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Unions Seize on Ex-Cop’s Academic Flap in Push to Keep NYPD Misconduct Records Secret

St. John’s University students posted adjunct professor Richard Taylor’s police complaint history after what they called a racist lesson. The school suspended him — fueling cops’ latest argument for keeping their records under wrap.

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Ex-cop Richard Taylor, who was suspended from his role as an adjunct history professor at St. John’s University

Courtesy of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

A cop-turned-professor at St. John’s University in Queens has become the legal poster child in police unions’ ongoing effort to keep most records alleging police misconduct from being made public.

University officials recently suspended adjunct history professor Richard Taylor after a student group accused him of racism in his teaching and posted his NYPD civilian complaint history on Instagram.

Unions representing cops from patrol officers to captains, plus firefighters, EMTs and correction officers, are suing to block release of unsubstantiated, unfounded and what they call “non-final” misconduct records. They argue that allowing access would unfairly blight the subjects’ reputations and damage their future job prospects.

City lawyers are fighting to release the records after the state Legislature in June repealed a law, known as 50-a, that barred their disclosure. Judges in the case and the city’s attorneys have repeatedly challenged the unions to produce an example of harm to a cop caused by public disclosure of their complaint history. 

For weeks, the unions could produce no cases that fit the bill.

Then about three weeks ago, they discovered Taylor, whose Civilian Complaint Review Board record, plucked from a New York Civil Liberties Union database, includes four incidents between 2005 and 2007 when he was a patrol officer in Greenwich Village. None of the allegations were substantiated.

The unions called his suspension by St. John’s “a warning sign of what is to come,” stating in court papers, “This harassment and the framing of unsubstantiated allegations as ‘misconduct’ by third parties demonstrate the defamatory effect of publicizing these records.”

“This proves again that unproven allegations made public can help destroy even second careers,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a spokesperson for the unions. “Unfounded claims against this former officer were unfairly raised 13 years after retirement. Is this fair? Absolutely not.”

Students Take Action

The record shows it’s not quite that simple. 

A student’s allegation that one of Taylor’s lessons asked them to “justify slavery” appears to be the primary reason for his ouster. St. John’s, though, has so far refused to detail what evidence it used to suspend Taylor, other than to accuse him of violating the school’s rules against bias.

It’s unclear whether the public display of Taylor’s CCRB history played a role in the university’s decision.

“There’s no evidence in the record that would rule out the possibility that this is about him being a cop,” said Adam Goldstein, senior research counsel at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-partisan group that supports academic freedom and is working with Taylor to get St. John’s to reinstate him.

The saga began Sept. 7. Taylor was teaching two back-to-back Monday morning virtual classes in “Emergence of a Global Society” when he asked the students in both sections to consider the question, “Do the positives justify the negatives?”

The idea was to have students examine both what Taylor described as the positives of globalization — trade between nations, and refuge from famine and religious oppression — and the negatives — the reliance on slavery and the destruction of indigineous cultures.

‘Bending the Rules’

Taylor declined to speak with THE CITY. But Goldstein said Taylor told him one student noted during class that there was no justification for slavery. 

Taylor told Goldstein he responded that he was not trying to justify slavery. Three days later, an online group calling itself “SJURadicals” posted a letter on its Instagram account dubbing Taylor a “racist predator.”

The student group demanded that St. John’s fire Taylor immediately, and soon after posted a screenshot of the former cop’s CCRB history.

In response to questions from THE CITY, the SJURadicals emailed, “The purpose of posting Taylor’s record was one used not in (sic) defamatory purposes, but for fact-stating purposes. This report of misconduct from ‘a’ Richard Taylor contextualizes a man who has a rapport (sic) of ‘bending the rules,’ but also a clear disregard for both the oath he took as a Police Officer and as a History Professor.”

St. John’s University in Queens, Oct. 19, 2020.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

St. John’s officials suspended Taylor while they launched an investigation, according to Goldstein. 

On Oct. 7, St. John’s officials told Taylor they’d spoken to “several” students but wouldn’t identify them, according to Goldstein. The officials notified Taylor he would not be returning next semester because they had determined he’d violated the school’s policy on harassment and discrimination.

Goldstein said the university refused to provide Taylor with specifics of how he allegedly violated the school’s anti-bias policies. 

“It’s a question of anything you say or do violates our policy and we won’t tell you how,” Goldstein said. “That is chilling.”

Brian Browne, a St. John’s spokesperson, declined to discuss the issue, writing in an email, “The University does not comment on personnel matters.”

Complaint Record Bared

The cop unions fighting release of misconduct records noted that the student group said it had downloaded Taylor’s records from the New York Civil Liberties Union website. 

The NYCLU obtained the records after the 50-a repeal and before the unions filed suit, allowing the group to post the complete CCRB complaint histories of 81,000 current and former cops going back decades.

The NYCLU dataset includes substantiated complaints, but also unsubstantiated allegations CCRB could neither prove nor disprove, as well as charges CCRB deemed “unfounded” and those that were deemed not in violation of police protocols, labeled “exonerated.”

Taylor has a record of four incidents involving eight allegations in three years. Two were deemed unfounded and two more were listed as “miscellaneous,” which usually means that CCRB made its findings after the cop was no longer on the force.

Four other allegations — including offensive language related to sexual orientation and two separate incidents of alleged excessive use of force — were listed as “truncated.” That means the CCRB was unable to reach a conclusion due to lack of cooperation from the accuser or witnesses.

In the lawsuit to bar release of misconduct records, attorneys for the police unions filed an amended complaint Sept. 25, which made Taylor’s situation part of their claim, arguing that disclosure of his records had already hurt his career.

“This harm is far from speculative,” the unions’ lawyers wrote. “Taylor’s experience, coming more than a decade after he left the NYPD, demonstrate(s) a likelihood of both immediate and long-term interference with future employment opportunities for many of the approximately 65,000 officers represented in this lawsuit.”

On Friday, the city Law Department filed papers dubbing the unions’ argument misleading, stating that there was no proof that the publication of Taylor’s CCRB record had factored into St. John’s decision to suspend the professor.

“While it is true that the (student group) Radicals later posted Taylor’s CCRB record to their Instagram page via the NYCLU, there are no allegations — other than plaintiff’s rank speculation — linking that publication to Taylor’s suspension,” city lawyers wrote.

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