MANHATTAN (CN) — Governor Andrew Cuomo repealed New York’s police secrecy law and put their state funding on the line Friday as part of a reform package meant to turn the page on systemic issues of racism and excessive force.
“We’re not going fund police agencies in this state that do not look at what has been happening, come to terms with it and reform themselves,” Cuomo said at his daily briefing, held in Manhattan this morning. “We’re not going to be, as the state government, subsidizing improper police tactics.”
Both measures are part of the state’s “Say Their Name” criminal justice reform agenda, which the New York Senate passed on Tuesday, 40–22.
Through Section 50-a of its state Civil Rights Law, New York has historically required a court order for the public to access any personnel performance records of police officers, firefighters and correction officers.
Years before the death of George Floyd by Minnesota police officers ignited nationwide civil unrest, the New York City Police Department repeatedly invoked 50-a shield a review of disciplinary records tied to Daniel Pantaleo, the Staten Island officer whose attempt to arrest Eric Garner for selling loose cigarettes in 2014 led to the unarmed man dying in Garner’s chokehold.
Pantaleo never faced charges for Garner’s death and remained on paid desk duty for five years until the NYPD’s oversight agency, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, recommended his firing in 2019.
Pat Lynch, president of the police union that bankrolled Pantaleo’s defense, criticized on Friday what he called “anti-police measures” that will cause officers to be “permanently frozen, stripped of all resources and unable to do the job.”
“We don’t want to see our communities suffer, but this is what Governor Cuomo and our elected leaders have chosen,” Lynch said in a statement.
Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, joined Cuomo on stage for Friday’s briefing, having long accused the NYPD of covering up misconduct surrounding her son’s death.
“Over five years later, because of 50-a, I still don’t have full information about the role, misconduct or names of many of the other officers involved,” Carr testified to the state Senate last year. “50-a makes it close to impossible for me to fully fight for justice for Eric. It makes it harder for other families to fight for justice for their loved ones.”
Carr says the law also restricted access to any transcripts from Pantaleo’s disciplinary trial — even though the trial was ostensibly open to the public.
Also at Friday’s press conference were the Reverend Al Sharpton and Valerie Bell, whose son, Sean Bell, was shot and killed by NYPD in 2006.
In addition to repealing 50-a, Cuomo signed an executive order that ties state funding of 500 local police agencies, including the NYPD, with a requirement to redevelop and modernize department strategies and programs based on the local community’s input.
“This is systemic reform of police departments,” Cuomo said Friday. “This is sitting down and taking a look at exactly what they do and have been doing and looking at it through a new lens of reform and reinvention, because this has been 40–50 years in the making.
“The way we really solved this is we say that every police agency in this state … sit down at the table with the local community, address these issues, get to the root of these issues,” Cuomo added. “Get a plan, pass that plan by your local government. And if you don’t, you’re not going get any additional state funding, period.
Reverend Sharpton, who has for years been on the frontlines of protests against killings by police officers, applauded Cuomo’s executive order as setting the standard for reform in every other state in the country.
“These bills mean some substantive change, so we won’t be sitting here going over this after the next funeral and after the next situation,” Sharpton said on Friday.
“He and I debate sometimes, but he has, in many ways, done things even I did not expect,” Sharpton added. “To say that every mayor must come up with a plan along these areas or the will withhold state money is a model for the way we ought to be dealing with civil rights in this country.”
Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP New York State Conference, also attended the signing Friday. Sharpton remarked that Dukes had gone to jail with him countless times over the years for the cause.
The New York City Bar Association called for the repeal of 50-a in 2018 and applauded the state legislature earlier this week for taking an “important step towards restoring the public’s trust in police accountability.”
“With the repeal of CRL 50-a, patterns of police misconduct — including repeated misconduct by individual officers — will no longer be shielded from public view, and law enforcement will be more accountable to the communities they serve,” the bar group said in a statement Tuesday.
Cuomo on Friday said that the Minneapolis killing of Floyd was murder, bringing to a head “the systemic injustice and discrimination that has been going on in our nation for decades, if not centuries.”
Senator Jamaal Bailey, chair of the Senate Codes Committee that Carr testified before in 2019, celebrated the passage of the bill as a good-faith effort to shore up wavering public trust in criminal justice institutions.
“With the passage of this legislation, we balance the critical need to have transparency, while recognizing that law enforcement officers should be entitled to privacy protections concerning their personal information,” Bailey said in statement Friday.
In addition to repealing 50-a, the reform agenda also bans chokeholds and empowers the state Attorney General’s Office to investigate and prosecute incidents when a person dies in police custody or after encountering an officer.
The reform package also makes it a civil rights violation to call 911 to report a nonemergency incident involving a member of a protected class without reason to suspect a crime or an imminent threat.