|Governor Andrew Cuomo|
Police agencies also ordered to reinvent approach with community input
ALBANY - Following years of debate and calls for changes to a controversial law that shields police disciplinary records from the public, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed sweeping police reforms into law Friday and ordered all police agencies to work with communities on reinventing police programs and tactics.
The bills passed by the Senate and Assembly earlier this week repeal “50-a,” the 44-year-old statute in state Civil Rights Law that blocks public access to police officers’ disciplinary records, and create new units within the attorney general’s office to investigate police misconduct and probe fatal shootings by police.
"The truth is, police reform is long overdue, and Mr. Floyd's murder is just the most recent murder," Cuomo said ahead of signing the bills during his daily coronavirus task force briefing held in New York City on Friday. He was referring to the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed by a white police officer during an arrest in Minneapolis on May 25, sparking nationwide protests against police brutality and racsim, some of which have turned violent and caused property damage.
"This is not just about Mr. Floyd's murder, it's about being here before – many, many times before. Today is about enough is enough," the governor added.
Cuomo signed the bills flanked by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins as well as police reform advocates and mothers who lost children during police interactions. Some of those in attendance were the same impacted families who spoke during a public hearing last year on repealing 50-a, where state elected leaders were absent.
Cuomo also announced that he is issuing an executive order requiring police agencies across New York to work with their respective communities to "develop a plan that reinvents and modernizes police strategies and programs," addressing use of force by officers, crowd management, implicit bias awareness training, and more. Communities are expected to come up with a plan that is approved by local legislative bodies by April 1, 2021, otherwise state funding for the police departments could be in jeopardy.
"Sit down with the local community, address these issues, get to the root of these issues, get a plan and pass it by your local government," Cuomo said. "We're not going to fund police agencies in this state that do not look at what has been happening, come to terms with it and reform themselves. We are not going to be a state government subsidizing improper police conduct."
Other bills passed by the Legislature require state troopers to wear body cameras, mandate that courts document race, ethnicity and sex data for arrests and court proceedings involving low-level offenses, and require a police officer who fires a gun to verbally notify a supervisor within six hours and file a written report within 48 hours.
Many of the reforms have stalled in Albany for years, but gained traction after weeks of protests against police brutality throughout New York and the country following Floyd's death after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
The repeal of 50-a, which also protected the personnel records of corrections officers, firefighters and peace officers, includes new provisions in the state Freedom of Information Law under which officers' private information, including home addresses and phone numbers, would be prohibited from public disclosure. It also would exempt "technical infractions," such as a state trooper being disciplined for not wearing their Stetson during a traffic stop.
Advocates for the repeal have argued the statute has been used to shield police corruption and cover up civil rights violations. In many departments, civilian police review boards are not allowed to know the identity of the officers whose conduct they are reviewing, including whether an officer has been the target of multiple complaints.
Prior efforts to repeal the statute have failed to gain any momentum in the Legislature and Cuomo, in his third term as governor, has never offered his own bill to repeal the measure or directed State Police to release their personnel files.
Assembly Speaker Heastie said each time a person of color died at the hands of police, he thought that would spark change. This time around, Floyd's death "touched a nerve on every person."
"I think watching a man being suffocated by strangulation, crying for his deceased mother struck a nerve," Heastie said.
Cuomo added that the cumulative impact of all those who have died also brought the country to the point of necessary change.
"It took a number of deaths, it took a number of injustices, unfortunately, but each one was a part of getting here today," the governor said.
Cuomo and other prominent state elected leaders denounced the Minneapolis officers’ actions, and called for efforts to reform not only law enforcement but other sectors like housing and education, to address systemic and institutional racism.
The pressure for police reforms intensified last week as peaceful protests – and incidents of violence and looting – unfolded in cities across New York and the nation in response to Floyd’s death, which adds to a long list of unarmed black men and women who have died at the hands of police officers.
Cuomo has also criticized New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Police Department for not disclosing police disciplinary records. But the State Police still do not have dashboard cameras in cruisers or required their troopers to wear body cameras. That agency also has for years rejected nearly every request for records on its internal investigations or allegations of misconduct by troopers, including the files of deceased members.
A bill signed by Cuomo Friday also empowers the state attorney general’s office to investigate police misconduct and probe police-involved deaths, expanding on an executive order previously issued to allow the attorney general to investigate fatal encounters between unarmed civilians and New York police agencies. At the same time, the office has for years represented the State Police in their court battles seeking to fight the release of records related to internal investigations.
Amanda Fries covers the Capitol in Albany and state government for the Times Union, focusing on the state workforce, housing, budget issues, malfeasance and other forms of corruption. She first started in June 2016 covering the city and county of Albany for the Times Union. Got a tip? Contact her at 518-454-5353 or firstname.lastname@example.org.