New York State Passes Sweeping Police Reform Agenda

By Matthew Krumholtz

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The New York State Legislature voted for sweeping police reform in a package of 10 bills, known as the “Say Their Name” Reform Agenda, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed into law on Friday. Gov. Cuomo signed two laws today, requiring police officer to use body cameras and creating the new Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigative Office.

Among the reform bills that passed the New York Senate and Assembly is the repeal of Section 50-a of the Civil Rights Law, which had been used to shield law enforcement disciplinary records from public access for decades. This package of reform legislation comes in response to the death of George Floyd and the ensuing weeks of nationwide protests calling for an end to police brutality against people of color.

“The murder of George Floyd was just the tipping point of the systemic injustice and discrimination that has been going on in our nation for decades, if not centuries,” Cuomo said. “These are issues that the country has been talking about for a long time, and these nation-leading reforms will make long overdue changes to our policing and criminal justice systems while helping to restore community confidence in law enforcement.”

Cuomo also committed to issuing an Executive Order that will require police agencies to develop a plan for reinventing programs and strategies on the basis of community input to be eligible for future state funding.

Nationwide calls for systemic change in policing have covered a wide spectrum from reforming law enforcement through oversight and regulation to defunding and disbanding departments to abolishing them altogether. The New York State’s response, both from the governor and the Legislature, has come down on the side of reform, aiming to increase transparency and accountability for law enforcement and place limits on the use of police force.

A focal point of this police reform package is the repeal of Section 50-a, which passed both the State Senate and Assembly on June 9 –– the same day the funeral for George Floyd was held in Houston. This section formerly protected all police personnel records “used to evaluate performance” from being publicly disclosed unless the subject of the records agrees to their release.

The protests against police violence led to renewed scrutiny of Section 50-a, which was enacted in 1976, since it has long been viewed as a shield against public disclosure of police misconduct. For 44 years, this state law has been cited by police departments in refusing to make public formal complaints about excessive force or even whether officers have been punished. The statute was widely criticized following the death of Eric Garner in 2014 at the hands of Daniel Pantaleo, then an New York City Police Department officer, whose disciplinary records were blocked from being released.

The New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) issued a memo in support of the repeal, noting “the sponsor of the legislation that enacted section 50-a, the late Senator Frank Padavan, indicated that 50-a was ‘never intended to block disclosure of police misconduct form the public.’”

“Disclosing all records pertaining to police misconduct and discipline will help stem the tide of repeated and senseless incidents of police brutality that are all too frequently aimed at people of color and remain a scourge on our nation,” said NYSBA President Scott M. Karson.

This new legislation will require law enforcement agencies to disclose the records of officers when they are requested under the state’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). It would still protect personal information, including home addresses and medical records of law enforcement by allowing those details to be redacted.

Alongside the repeal of Section 50-a, the “Say Their Name” Reform Agenda included an additional nine laws focused on police reform.

Bill S6670/A6144: This bill creates criminal penalties for the use of chokeholds by law enforcement, and the law is named after Eric Garner, who died in 2014 after an NYPD Officer wrestled him to the ground in a chokehold. The bill defines a chokehold as a criminal obstruction of breathing and blood circulation that causes injury or death and classifies it as a violent felony.

Bill S8492/A1531: This legislation prohibits the biased misuse of emergency services when there is no reason to believe a crime is taking place. The new law makes it a civil rights violation for people to call the police on a person of color when there is no reason to suspect a crime or an imminent threat. This bill comes in the wake of a viral video of a white dog walker in Central Park falsely reporting an attack by an African-American bird watcher on May 25.

Bill S3253/A1360: Named the “New Yorker’s right to monitor act,” this bill affirms the right to record law enforcement activities. The bill also adds a right of action for people who are prevented from recording and provides an affirmative defense for those charged with a violation of this right.

Bill S1830/A10609: The bill expands reporting requirements of misdemeanors and violations charged by the Chief Administrator of the Courts and law enforcement agencies. The bill mandates the collection of data about the race, ethnicity, age and sex of individuals charged as well as the status of their cases, all of which must now be made publicly available online. It also requires the reporting and publication of deaths in police custody and those caused by any use of police force.

Bill S2575/A10608: This bill imposes a duty for police or peace officers to immediately report the discharge of their weapon under circumstances where a person could be struck by a bullet. The requirement applies to all law enforcement officers, whether on or off duty, and provides a timeframe of 6 hours to verbally report the incident to a supervisor and 48 hours to file a written report.

Bill S8493/A8674: This bill, which Gov. Cuomo signed into law today, requires state police to provide all officers with body cameras and to establish policies on when and how they should be used. It is designed to record all interactions with people suspected of criminal activity, all arrests and uses of force, as well as investigative actions with members of the public. The purpose of this measure is to increase accountability and transparency of law enforcement activities.

Bill S6601/A8226: This act adds an amendment to the Civil Rights Law, which establishes a cause of action for failure by law enforcement to provide proper medical treatment for people in their custody. This bill creates a duty for police officers to respond in good faith in addressing the medical and mental health needs of people under arrest.

Bill S3595/A10002: Signed into law today, this bill creates the Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigative Office within the Attorney General’s Office. It directs the State Inspector General, MTA Inspector General and the Port Authority Inspector General to investigate allegations of corruption, fraud, use of excessive force, criminal activity, conflicts of interest or abuse by officer agencies. Unlike the Special Prosecutor, which is only triggered following a law enforcement related death, this law will allow for an independent review of alleged misconduct for any local law enforcement agency.

Bill S2574/ A1601: This legislation establishes an Office of Special Investigation within the Attorney General’s Office. It provides the office with investigative authority and criminal jurisdiction over the death of a person caused by police, whether or not they were in custody, and it requires the office to issue a report when an investigation does not lead to an indictment.

In addition, there is a bill that prohibits racial profiling and requires law enforcement policies and complaint procedures to combat racial profiling. This bill is currently in the Codes Committee in the Assembly.

“Black New Yorkers, like all residents of this state, deserve to know that their rights, and lives, are valued and protected by our justice system,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in a statement today. “The legislation that will be signed today will help stop bad actors and send a clear message that brutality, racism and unjustified killings will not be tolerated.”

“The relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve isn’t working,” Gov. Cuomo said. “We are leading the way by enacting real reforms to increase transparency in policing, promote accountability among our law enforcement agencies and ultimately mend that frayed relationship between the police and the community.”

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