At po­lice tri­bunals, pub­lic can see trial, but can’t get re­sult

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - OBITUARIES - By Tom Hays and Jake Pear­son

NEW YORK >> Each day in a drab set of court­rooms, any­body can sit and watch New York City po­lice of­fi­cers face ad­min­is­tra­tive tri­als ac­cus­ing them of mis­con­duct rang­ing from dis­obey­ing orders to ag­gres­sive ar­rests re­sult­ing in a sus­pect’s death.

But most out­comes of such tri­als — whether an of­fi­cer is rep­ri­manded, docked pay or put on pro­ba­tion — are not dis­closed.

The se­crecy is the re­sult of a state law pro­tect­ing the pri­vacy of of­fi­cer dis­ci­plinary records, and a re­cent city de­ci­sion to ad­here to the con­fi­den­tial­ity rules more closely — a move that puts Amer­ica’s largest po­lice force at odds with a na­tional move­ment to make law en­force­ment more trans­par­ent to the pub­lic.

“It’s strik­ing to have a sys­tem where the hear­ings are open and the de­ci­sions are se­cret, but that’s ex­actly what we have at the NYPD,” said Christo­pher Dunn, as­so­ciate le­gal di­rec­tor at the New York Civil Lib­er­ties Union, who has fought for full dis­clo­sure of the penal­ties.

Two high-pro­file al­leged abuse cases in­volv­ing white of­fi­cers and black men could thrust the tri­bunals’ in­con­gruities into the spot­light: the slay­ing of un­armed teenager Ra­mar­ley Gra­ham in a Bronx home in 2012 and the rough­ing up of former pro­fes­sional ten­nis player James Blake last year. Both of­fi­cers are ex­pected to face ad­min­is­tra­tive hear­ings be­fore the end of the year.

Con­cerns over trans­parency of the NYPD’s dis­ci­plinary sys­tem took hold in re­cent months af­ter the city ap­pealed a de­ci­sion by a state court judge or­der­ing the re­lease of the records of Daniel Pan­ta­leo, the of­fi­cer ac­cused of putting Eric Garner in a fa­tal choke­hold in 2014. A grand jury de­clined to in­dict the of­fi­cer on crim­i­nal charges, but he’s still the sub­ject of an ad­min­is­tra­tive case that could end his po­lice ca­reer.

Around the time the city filed its ap­peal, the NYPD stopped pro­vid­ing the out­comes of ad­min­is­tra­tive pro­ceed­ings to the me­dia, which it had pre­vi­ously done for decades. De­part­ment lawyers jus­ti­fied both moves by say­ing they needed stricter com­pli­ance with a state law meant to pro­tect the pri­vacy of po­lice of­fi­cers, jail guards and fire­fight­ers — a po­si­tion strongly backed by po­lice unions.

In re­sponse to an out­cry by politi­cians and po­lice re­form ad­vo­cates, Mayor Bill de Bla­sio said the city had to fol­low the law, but also said he’d fa­vor changes that would al­low more open­ness.

That re­sponse didn’t sat­isfy Gra­ham’s mother, Con­stance Mal­colm, who ac­cused the mayor of not do­ing enough to keep vic­tims’ fam­i­lies in­formed. At a re­cent rally, she com­plained that she knew that the de­part­ment was pre­par­ing a case against the shooter only be­cause of news re­ports.

“How would any­body in my neigh­bor­hood find out about this in­for­ma­tion?” Mal­colm said.

In high-pro­file cases such as fa­tal shoot­ings, po­lice of­fi­cials reg­u­larly name of­fi­cers ac­cused of wrong­do­ing, an­nounce if they have been placed on desk duty or sus­pended pend­ing the out­come of crim­i­nal or ad­min­is­tra­tive charges, and con­firm if they’ve been fired — a prac­tice that’s not ex­pected to change.

What’s not avail­able is records of pun­ish­ment for mis­be­hav­ior in an of­fi­cer’s past.

Pro­ceed­ings in the “trial room” at NYPD head­quar­ters are open, but at­ten­dance isn’t en­cour­aged. The de­part­ment doesn’t pub­licly re­lease trial cal­en­dars, mak­ing them avail­able only to re­porters if they ask for them at po­lice head­quar­ters.

A po­lice over­sight panel that han­dles some cases, the Civil­ian Com­plaint Re­view Board, posts a cal­en­dar of its cases on its web­site. But the list doesn’t name the of­fi­cers.

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