Any way you slice it, the protests have been a tremendous success.
Journalists and other reform-minded groups have been urging state lawmakers to repeal a law, known as 50-a, that keeps police disciplinary and personnel records secret for at least a decade. Right up until about a week ago, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the push for change lasted another 10 years.
Then the political equivalent of an F-5 tornado hit.
Demonstrators took to the streets in communities all over the U.S., calling for an end to police brutality and systemic racism.
These events have been big, and getting bigger: On Sunday, protesters gathered in Amsterdam, Niskayuna and Troy, where a whopping 11,000 people rallied. On Tuesday, protesters marched in Clifton Park and Delmar. In all my years living in the Capital Region, I’ve never seen a cause mobilize so many people, in so many different places.
Politicians have definitely taken notice.
If they hadn’t, repeal of 50-a would still be the non-starter it was just a month ago.
Instead, it went to the top of the New York State Legislature’s priority list in record time, with lawmakers voting to get rid of a statute that has been in effect for 44 years and Gov. Andrew Cuomo vowing to sign the bill.
This didn’t happen because newspapers printed editorials advocating for the repeal of 50-a, or because groups like the New York State Bar Association or New York Civil Liberties Union denounced it.
It happened because thousands of people took to the streets and demanded change.
So don’t ever let anyone tell you that protest doesn’t work.
The last two weeks have provided ample evidence that massive, ongoing demonstrations can lead to real change in a very short amount of time. And not just change in public sentiment, but policy.
The repeal of 50-a will make it easier to hold law enforcement officers accountable for misdeeds and root out problem cops.
In Minnesota, the public quickly learned that Derek Chauvin, the cop who is charged with killing George Floyd, had been the subject of at least 17 misconduct complaints over the past two decades; in New York, none of those records would have been made public, keeping his record shrouded in mystery.
Other criminal justice reforms that might have been unthinkable just 14 days ago have suddenly become no-brainer legislation for a majority of lawmakers.
Legislators this week passed a sweeping package of laws that, among other things, bans the use of chokeholds by police, requires courts to maintain and report statistics on arrests by gender, race and ethnicity, mandates that state police to wear body cameras and affirms the public’s right to record interactions with law enforcement.
Change has also been afoot at the local level.
The city of Albany has barred officers from using chokeholds and knee-to-neck holds, established a duty to “intervene when a fellow officer is seen using excessive force or verbally escalating a situation,” reaffirmed training requirements for de-escalation and implicit bias and require the history of racism in the U.S. to be taught to Albany police recruits.
The Schenectady Police Department released its use-of-force policy for the first time May 27, before the first Capital Region protest. This long-overdue move is part of the department’s application for state accreditation, and will bring greater transparency to the agency.
Criminal justice reform usually moves at a snail’s pace.
In the past two weeks, it’s moved at dizzying speed, with reforms that once seemed inconceivable deemed essential almost overnight.
I don’t know what will happen next, but I do know this: The protests and cries for change are far from over. The activists have made it clear that they want more, and will continue their push for a complete overhaul of policing in the U.S.
I’m eager to see what they accomplish next.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.
Correction 2:30 p.m. 6/11: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated when the the Schenectady Police Department released its use of force policy. It released the policy publicly on May 27, before the first protest of police brutality in the Capital Region was held. The policy was released as part of the department’s application for state accreditation.