WASHINGTON — For more than 40 years, police misconduct records in New York have been confidential. Soon the law that protected decades of wrongdoing could be repealed.
On Tuesday, the Democrat-controlled New York state Senate voted along party lines to repeal 50-A, a law that has long been used to shield police officers’ disciplinary records from public view.
The decision comes amid nationwide protests spurred by the killing of George Floyd, a black man, whose death came at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer.
Hawaii has a similar law on the books, one that legislators passed in the mid-1990s at the behest of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, and that has been used since then to hide the bad acts of those sworn to serve and protect.
Under the state’s public records law, police officers who are fired can have their disciplinary files made public, but those who are suspended are protected from disclosure. This is despite the fact that hundreds of police officers have committed serious acts of misconduct over the years, including crimes, such as drunken driving, assault and domestic violence.
For instance, a Civil Beat investigation from 2013 found that once a week on average a Honolulu police officer was suspended or fired for misconduct — much of it criminal. That investigation also found that most officers who were fired either were allowed to keep their jobs or resign in lieu of termination. In either case their disciplinary files remained sealed.
For years, good government groups and a handful of state legislators have pushed to get rid of the union-backed exemption for police officers in the state’s public records law, but have failed repeatedly.
Hawaii lawmakers as a whole have been slow to take up police reform efforts despite a number of high profile cases, including last summer’s conviction of former Honolulu police chief Louis Kealoha and other HPD officers for framing a man for the theft of a mailbox to help Kealoha and his wife, a city prosecutor, settle a personal score over money.
The Hawaii Legislature will once again consider a measure to make officers’ suspension records a matter of public record, but there’s little guarantee it will pass given lawmakers’ general apprehension.
Hawaii’s county police officers are the only public employees in the state who are protected under the state’s public records law from having their suspension records made public.
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