Bill de Blasio can keep a secret...for the cops

September 20, 2016

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had the legal opportunity to make public NYPD disciplinary records--but he's continued to side with the cops, writes David Bliven.

IN THE latest example of Bill de Blasio backtracking from his "progressive" campaign for New York City mayor, his administration is fighting to keep secret the disciplinary records of police officers who commit acts of police brutality.

Essentially, de Blasio is claiming that state law prevents him from releasing police disciplinary records--at the same time as the city is appealing a judge's ruling which concludes that state law doesn't prevent de Blasio from releasing the records.

The latest round of this controversy revolves around a lawsuit filed by a coalition of groups, led by the Legal Aid Society, seeking disclosure of the records of NYPD Officer Daniel Pantelo, whose image was seen around the world in a video the documented him choking to death Eric Garner on Staten Island in 2014.

Generally, such records are confidential because of a section of the New York Civil Rights Law, which shields law enforcement officers from public requests for their personnel records. In its lawsuit, however, Legal Aid sought only a summary of complaints filed against Panteleo and the disciplinary measures taken. In theory, this could have protected against the identity of complainants becoming public as well as other information germane about Panteleo's employment.

New York police turn their backs toward Mayor Bill de Blasio
New York police turn their backs toward Mayor Bill de Blasio

"We simply want to know the most minimal information about whether or not Officer Pantaleo was the subject of civilian complaints and to what extent the city's mechanisms for discipline responded, or failed to respond, to those complaints prior to Mr. Garner's death," Legal Aid Society attorney Cynthia Conti-Cook wrote in a court filing.

A New York Supreme Court judge ruled that the city could provide such a summary without violating the state civil rights law. But rather than comply--and honor the spirit of his 2013 campaign in which he won support with a call to hold the NYPD accountable--de Blasio's administration appealed the ruling.

But the one-time darling of liberals didn't stop there. His administration is also fighting a broader lawsuit by the New York Civil Liberties Union for disclosure of summaries of all complaints and disciplinary actions as filed with the city's Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB).

Interestingly, the CCRB began making all such records available online from the fall of 2013 through the fall of 2014, when they stopped--after de Blasio was in office. The mayor could have urged the board to continue with this practice, but stayed silent.

The NYPD itself had previously revealed some records--sometimes in the context of litigation--but under the De Blasio administration, it has completely shut down the process.

HOW CAN the liberal de Blasio justify suppressing information that even a state Supreme Court judge thinks the public has a right to know?

He can hardly claim that he's merely abiding by privacy standards. After all, the NYPD under de Blasio has continued its long history of releasing the records of victims of police brutality, in an effort to smear their credibility. As Legal Aid wrote:

Unlike Mr. Garner's entire arrest history that has been released post-mortem with detailed charges thoroughly digested by the news media, regardless of presumption of innocence or statutory privacy protections...the overall restricted summary requested here would merely indicate the number of prior civilian allegations, complaints, charges and outcomes brought against Mr. Pantaleo prior to Mr. Garner's death.

Likewise, the de Blasio administration has had no qualms about revealing wrongdoing by workers at the Board of Elections, among other agencies, as the New York Daily News reported. And New York City has had no compunction towards grading public school teachers--and releasing those "evaluation results" to the public, misleading though they are.

The Daily News also uncovered a report by de Blasio in his previous position as Public Advocate that blasted the NYPD for a lack of transparency--because it regularly ignored public records requests.

Since becoming mayor, however, de Blasio seems to have had a change of heart about transparency, at least regarding the cops. This silence has further shielded the NYPD's history of nearly complete absolution for officers who commit acts of brutality. A recent investigation by concluded that "a relatively small number of cops generate the most civilian complaints--and the department routinely ignores recommendations on how to discipline the worst of them."

One consequence of keeping the records secret is it is much harder for civil rights attorney to prove the city has an official policy or custom of failing to discipline officers who commit acts of brutality.

Currently, civil rights lawyers, such as those at the National Police Accountability Project, must informally and anecdotally share information about police misconduct cases, in the hopes of maintaining an informal database of officers who commit violations. But many acts of police misconduct never result in a lawsuit being filed--and so the vast majority of complaints become invisible.

A bill is pending in the New York state legislature to repeal the section of the state civil rights law that protects police from having their disciplinary records disclosed. However, the bill appears to be stalled in the Democratic-controlled State Assembly. And Gov. Andrew Cuomo has apparently done nothing to push the bill.

Ironically, this is the same Cuomo who publicly criticized de Blasio for trying to keep the cop's records a secret. Cuomo recently blasted the mayor for saying he was upholding the law in maintaining secrecy--it was a "local, not state" decision, according to Cuomo, implying that de Blasio had discretion under the law to decide what records to reveal.

Indeed he does. And as the Observer pointed out, if all de Blasio cared about was "upholding the law," there's no reason why didn't respect the initial ruling of the trial judge in the Legal Aid lawsuit, who concluded in a lengthy decision that the CCRB disciplinary summaries weren't "personnel records" within the meaning of the law.

The de Blasio administration could have ended the fight right there, allowing Pantelo to wage the appeal on his own if he wanted. Instead, de Blasio's Law Department, without further justification or explanation, continued to side with the NYPD.

IF ANYONE is still asking whether de Blasio is on the side of the people or the police, the mayor is giving his answer.

During his campaign for mayor, he promised to reform the NYPD, and quickly resolve a federal lawsuit that sought to end the NYPD's "stop-and-frisk" policy of racial profiling and the long-standing lawsuit by the Central Park Five victims of a racist hysteria in the e1990s.

But ever since he came under fire from the police union--for example, when he talked about his obligation to talk to his son, who is African American, about "how the police are"--he's given ground and sided with the police. Earlier this year, for example, he teamed up with liberal Democrats on the City Council to squash the Right to Know Act--a collection of bills that would have further clamped down on the stop-and-frisk policy.

The real question, though, is whether de Blasio was ever on the side of the people--whether he ever meant his populist "tale of two cities" rhetoric during the 2013 campaign to be anything more than election-year rhetoric.

Despite his reputation as a liberal, de Blasio is proving that he has a lot in common with Democrats who say one thing on the campaign trail, but comfortably move into their centrist, establishment positions upon taking office.

Hopefully, more and more people will come to the conclusion that de Blasio was never "the people's mayor"--and also that our power to make social change lies not in electing supposedly progressive leaders, but in building the struggle from below.

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