The proposal does not let officers justify using force when it was the officer’s own actions that created the risk that made force necessary.
MANHATTAN (CN) — Taking on the “exceedingly high standard” for prosecuting police officers who have used excessive or deadly force, New York Attorney General Letitia James proposed legislation Friday to make the use of force a “last resort.” It also carries new criminal penalties for cops who use grossly excessive force.
Dubbed the Police Accountability Act, the proposal — which James’ office calls “the most far-reaching use of force reform in the nation” — would require officers to exhaust options like deescalation and verbal warning before using force.
“While there is legitimate reason why police officers have some special protections, those protections should not preclude them from being held accountable when they needlessly take the life of another, or unnecessarily use excessive amounts of force,” James said during a press conference on Friday.
“If there’s a way to accomplish the officer’s objective short of lethal force,” she said, “we should absolutely demand that they take that path.”
Under current New York law, officers can use lethal force if they merely suspect that an individual has committed certain felony-level violent crimes, regardless of whether the person presents a danger to the officer or someone else.
James’ bill would not remove the justification for police officers to kill suspects in certain situations, but would change policing laws to allow lethal force only when the suspect is armed with a deadly weapon or would cause serious bodily injury to someone if they are not immediately apprehended — and only if “no less-lethal force alternatives or non-force tactics” are sufficient, per the bill’s text.
The Police Benevolent Association of New York City slammed the bill, saying it “would make it impossible for police officers to determine whether or not we are permitted to use force in a given situation.”
“The only reasonable solution will be to avoid confrontations where force might become necessary,” Patrick Lynch, the union’s president, said in a statement. “Meanwhile, violent criminals certainly aren’t hesitating to use force against police officers or our communities.
“The bottom line: more cops and more regular New Yorkers are going to get hurt,” Lynch said.
Regarding prosecution of police officers, a press release from James’ office says the proposal would ramp up criminal charges for force that is “grossly in excess of what is warranted under the circumstances, and where that force causes physical injury or death.”
Prosecutors would also be allowed to consider whether it was an officer’s conduct that created a “substantial and unjustifiable risk that force would become necessary.”
“Where that is the case, an officer may not avail themselves of the justification defense,” the press release states.
State Senator Kevin Parker, who represents parts of Brooklyn, introduced the legislation at James’ request. It will be co-sponsored in the state’s other legislative body by Assemblymember N. Nick Perry.
The bill’s announcement arrived days before the one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd, whose death resulted in a murder conviction for Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, found guilty last month on all three counts with which he was charged. Floyd’s death spurred a summer of historic protests across the county in 2020.
“At a time of racial reckoning in this country, it’s important that we reform the laws and that we provide justice for all individuals who feel that their lives do not matter,” James said on Friday.
Six years before Floyd’s death, the New York City police killing of Eric Garner helped bring the Black Lives Matter movement into focus. Garner uttered his last words, “I can’t breathe,” 11 times while a Staten Island police officer suffocated him in an illegal chokehold. Like Floyd, Garner was also unarmed and Black.
“We all saw the video,” Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, said on Friday, joining James at the press conference. “So we know that it was excessive force that was used.”
The NYPD fired Garner’s killer, Daniel Pantaleo, but he never charged criminally for his actions.
“For far too long, police officers have gotten away with putting people’s lives in danger without facing consequence of any kind,” Carr said. “Not only is that unjust, but it’s deeply painful for those of us who have lost family members to police violence.”