The District Attorney Says The NYPD Isn’t Telling Prosecutors Which Cops Have A History Of Lying

Bethan Mckernan

The NYPD fails to provide district attorneys with information, including police officers’ disciplinary records, that prosecutors need to decide whether to charge people with crimes, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office said in a letter to the department exclusively obtained by BuzzFeed News.

The NYPD fiercely guards police misconduct records, citing a controversial state law to deny the public from seeing which officers have been disciplined for lying or other wrongdoing. A recent BuzzFeed News investigation found that hundreds of officers who committed the most serious offenses, from lying to grand juries to physically attacking innocent people, got to keep their jobs. The investigation was based on a cache of secret, internal records about 1,800 NYPD employees disciplined between 2011 and 2015 that are now available to the public in a searchable database.

Those records, a small fraction of the total employees who have been disciplined, were obtained from a source who requested anonymity. Even prosecutors — who sometimes must decide whether to bring charges based on the word of a police officer — cannot get the records before a case goes to trial, according to the letter. (You can read the full letter below.)

That’s a problem because statewide, fewer than 2% of people arrested for felonies get convicted through a trial. The rest — more than 98% — plead guilty, sometimes in exchange for lesser penalties. So in the overwhelming majority of cases, prosecutors are charging people and pressing for plea deals even though they lack vital information which might have led them to toss the case.

“These limitations frustrate our ability, not only to prepare for trial, but to make early assessments of witness credibility, explore weaknesses in a potential case, and exonerate individuals who may have been mistakenly accused,” wrote Carey Dunne, the general counsel for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, in the May 18 letter, adding that their concerns were shared by all five of the city’s prosecutors offices.

A spokesperson for the Bronx district attorney, Darcel Clark, confirmed that she shares these frustrations. The Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island district attorneys’ offices did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the Manhattan district attorney also declined to comment.

Whether an officer has a disciplinary record — such as lying on an official report — could lead prosecutors to drop criminal charges. Furthermore, without information about an officer’s past misconduct, prosecutors cannot fulfill their legal obligation to hand over evidence that might help exonerate a defendant.

For defendants, receiving this information early is crucial, defense attorneys say. Without a good reason to question an officer’s account, some defendants would take a plea deal, thinking that a jury won’t believe someone charged with a crime over a cop. But if police misconduct were revealed to the defense, the defendant might decide to fight the charges.

The outcomes of internal NYPD disciplinary trials used to be publicly available — if someone knew where to look for them, on a clipboard on the 13th floor of police headquarters. But since 2016, the department has shielded them from the public — and apparently district attorneys. The NYPD, which initially claimed it was saving paper, now says making the disciplinary findings available to the public even to that limited degree was a violation of a 1976 state law that shields access to personnel records. The issue is subject to ongoing litigation, but to date courts have for the most part agreed with the department’s arguments. There is an explicit exemption in that state law meant to ensure that prosecutors have access to disciplinary records.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill have vowed to fight for changes to state law to allow for greater transparency. The mayor’s office declined to comment.

NYPD Deputy Commissioner Phil Walzak told BuzzFeed News in a statement that the letter was full of mischaracterizations that are “both blatant and disappointing.” He said the department promptly responds to prosecutors’ requests for information and “has never been advised by any of the City’s prosecutors — including the Manhattan DA — that a prosecutor was unable to effectively try a case, or failed to fulfill a disclosure obligation, due to an inability to obtain relevant information from the NYPD.” (You can read the full statement here.)

In its letter to the NYPD, the Manhattan district attorney asked the department to immediately provide it with a direct computer feed to the outcomes of disciplinary officers’ internal trials, preliminary investigation reports, and access to all NYPD’s surveillance feeds.

Should the NYPD not provide the information requested, the district attorney says it is willing to seek resolution “through other legal process.”

In an apparent reference to BuzzFeed News’ recent publication of the police disciplinary database, the letter notes that this information is “especially important in an age when media outlets and defense providers are creating their own databases of information about police officer discipline: data that, ironically, is often denied to our office by the NYPD itself.”

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