What recourse do you have if a police officer harms you with excessive force, abuse of authority, false arrest or unjust imprisonment? How would you make a case for criminal charges against that officer or for compensation through a civil claim?

Eyewitness testimonies may help but may be refuted. A video record of an incident may strengthen your case for justice. Several such cases are, in fact, currently pending in New York City. But what if there is no video evidence?

How would you find out and prove that an officer had a record of abuse?

One valuable piece of evidence that could allow you to pursue justice might be a record of previous abuses by the police officer who hurt you. However, since 1976, provision 50-A of the New York Civil Rights Law has stopped the release to the public of police officers’ disciplinary records. This legal shield has protected the confidentiality of their performance records.

This shield, in turn, has prevented people who were bringing claims of civil rights violations from examining and citing an officer’s previous records of excessive force or other wrongdoing.

Winds of change: the repeal of provision 50-A

Times are changing, however. Both the New York State Assembly and the New York State Senate recently voted to repeal this portion. Governor Cuomo subsequently pledged to sign the bill once it reached his desk.

Claimants in police brutality cases and other civil rights matters in New York City will consequently have a new tool to use in pursuit of justice, thanks to this repeal. They will now have a way to examine a police officer’s disciplinary records that may be pertinent to new cases of misconduct.

Arguments for and against the repeal

Civil rights activists have long held that provision 50-A of the 1976 law impeded transparency when police officers were accused of misconduct. They have, therefore, asked for the provision to be repealed.

Opponents of repealing the provision, such as the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, on the other hand, have strongly opposed overturning it. They have contended that police officers might be endangered through false accusations and that the release of personal information about police officers in their disciplinary records would put them at risk.

Nonetheless, in 2020, a year marked by loud calls far and wide for reform in policing, the arguments for transparency and accountability have apparently won a victory.