Albany

Amid protests, state legislators pass law enforcement reforms, consider others

Black Lives Matter protesters Monday in Clifton Park
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Black Lives Matter protesters Monday in Clifton Park

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, News, Saratoga County, Schenectady County

CAPITOL — State legislators spent much of Monday discussing major reforms for law enforcement — and the Senate and Assembly both approved legislation that will prohibit the use of chokeholds by law enforcement.

Legislation titled the “Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act” will establish the crime of aggravated strangulation as a Class C felony.

The Assembly announced passage of the Garner Act — and other legislation — on its website. Media outlets reported Senate action on the same bill.

The legislative activity comes as part of a national response to events surrounding the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, which state officials say have highlighted the immediate need for reforms.

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“The horrific murder of George Floyd, the most recent in a long list of innocent people like Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Sean Reed, Tony McDade, and so many more, has led to a rightful outpouring of grief and anger,” said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers.

“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,” Stewart-Cousins also said.

“The Senate is stepping up to advance reforms that will empower New Yorkers, improve transparency, and help save lives.

“I thank our colleagues in the state Assembly, and my partner in legislative leadership, Speaker Carl Heastie, for undertaking these historic measures to help move New York state forward,” Stewart-Cousins added. “The legislation that will be passed over the coming days will help stop bad actors and send a clear message that brutality, racism, and unjustified killings will not be tolerated.”

In a busy day, reform politics included discussion of repeal of a section of state Civil Rights Law that benefits police.

The Civil Rights Law section in discussion — “50-a” — has permitted law enforcement officers to refuse disclosure of “personnel records used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion.”

This protection has been interpreted to include disciplinary records of law enforcement officers. The repeal would subject these records to FOIL (Freedom of Information Law), just as all other records kept by public agencies. Personal contact and health information of the officers would remain protected.

The exemption was adopted in 1976 by the Legislature in order to prevent criminal defense lawyers from using such records in cross examination of police witnesses during criminal prosecutions.
The “50-a” section recently has been in the news. In 2019, a public hearing was held to examine the repeal of the section as part of state justice system reform.
The change in Civil Rights law has picked up support from the New York Coalition For Open Government.

“Transparency is critical for improving public trust in our police departments and for bringing about greater accountability in addressing the performance of police services,” the group said, in a Monday press release.

Others are not in support. The Conservative Party of New York State opposes both the Civil Rights Law change and the Garner chokehold bill, which criminalizes police use of a chokehold in all circumstances.

Garner died in Staten Island on July 17, 2014, after an officer from the New York Police Department put him in a chokehold during the course of an arrest. Video footage of the incident received national attention.

Jerry Kassar, the party’s state chairman, said he believes the legislative changes will give groups such as ANTIFA (the anti-fascist political activist movement in the United States) free reign to commit havoc.

Peaceful protests are part of our history; anarchy is not,” Kassar said in a statement. “Police protect peaceful protests; police have a moral obligation to stop those who support the anarchy taking place in New York streets.

“If the Democrat-controlled Legislature continues the path they created last year when the criminal justice reforms passed in the budget,” Kassar also said, “they will be aiding and abetting the anarchists determined to destroy the hope that brought millions to our state through Liberty Island in New York’s harbor.”

The Assembly on Monday passed the following bills:

— Legislation that will clarify that a person not under arrest or in the custody has the right to record police activity and to maintain custody and control of that recording, and of any property or instruments used to record police activities. 
— Legislation that will require state and local law enforcement officers, as well as peace officers, to report — within six hours —when they discharge their weapons where a person could have been struck. The requirement applies to both on- and off-duty officers.
— Legislation known as the Police Statistics and Transparency (STAT) Act, which will require courts to compile and publish racial and other demographic data of all low-level offenses, including misdemeanors and violations. The bill will also require police departments to submit annual reports on arrest-related deaths that will be submitted to the Department of Criminal Justice Services, the governor and the Legislature.

Also under consideration by legislators:

— Legislation that will establish the Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigative Office within the Department of Law to review, study, audit and make recommendations regarding operations, policies, programs and practices of local law enforcement agencies. The goal of this legislation is to enhance the effectiveness of law enforcement, increase public safety, protect civil liberties and civil rights, ensure compliance with constitutional protections and local, state and federal laws and increase the public’s confidence in law enforcement.

— Legislation that establishes a private right of action for a member of a protected class when another person summons a police or peace officer on them without reason to suspect a crime or an imminent threat to person or property existed.

— Legislation that will amend the Civil Rights Law by adding a new section that affirms New Yorkers’ right to medical and mental health attention while in custody.

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— Legislation known as the New York State Police Body-Worn Cameras Program, which will direct New York State Police to provide all state police officers with body-worn cameras that are to be used any time an officer conducts a patrol. The law also prescribes mandated situations when the camera is to be turned on and recording.

— Legislation that will create an Office of Special Investigation within the Department of Law, under the Attorney General, which will investigate, and, if warranted, prosecute any incident of a person whose death was caused by a police officer or peace officer. 

Contact staff writer Jeff Wilkin at 518-641-8400 or at [email protected].

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