Three Queens DA candidates would release database of cops with credibility issues

A line of NYPD squad cars. Photo by Joy Ito

A line of NYPD squad cars. Photo by Joy Ito

By David Brand

The Queens District Attorney’s Office maintains a database of information, such as instances of police misconduct and false statements, that could taint an NYPD officer's credibility and jeopardize a prosecutor’s case if those problem cops testified. Three Queens DA candidates say it’s time to make that database public.

WNYC/Gothamist first reported on the existence of databases of cops with potential credibility issues in four of the five New York City District Attorney’s offices, including Queens. The Staten Island DA’s Office is compiling a similar list, WNYC/Gothamist reported.  

Queens Executive Assistant District Attorney Robert Masters confirmed the Queens DA’s database in a statement to the Eagle. The database includes “substantiated misconduct allegations, criminal matters, adverse credibility findings and civil lawsuits,” Masters said.

The information contained in the database, “subject to a hearing or trial court's analysis and discretion, may or may not be deemed to bear upon a police officer's credibility, under the circumstances of a particular case,” Masters said.

Councilmember Rory Lancman and public defender Tiffany Cabán, both candidates for district attorney, told the Eagle that they would release the database if elected. Former State Attorney General’s Office prosecutor Jose Nieves, another DA candidate, also said he would release the database under existing discovery law. DAs’ offices have broadly interpreted the law to safeguard the information contained in their police officer databases, however.

Making the database public would likely prompt the reexamination of convictions involving cops whose testimony could be discredited by its contents. That was the case in Philadelphia last year.

In 2018, a judge ordered Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner to release his office’s list of 66 problem officers, including 29 who were added to a “Do Not Call” list because they were determined to have a history of lying to investigators, filing false police reports, using excessive force, engaging in racial bias, committing other forms of police misconduct or even committing crimes like domestic violence or drunk driving, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Public defenders filed a petition to reexamine 6,400 cases that involved cops included on that list.

Queens County has about 800,000 more residents than Philadelphia County.

Masters said the database is protected from public view by Section 50-a of the civil rights law, which prevents public disclosure of police personnel records. Proponents of disclosing the list say that is an expansive misreading of the law.

“A fair reading of 50-a would provide that a document created in a district attorney’s office, talking about misconduct or even perjury by a police officer, would not be a personnel record within the meaning of section 50-a,” New York Civil Liberties Union Legal Director Chris Dunn told WNYC/Gothamist.

“If a district attorney chose to release these lists, they could go ahead and do so.”

Councilmember Rory Lancman said he would release the Queens DA’s database of information that could taint a police officer’s testimony.  Eagle  file photo by Paul Frangipane

Councilmember Rory Lancman said he would release the Queens DA’s database of information that could taint a police officer’s testimony. Eagle file photo by Paul Frangipane

Lancman, who has said he will be the “Larry Krasner of Queens,” has consistently called on DA offices around the city to release their lists of problem cops. In response to the Eagle’s inquiry, Lancman pointed to legislation he has sponsored as chairperson of the City Council’s Committee on the Justice System, including a law that requires the NYPD to provide data on disciplinary outcomes related to the use of force.

"I opened my campaign for DA with a pledge to compile a list of corrupt police officers from whom my office wouldn't accept cases, and to make that list public,” Lancman said. “Concealing police misconduct makes it impossible for defendants to get a fair trial, and for the public to be kept safe."

In March, Cabán described public defenders’ awareness of the DA databases and said during a candidate forum at CUNY School of Law that she would release the information and the names of officers.

“We have to make it untenable for bad police officers and DAs to stay employed,” Cabán said. “So in terms of police officer misconduct, we don’t wait for 50-a to be repealed. We publish that list of bad officers and we make sure we’re declining every prosecution that comes in of an officer who has a history of misconduct. If we cannot rely on their testimony we cannot go forward with those prosecutions.”

A spokesperson for the Cabán campaign confirmed to the Eagle that Cabán remains “committed to publishing a list of untrustworthy police officers after due process and in consultation with local organizations and civil liberties groups.”

“These lists already exist in each borough, and the public has a right to know when testimony or reports are unreliable due to prior history of lying under oath,” Cabán’s spokesperson said. “This kind of testimony means innocent people are incarcerated and perpetrators are not held accountable.”

Public defender Tiffany Cabán also said she would release the database.  Eagle  file photo by Paul Frangipane

Public defender Tiffany Cabán also said she would release the database. Eagle file photo by Paul Frangipane

Nieves said the Queens DA should publish the list as required by existing discovery law — not as clear a stance as Lancman and Cabán’s approach.

“If the Queens District Attorney's office is maintaining a list of officers that it deemed not credible for any reason, then I call upon the district attorney to release that information immediately under his ethical obligations under Brady and Giglio,” Nieves said, referring to two court decisions mandating that prosecutors turn over evidence and information to defense attorneys, even if it is favorable to the defendant. “As district attorney, I would release that information immediately pursuant to my ethical obligation and the law.”

Nieves, a former assistant district attorney, said he was not aware of such databases existing in prosecutors’ offices where he has served.

Former State Attorney General’s Office prosecutor Jose Nieves.  Eagle  file photo by Paul Frangipane

Former State Attorney General’s Office prosecutor Jose Nieves. Eagle file photo by Paul Frangipane

Former Queens prosecutor and Civilian Complaint Review Board Director Mina Malik denounced officers who give false statements but said she would not automatically release the Queens DA’s database without changes to the 50-a law.

“Transparency is incredibly important for government agencies, and law enforcement in particular, in order to promote public trust,” Malik said. “As district attorney, I firmly believe in transparency and I would attempt to make as much information from any internal police database publicly available as long as it is in accordance with the law.”

“Unfortunately, Civil Rights Law Section 50-a prevents public disclosure of police officer personnel records and disciplinary histories which is why there is a strong movement to repeal it,” Malik continued. “I support the repeal of CRL 50-a and advocate for electronic access to police personnel records.”

Borough President Melinda Katz also condemned police officers who make false statements — also known as “testilying” — and whose court testimony could be called into question. She said she would prosecute officers for “testilying,” but she said she would not release the database.

“Police officers are given the benefit of the doubt when they walk into a courtroom, and we need to make sure they're held to the highest standard of credibility,” Katz said. “But without clear and consistent standards for what qualifies an officer to make the list in question or ways to keep details of ongoing investigations confidential, it shouldn't be made public.”

Attorney Betty Lugo, a former Nassau County prosecutor, and former Judge Gregory Lasak, did not provide a response to how they would handle the database if elected.