Tri-State Area Police Unions Fight To Keep Disciplinary Records Private

Police unions in the tri-state region are fighting to block new measures that would give the public access to law-enforcement discipline records, which have long been confidential.

Lawmakers and officials in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut enacted new policing disclosure laws and policies in recent months, amid nationwide protests calling for greater accountability. Advocates who support such changes say police officers entrusted to use lethal force should be subject to greater transparency and held responsible for misconduct.

Police unions say keeping disciplinary records confidential protects officers’ privacy, and that if the records are released, officers could be unfairly maligned. The unions have also argued in court that the disclosures would violate collective-bargaining agreements.

In New Jersey, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal issued a directive in June ordering all law-enforcement agencies in the state to begin releasing the names of officers who have been subject to serious disciplinary measures along with a description of those offenses. The superintendent of the New Jersey State Police also planned on releasing 20 years of such records.

The State Troopers Fraternal Association of New Jersey, along with other police unions, filed a lawsuit in state court challenging the attorney general’s directive. Many New Jersey state troopers entered into settlement agreements under the presumption the records would be kept confidential, attorneys for the police unions said in court filings. The release of the names would also endanger the lives of officers, making them targets for harassment, the unions said.

The New Jersey State Police already publishes annually descriptions of incidents that resulted in major disciplinary action for state troopers, excluding their names, said Wayne Blanchard, president of the association representing the troopers.

“Just to input a name—I don’t believe it serves any legitimate purpose other than to embarrass a member,” Mr. Blanchard said.

The New Jersey attorney general’s office declined to comment.

The appellate division of New Jersey state court is weighing the case. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has filed a brief on behalf of a coalition of groups calling on the court to reject the lawsuit.

Alexander Shalom, senior supervising attorney with the ACLU of New Jersey, said relatively few state troopers engage in misconduct warranting serious disciplinary action, but the union has gone out of its way to protect these officers. Thirty out of 2,679 troopers were subject to major discipline in 2016, according to the state attorney general’s office.

“They are fighting for the right to be able to operate with impunity,” Mr. Shalom said. “And that shouldn’t instill confidence in the state of law enforcement.”

Mr. Blanchard said his union has long supported measures to increase police accountability, such as the mandatory use of body cameras and systems of review to monitor for potentially discriminatory traffic stops.

In New York, lawmakers struck down in June the section of the state civil-rights code known as 50-a, adopted in 1976, that barred the public disclosure of disciplinary records. The police unions sued New York City and are asking a federal appeals court to keep confidential the disciplinary records that were previously protected by 50-a.

The Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York, which represents NYPD officers, has argued in court that releasing those records, which include allegations of misconduct, will infringe on the rights of police officers.

This is “about protecting public-sector workers from unproven, unsubstantiated allegations that frankly impact people’s careers and destroy their privacy rights,” a spokesman for the Police Benevolent Association said.

“They have the financial resources so they are really trying to use the courts to bypass and roll back key changes and victories that people’s movements have been able to achieve,” said Joo-Hyun Kang, director of Communities United for Police Reform, which has asked the court to reject the suit in New York.

The New York Civil Liberties Union has published more than 320,000 complaints records filed against police officers held by the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board since the elimination of 50-a, but other records have yet to be disclosed.

In Connecticut, lawmakers passed a sweeping law in July increasing oversight of police officers that included a provision reclassifying some internal investigation reports as public records. The Connecticut State Police Union, which represents state troopers, has filed a lawsuit in federal court stating the new law violates its collective-bargaining agreement because it allows disciplinary records that include what it says are unfounded allegations to be released to the public.

The Connecticut State Police Union didn’t respond to requests for comment. “These members will suffer immediate and irreparable harm if this information is released,” attorneys for the union said in court filings.

The attorney general’s office in Connecticut, which is defending the new law, declined to comment.

From www.wsj.com