At least 319 New York Police Department officers remain on active duty despite being found responsible for termination-worthy misconduct, according to hundreds of pages of internal discipline records obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The records, which the NYPD has insisted for years are exempt from disclosure under New York's freedom of information laws, describe a variety of allegations sustained by the NYPD's disciplinary tribunals. They show that 38 officers were found guilty of excessive force, fighting, or unnecessarily firing service weapons remain on duty. Another 71 officers were found guilty of wrongfully dismissing charges as a favor (so-called "ticket fixing."), 57 were found guilty of driving under the influence, and at least two were found guilty of sexual misdeeds. At least 24 of those implicated, including one of the sexual wrongdoers, were stationed in New York City schools.
The documents also include records of officers whose conduct has led to multiple high-dollar payouts to settle misconduct lawsuits, but who nevertheless remain on the job. One officer, Raymond Marrero, cost the city $923,000 in four separate settlements arising from a series of incidents over six years, and yet still remains on the force.
BuzzFeed's report highlights the secrecy surrounding these records, which were provided to them by an unnamed source. That police departments go to great lengths to prevent records of officer wrongdoing from becoming public will not shock regular readers. Over the years, Reason has reported on countless efforts by law enforcement to limit the scope of open government laws as they pertain to officer misconduct.
Though many states limit disclosure of such records to some extent, section 50-a of New York's Civil Rights Law contains one of the broadest such provisions, prohibiting the disclosure of all state "personnel records" except by court order. Over time, the NYPD has expanded its interpretation what counts as a "personnel record" to cover an ever-wider range of material, including routinely-captured body camera footage. So far, no court has rebuked this expansion.
This secrecy means there is no easy way for criminal defendants to gauge the credibility of police witnesses in the early stages of a prosecution, before the most generous plea offers prosecutors make usually expire. An arresting officer might have several sustained findings of, say, wrongful arrest on his record, but the defendant has no way of finding out before deciding whether to go to trial. It's extreme information asymmetries like this that explain, at least in part, why more than 95 percent of criminal cases plead out before trial.
In the report, BuzzFeed says it plans to publish a database containing the information in the files it has obtained. That, at least, should provide a somewhat greater degree of transparency.