NEW YORK NOW – In response to the death of George Floyd, and the resulting nationwide protests, state lawmakers in New York are set to take up a package of bills this week, including measures to make police disciplinary records available and appoint a permanent special prosecutor for police-involved deaths.
Lawmakers will reconvene in Albany Monday to consider that legislation, which includes a handful of bills that have been in the works for years, but failed to gain support until now.
There appears to be support, now, for each of the items to be considered this week in both the state Senate and Assembly, both of which are controlled by Democrats.
1. That includes a repeal of section 50-a of the state civil rights law, which has been interpreted to allow local governments to block the public from obtaining copies of police disciplinary records. The law also applies to the disciplinary records of correction officers.
Police unions have been staunchly against the idea of repealing the law, warning that the identifying information of their members could be made public by disclosing their disciplinary records.
But the legislation to be considered in Albany this week appears to protect against that possibility.
Not only would the bill define what constitutes a disciplinary record, for purposes of disclosure to the public, it would also bar the state and local governments from including the personal or medical information of officers on any of those files. That would, under law, have to be redacted.
The change would be immediate, meaning that as soon as the Legislature approves the bill, and it’s signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, police agencies would be required to disclose those records to anyone who requests them under the Freedom of Information Law.
Cuomo has said he’ll sign legislation that repeals, or reforms, 50-a.
2. Another bill expected to be considered this week would create, permanently, a special prosecutor for cases where someone dies during an interaction with a member of law enforcement.
The measure would remove that authority from local district attorneys, who ordinarily have control over criminal investigations within their jurisdiction.
That changed five years ago, when Cuomo issued an executive order appointing the state attorney general’s office to investigate cases where there was reason to question if someone was armed before they died during an interaction with police.
The order was issued after the death of Eric Garner, a black man who died six years ago during an interaction with police on Staten Island and largely influenced the Black Lives Matter movement with his last words: “I can’t breathe.”
Cuomo has called on the state Legislature to codify his executive order into law in recent years, but lawmakers couldn’t agree on language.
Under the bill to be considered this week, the attorney general’s office would maintain its position as special prosecutor, and would be tasked with cases in which someone is killed by police and was either unarmed, or not confirmed to be armed.
If the evidence from that investigation supports criminal charges against the police officer, the attorney general’s office would be empowered to bring them.
3. State police in New York would be required to wear body cameras under language included in a third bill to be considered by state lawmakers this week. Troopers aren’t currently required to wear body cameras, though a pilot program was planned for this year.
Under the bill, each member of the state police would be given a body camera and required to turn it on during most encounters with the public. That includes arrests, traffic stops, property searches, and other situations where the trooper is on the job.
They would be able to stop recording while speaking to a confidential informant, during a strip search, or when a member of the public asks that the trooper not use the camera. The trooper would be allowed to continue recording at their discretion.
The State Police wouldn’t have to fully comply with the legislation until next April under the bill.
4. Lawmakers are also seeking to have the state court system track data on the racial breakdown of misdemeanor charges and violations, including the address of the person charged, and where the alleged crime occurred.
The state court system would also be tasked with tracking how those cases turned out — whether the individual was sentenced, penalized, or had their case dismissed.
A second part of the bill would require all law enforcement agencies in the state to track and report data on arrest-related deaths, including the race of the individuals who died, where they lived, and how they were killed during the arrest.
5. Chokeholds and acts of aggravated strangulation would be formally banned for police in New York state under another bill, which would make that practice a crime.
The New York City Police Department banned officers from using chokeholds decades ago, but that method was still used in 2014 on Eric Garner, who died during an interaction with officer Daniel Pantaleo. Pantaleo, five years later, was fired.
Under the bill, police could be charged with the crime if they place someone in a chokehold, or obstruct their breathing, and that causes the person to either die or suffer a serious injury. It would be a Class C felony, which carries up to 15 years in prison.
Lawmakers are expected to take up a handful of other bills, as well. One would create a civil penalty for individuals who call the police on people of a protected class when there’s no threat to their safety, and another would protect individuals who record interactions with the police.
Lawmakers are scheduled to reconvene in Albany Monday, and stay until at least Tuesday.