Former Albany Police Chief Brendan Cox: Repeal Law Shielding Police Records

Jan 13, 2020

A former Albany Police Chief says a law that blocks public access to records detailing police misconduct and abuse should be repealed.

Brendan Cox left the Albany Police Department in 2017 after 22 years on the force. He recently published an op-ed piece in the Times Union calling for a repeal of Section 50-a. It was enacted in 1976, intended to prevent defense attorneys from subjecting officers to harassing cross-examinations using information from their personnel file. In practice, it has been used to keep disciplinary records under wraps even in high-profile cases.   Cox spoke with WAMC representing  LEAP, the Law Enforcement Action Partnership. "Section 50-a is meant to protect information that's in law enforcement police personnel records, and that's meant to basically shield information that's in there from public disclosure of information that would be used to evaluate law enforcement officers, so that that information cannot be disclosed to the public. And the way it's currently written that gets used in a number of different ways.  But mainly it's used and when disciplinary action is brought against police officers that the agency cannot release what exactly occurred, what the outcome of that disciplinary action was, or that that disciplinary action actually even took place."

New York, according to "Communities United for Police Reform," is one of only two states with a law specifically restricting the public from viewing information on police officers’ misconduct and discipline records.

Cox says 50-a is arguably the country’s most secretive law on police misconduct.   "As I look over my career, and I look at what we were able to do as an entire police force and with a great administration that I had working around me, and a great community, what we were able to do to build community trust. When you look at that need to build that trust and the need for transparency, the recognition that 50-a really takes away that ability for a chief and for a department to be transparent. Many times, you wind up having to ask the public to trust you and you're not able to really show them why you're asking them to trust."

Cox adds if just one or two officers has done something wrong, it can deeply affect public trust. On the other hand, when police departments and communities develop trust, public safety is enhanced.

Cox disputes arguments that repealing 50-a would compromise police officers' personal information, like home addresses and phone numbers. He says any such concerns should be addressed in the appeal.   "If in fact we were able to move forward and repeal the law, to me, the common-sense thing would be is to cover those within that repeal. So in the repeal, it should state that those things can't be released, because I certainly understand those concerns from unions and from officers, from individuals that wouldn't want certain sensitive information released."

The New York City Police Department is not in favor of repealing 50-a, but does support release of certain documents in serious misconduct cases.

Note: Repeal of 50-a (A2513-O’Donnell/S3695-Bailey) is a top priority of Communities United for Police Reform (CPR) and the Safer NY Act coalition that CPR coordinates.