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NYS Legislature begins passing police accountability reforms

Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
A mass demonstration in Buffalo Saturday called on city leaders to "Defund the Police."

The New York State Legislature met in session at the state capital Monday to begin work on a package of bills aimed at reforming the police. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has promised to sign them. If approved, New York would be the first state to act on police reforms since the death of George Floyd, an African American man in Minneapolis during an incident with police two weeks ago.

Both of the state’s majority party legislative leaders are African American and they have long supported many of the bills, including the repeal of what is known as Section 50-A of the state’s Civil Rights Law, which has been interpreted to allow police departments to shield past disciplinary records of officers from the public.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said the death of George Floyd was the latest in a long list of police incidents that led to the death of an African American and he said people are “calling for action.”  

“I’m hopeful that this is our moment, that George Floyd and all those that came before him did not die in vain,” Heastie said, in a news conference announcing the actions.

Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who is the first black woman and first woman to lead the Senate, said it is not by chance that a legislature led by African Americans is now moving quickly to pass the measures.

“I do know that both of us have historic roles in an historic time and I don’t think anything happens  accidently,” Stewart-Cousins said in an interview with public radio.

Credit Karen Dewitt / WBFO Albany Correspondent
WBFO Albany Correspondent
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and other democratic assembly members at a news conference before voting on the package of bills to increase police accountability.

Other African American lawmakers also spoke in favor of the bills. Crystal Peoples-Stokes, the Assembly Majority Leader, holds the second highest-ranking post in that chamber.

Peoples-Stokes is from Buffalo, where video shot by public radio station WBFO showed police officers pushing a 75-year-old white man, who fell, hit his head and lay bleeding on the pavement as dozens of other officers walked by. She said, as an African American woman and mother, she spends too much time fearful that her children may have an encounter with what she calls a “bad” police officer and not come home that night.

“We pray for our children when we send them to school, we pray for them when we send them to the store,” Peoples-Stokes said. “We pray that they will come home alive.”

She said no other community has had to teach their children to be “humble” to protect their personal safety when they encounter a police officer.

Other measures would ban the use of police chokeholds, named the “Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act,” after the Staten Island man accused of illegally selling cigarettes who died in 2014 after police put him in a chokehold.

Another bill would codify the governor’s five-year old executive order that gives the state’s Attorney General the authority to investigate incidents between police and civilians that ends in the person’s death. It also creates a new office of special investigations within the AG’s office.  

And making false race-based 911 reports would be designated a hate crime. That’s in response to a white woman, Amy Cooper,  in Central Park in May who was asked by a black man who was bird watching to leash her dog. She then called 911 and said an African American man was threatening her.

Senate leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins speaks to public radio in a socially distanced interview June 8, 2020
Credit Gary Ginsberg / NYS Senate

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Stewart-Cousins said she hopes the measures are one step toward re-establishing trust between black and brown communities and the police force.

“What we can do is at least establish transparency and accountability,” Stewart-Cousins said. “It’s at least a first step and a first few steps on the journey towards establishing the kind of relationship we, frankly, do want to have with our police departments.”

But she and Speaker Heastie say they believe that police departments need to be fundamentally restructured and that some of the duties that now fall to police, like mental  health emergencies, might be better taken care of by a social services agency. However, both say they disagree with New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio’s call to defund the police.

Cuomo, who said he worked with legislative leaders over the weekend, has promised to sign the bills and he praised the legislative leaders for their quick actions.

“If they pass the bills that we’ve discussed, I will sign the bills,” Cuomo said, “and I will sign them as soon as they are passed.”

Cuomo added he hopes the legislation becomes a model for other states to follow.

Opponents, including police unions in the state, say the repeal of Section 50-a would result in police officers being placed in a special class of public servant and that the disclosure requirements go beyond what is currently required for teachers or state workers.

In a memo of opposition, several police benevolent organizations called it an “attack on law enforcement.” They compared the hasty action by the legislature to bail reform laws adopted in 2019, which lawmakers had to partially roll back in early 2020.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.
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