Protesters taking to the streets across the country since George Floyd’s death have one common demand: end police violence. Some are calling for transformational changes to reach that goal—shrinking police budgets, or abolishing the police altogether. In the short-term, meanwhile, the protests are giving local advocates a chance to go after policing policy they’ve long seen as unjust.
A prime example is in New York, where police disciplinary records are currently shrouded in secrecy. Section 50-a of the state’s civil rights law keeps confidential any personnel records that are used to evaluate a police officer’s, firefighter’s, or corrections officer’s performance, unless that officer or a court order permits their release. The law was enacted in 1976, purportedly as a way to ensure civil servants’ privacy, as well as to protect testifying cops from overzealous cross-examination by defense attorneys. But the law has become a cudgel to bat away almost any inquiries into police misconduct, especially in recent years.