- The disciplinary records of 83,000 New York police officers were made public this month.
- The records were added to a public online database after a failed challenge by police unions.
- One expert told Insider the move could “help people feel more empowered and get more accountability.”
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The disciplinary records of tens of thousands of police officers were made public this month in a push towards transparency – and after police unions failed to prevent the records from being made public.
The New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board published the disciplinary records of more than 83,000 active and former police officers in a searchable online database on March 4. The New York Police Department followed up with a database of its own, where the public can view active officer profiles that include awards and honors in addition to complaints.
The previously private disciplinary records, which go back decades, include complaints and allegations of misconduct formally made against New York police officers to the CCRB, an independent watchdog agency.
The disclosure came after state lawmakers repealed a shield law last year that allowed police records to remain private unless otherwise ruled by a judge. Prompted by racial justice protests, the state legislature repealed the law in June. The decision was challenged by police unions in an effort that was shot down by a federal court in February.
Proponents say the public records are a win for police accountability and transparency, both of which are crucial to police reform efforts.
Jonathan Simon, a professor of criminal justice law at the University of California, Berkeley, told Insider that making the records public could “help people feel more empowered and get more accountability out of the system.”
Simon said one of the biggest reasons people don’t make legal claims when they feel their rights have been violated by police is because they doubt their experience. They question whether what happened may have been their fault or if they are overreacting.
But if a person who believes they’ve experienced misconduct can look online and see that an officer has done the same thing before, “it would reaffirm their own initial sense of being wronged in a way that would empower them, hopefully, to take some action,” Simon said.
The public records could also help prevent a police department from hiring someone with a history of misconduct.
When a police officer gets fired, including for serious misconduct, they are often able to get a job with another law enforcement agency in an occurrence known as the “wandering-officer phenomenon,” according to a Yale Law Journal study published last year.
Simon said in some of those cases, the new agency may not know of the officer’s history of misconduct since it is often not publicly available. With public disciplinary records, Simon said, “it’ll be easier for police forces to avoid hiring officers with a track record that hasn’t been disclosed to them.”
Some critics have argued that making the disciplinary records public did not go far enough and that a lot of misconduct is still being kept under wraps.
Simon said that is likely true, since the process by which a complaint is validated – and thus warrants being added to a database – may not be clear.
“With disciplinary investigations inside NYPD or other police departments, the general view of experts is that they’re highly biased in favor of the officer,” Simon said.
The CCRB says its public database does not include “open allegations, successfully mediated allegations,” or allegations referred to NYPD or other investigative units.
Still, Simon said publicizing the records, even if imperfect, creates a valuable dataset over time that could be used for research, analysis, and reform.
“Whatever the effectiveness of these underlying investigatory systems are,” Simon said, “it’s important to have these kinds of informational tools.”
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