NY State Lawmakers Unveil Sweeping Reforms to Policing

NEW YORK (CN) — Police disciplinary records will be transparent, rather than a closely held secret. Officers will be banned from using chokeholds on civilians. A special prosecutor automatically will take the lead in investigating questionable shootings. Placing a racially biased 911 call will be a crime.

These are some of the sweeping criminal justice reforms expected to pass all three branches of the Democrat-controlled New York State government.

“Twenty years of wanting a fair and just system,” New York Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, the first black man in that position, declared on Monday. “It’s finally coming along.”

New York Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. (Photo via Heastie’s office)

The pathbreaking lawmaker credited the breakthrough to Black Lives Matter protests that spread nationwide—and across the globe—in response to a Minneapolis police officer kneeling for nearly nine minutes on the neck of an unarmed George Floyd, until he died at age 46.

That officer, Derek Chauvin, has been fired and charged with Floyd’s murder, and his three colleagues face prosecution for aiding and abetting those acts for standing idly by while Floyd gasped: “I can’t breathe.”

“I hope that this is our moment that George Floyd and so many others did not die in vain,” Heastie added.

For protests that show no signs of abating, their impact has been enormous from coast to coast: A veto-proof majority of Minneapolis city council pledged on Sunday to disband their police department and start anew. Heeding calls to defund the police, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announce plans to cut up to $150 million from the police department’s budget and reinvest that money in communities of color.

Now, it’s New York’s turn, and Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he is on board.

“This is a transition, transformation moment across the country,” Cuomo announced this morning at a press conference. “People are saying, it has to stop. We have to change, right, when they’re saying defund the police. What are they saying, they’re saying we want fundamental basic change when it comes to policing. And they’re right.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Cuomo has long resisted such changes over the course of his three terms in office, and as videos emerged of police beating protesters and journalists with batons, the governor defended police and described the allegations of well-documented abuses as inflammatory.

“You see, it’s that kind of incendiary rhetoric that is not a fact,” Cuomo told reporters last week, denying that abuse caught on tape took place. “It’s not even an opinion. That is a hyper-partisan rhetorical attack.”

Now distancing himself from such full-throated defenses of police conduct, Cuomo finds himself sharing the national spotlight with the New York State Assembly, which pointedly scheduled its announced legislation at the same time as the governor’s morning briefing.

“Plenty of lawmakers are mad Cuomo is taking credit for the package,” USA Today reported.

That package includes a repeal of 50-A, a statute long reviled by criminal justice reformers for shielding police disciplinary records.  Coupled with the Police Statistics and Transparency Act (STAT), the bills will strip secrecy and create new avenues for public scrutiny.

The legislation banning police from using chokeholds will be named after Eric Garner, the black man whose dying gasps of “I can’t breathe” to the officer who killed him catapulted New York City into protest in 2014.

Another bill creates a special prosecutor for police brutality operating under the auspices of the New York attorney general, an office currently run by Letitia James, who has urged the public to report any incidents of excessive force to her office.

If passed, the law will create an Office of Special Investigating within that office.

Black and Latino voices dominated the Assembly’s announcement of the reforms, including Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, Assistant Speaker Félix Ortiz and Maritza Davila, the chair of Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force.

“Las vidas negras sí importan,” Davila declared, reciting the Spanish translation for “Black Lives Do Matter.”

“We’re here to change history,” Davila added. “I’m so grateful and thankful to all these people who are behind me.”

Communities United for Police Reform, a local activist group that goes by the acronym CPR, emphasized that years of engagement paved the way for the reforms announced today.  

“The #Repeal50a bill comes after four years of organizing and is only possible because of the commitment and organizing of CPR’s dozens of member and partner organizations, groups from across the five boroughs who united to end discriminatory policing and violence in New York—as well as groups in CPR’s Safer New York Act coalition, including groups from across New York State,” the group wrote in a statement.

Indeed, Assembly Speaker Ortiz conceded this morning that he did not know what 50-A was before he became a co-sponsor of the bill to repeal it. Activist exploded the once-obscure bill, a bane of New York civil rights advocates, into national prominence as they poured onto the streets by the thousands.

Heastie vowed that today’s announcement would mark the beginning, not the end, of reforms.

“The Assembly Majority has fought tirelessly over the years to deliver meaningful and necessary criminal justice reforms for our state,” Heastie wrote in a statement following today’s conference. “This week we will continue to build on those reforms, answering the calls of people from across New York and the country.”

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