it does appear that you intend to report and publish this information,” wrote Assistant District Attorney Anastasia Spanakos, citing Gothamist/WNYC’s October report on officer honesty records obtained from the Bronx DA. “This creates a substantial and realistic potential that disclosure would lead to embarrassment or humiliation of the officers listed in the documents.”
Christopher Dunn, legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, pushed back on the DA’s interpretation of 50-a.
“50-a was designed to protect officers from the release of their personal information, like psychiatric records, medical records, dental records,” said Dunn. “It was never intended to protect police officers from the release of information that bore on their credibility as a witness in a criminal prosecution.”
In a statement, Queens State Senator Jessica Ramos said the Queens DA’s limited release of records points to why she supports upcoming legislation in Albany to repeal 50-a.
“Our city and state should uphold laws that encourage transparency and accountability, but Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights law does exactly the opposite by shielding negligent police disciplinary measures from the public,” she said. “Police officers should be held accountable and removed from the force if they’ve betrayed their oath.”
The DA’s planned release of officer credibility records comes two months before Queens borough president Melinda Katz takes office. Katz has styled herself as a progressive, but has faced criticism from leftwing activists who supported her rival Tiffany Cabán. Following Gothamist/WNYC’s discovery of the Queens DA’s officer database, Katz, unlike some other Democratic candidates, resisted the release of such records.
“Police officers are given the benefit of the doubt when they walk into a courtroom, and we need to make sure they're held to the highest standard of credibility,” Katz told the Queens Daily Eagle in April. “But without clear and consistent standards for what qualifies an officer to make the list in question or ways to keep details of ongoing investigations confidential, it shouldn't be made public.”
Katz did not respond to our request for comment on how she would handle officer credibility records when she takes office in January. Dunn said her opposition would put her out of step with the reform movement.
“We see across the country, a recognition that District Attorneys have to be much more open about the information they have about police officers,” said Dunn. “If Melinda Katz is not prepared to join that movement, she is going to be running a backwards district attorney’s office — one that a lot of people are going to be saying is hiding information about police officers, who are liars or worse.”
In criminal cases, prosecutors are required by law to reveal any information they possess that could impeach a police witness’s credibility. In his letter, Spanakos said the Queens DA is under no obligation to “affirmatively search out” information about police misconduct, but said the office records it “if it becomes aware of it.”
In a statement, the NYPD noted that it solicits judges’ adverse credibility findings from prosecutors, using them to consider possible training, reassignment or investigation. The department said it does not consider every such finding to be accurate, and mentioned there is “no mechanism to appeal a finding of adverse credibility against one of our officers.”
The upcoming release makes Queens the third DA’s office to disclose records directly from its officer credibility database. The Bronx and Brooklyn DA released similar records to Gothamist/WNYC over the last two months.
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