Police officers are using increasingly sophisticated technology to monitor our every move. While the police know more about us than ever before, we know very little about the police departments that are paid to protect us.
In order to hold police accountable, we should know what they are doing to keep us safe, and we should know when officers misuse their power. But on Long Island and across New York, we know very little about police, in large part because we have the strictest police secrecy law in the country.
A recent example of this one-sided dichotomy is the announcement last month that the Nassau County Police Department was partnering with Amazon’s Ring home security company. Ring collects video from a network of personal security cameras connected to the internet that monitor the inside and outside of people’s homes.
Nassau police will now be able to ask Ring owners for images captured on their cameras. The NCPD will have broad discretion over what it can do with those images, who can see them, how long they are stored, and what they are used for.
Ring’s cameras will be combined with all of the other video police have, amid the ever-expanding use of surveillance devices that police already deploy. This technology includes things like license plate readers and “stingrays” that can track people’s cell phone locations and even access some of their content. Police can pretty much track our every move, and they can form a detailed picture of our everyday lives, even if we’re not charged with — or even suspected of — a crime.
As they amass all of this information about us, law enforcement on Long Island and across the state remain fiercely opposed to repealing a law that keeps critical information about police departments hidden from the public. Section 50-a of the state’s human rights law keeps New Yorkers in the dark about how, if at all, police departments hold officers accountable for misconduct, including unjustifiably killing people. The statute is the most secretive law in the country on police misconduct. It states that police “personnel records” used to evaluate an officer’s performance are confidential.
As bad as the law is on its face, police departments across the state are trying to make it even more restrictive. They have used Section 50-a to hide outcomes of disciplinary trials, body camera footage, and even basic and anonymous data on use-of-force incidents.
New York is one of just two states with this type of law, while 28 states make at least some information on police misconduct public.
In order for communities across Long Island to trust police departments, those departments must be held accountable. Section 50-a makes building that trust impossible, because we have no idea how departments are dealing with problem officers. And statutes like 50-a have real life-or-death consequences.
Right now, people in Freeport are outraged by a video showing seven Freeport police officers piling on top of 44-year-old Akbar Rogers on Dec. 3, raining punches down on him as he screamed for help. Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas is investigating the incident, as people in the community continue to protest Rogers’s arrest. But the public has no idea whether any of the officers involved have ever been accused of abuse, whether those accusations were substantiated or whether they were disciplined as a result.
We do know that all the officers involved in Rogers’s arrest, including the son of Freeport Mayor Robert Kennedy, remain on duty. But we likely will never know what punishment, if any, has been or will be doled out to any of them.
This secrecy is largely because of 50-a. For years, one of the only ways the media, advocacy groups, and the public have had any idea what their police departments are doing is through whistleblowers who leak information to the press. But whistleblowers shouldn’t have to risk their jobs and their careers to provide information that should be readily available in the first place.
The State Legislature must fully repeal Section 50-a and make information about police misconduct available to the public. As long as this law remains on the books, it will be used to keep us from learning important information about the people sworn to protect us and the department leaders tasked with holding them accountable. New York has the opportunity to end police secrecy and set a new standard for transparent and equitable policing.
Law enforcement shouldn’t know more about our private lives than we know about police officers’ abuse of power.
Susan Gottehrer is the director of the Nassau County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union.