Less than seven months onto the job, NY Governor Kathy Hochul (D) just signed a bill (contact info here) this week to repeal one of the most important police transparency reforms enacted in the wake of national uproar and protests about George Floyd’s gruesome murder at the hands of four Minneapolis PD officers.
Now, New York residents will never be able to access body camera footage when police want to keep the information secret. Indeed, many documents could be blockaded by police because of the new measure.
New York State Senator James Skoufis’s (D-39)’s new bill S7734 (contact info here) is going to completely gut access to police body camera footage. The upstate politician removed meaningful judicial review requirements when police claim that a body camera is involved in any judicial proceeding or investigation.
Last week, it appeared public pressure might keep NY’s Governor Hochul from signing the bill into law, but the Buffalo-area Democrat signed the bill on Friday.
A simple notification went out by email at 9:30 am Monday informing the public that it’s right to obtain police body camera footage in America’s fourth most populous state has been canceled.
It was only 21 months ago that an influential Manhattan Democrat in the state’s assembly sponsored the repeal of Section 50-A of the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). That reform is supposed to expose police disciplinary records and all other manners of public information from the wall of secrecy New York imposes on anything police-related.
BREAKING: I am proud to share that the New York State Legislature just passed my bill to repeal 50a.— Danny O’Donnell (@Danny_ODonnell_) June 9, 2020
Today is a monumental day for justice. My statement: pic.twitter.com/fZzmFoHEJO
Some of the reforms from the 50-a repeal will remain.
But now that NY Governor Hochul has signed this bill, an officer or police department can simply claim an open investigation to withhold body camera footage or a range of disciplinary documents without any limitations, and there’s no way to challenge that in court.
“It’s amazing that Florida has a better records law than New York,” says lawyer and Yale Professor James S. Henry who previously served as McKinsey’s Chief Economist. “There are 18 paragraphs of statutes about police body cameras in Florida, and a constitutional right to access that New Yorkers don’t have. It’s amazing that a red state would be so far ahead of a blue state on these matters.”
It’s a 180-degree turn of events for a piece of legislation that only went into effect just three short months ago, and nobody would’ve known unless the Institute for Access to Public Information hadn’t contacted the state legislature asking for clarification on a point of law.
“This whole episode only underscores the need for more open government in NY, and the ongoing, practical shortcomings in our freedom-of-information laws,” says Henry who is part of the institute, “especially where police misconduct is concerned.”
Senator Skoufis’s office did not return a request for comment from Occupy Democrats about his bill.
NY Governor Hochul’s office also didn’t respond to Occupy Democrats’ requests for comment on the act after we reported the anti-transparency law being on her desk.
It is nearly impossible today for a New Yorker to access body camera footage because of this new law.
Disclosure: James Henry serves on the board of the Sunshine Agenda Inc.
is the Executive Editor of Occupy Democrats and published author. His new Meet the Candidates 2020 book series is distributed by Simon and Schuster. He's also mortgage broker, community activist and radio personality in Miami, Florida., as well as the producer of the Dworkin Report podcast. Grant is also an occasional contributor to Raw Story, Alternet, and the DC Report, and an unpaid senior advisor to the Democratic Coalition and a Director of Sunshine Agenda Inc. a government transparency nonprofit organization.