Police Reform Legislation Moves Swiftly Through New York State Legislature

Jun 9, 2020
Originally published on June 10, 2020 1:32 am

New York's legislature moved swiftly Monday to pass a first wave of police reform legislation, including a ban on chokeholds, a prohibition on race-based profiling, and a measure requiring police departments and courts to track arrests by race and ethnicity to help identify patterns of bias.

The session followed a historic wave of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. The protests evolved into a referendum on police brutality.

New York state, where marches drew thousands of people into the streets, has a troubled history of violence by police officers against unarmed black and Hispanic men.

State Sen. Luis Sepulveda told lawmakers police tactics have led to the death and "utter humiliation" of many people of color.

"I can speak from personal experience. When I was 18 years old, I was arrested because a police officer didn't like the way I looked at him," Sepulveda said.

The ban on chokeholds – which passed unanimously with bipartisan support – was named in honor of Eric Garner, a black man who was confronted by police for selling loose cigarettes in 2014. Garner died after a New York City police officer put him in a chokehold. Garner's dying words, "I can't breathe," were captured on cell phone video and became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement nationwide.

The police officer in that case, Daniel Pantaleo, facing likely dismissal eventually resigned from the force, but a grand jury declined to indict him. Last year, the Trump administration's Justice Department declined to bring civil rights charges in the case.

"We unfortunately have not been providing safety for African Americans in this country," said Democratic state Sen. Brian Benjamin. "What this bill does is say, 'You know what? We're going to try to move closer to a system where everyone feels safe in this country.'"

Law enforcement organizations in New York tried to push back against these reforms. The head of the New York State Sheriffs' Association, Jeffrey Murphy, issued a statement rejecting the idea that systemic racism exists in law enforcement, calling the accusation "disgusting."

The powerful New York City Police Benevolent Association called the measures "an attack on law enforcement." But in stunning political development, police saw many of their Republican allies vote with the Democratic majority.

During floor debate Monday, Republican Sen. Fred Akshar, who worked in law enforcement before being elected, said he had intended to vote against the chokehold ban.

He switched sides after being assured that police who use chokeholds in acts of self-defense wouldn't face charges.

Today's rapid-fire votes reflect another profound shift in Albany. Many of the measures being approved had languished for years because they were essentially dead on arrival when they reached the GOP-controlled senate. But Democrats won control of that chamber in the 2018 election. The Assembly and Senate are now led for the first time in history by African American lawmakers, who control the agenda. They seized on the momentum generated by days of street protests to move these reform bills.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat, promised Monday he would sign the measures when they reach his desk. Lawmakers are expected to take up a second package of reforms on Tuesday, including repeal of a law which kept police disciplinary records confidential.

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Demonstrators across the country are demanding changes to policing, and some state and local governments are heeding those calls. Lawmakers in New York's Legislature passed a first wave of bills yesterday. NPR's Brian Mann has been following this and joins us now. Brian, Governor Andrew Cuomo has said he'll sign these bills into law. What's going to change?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Well, maybe the most dramatic change is going to be a law making chokeholds illegal when used by police. In some cases, it'll be a felony. A lot of police departments across New York state had already banned this procedure, but now it will be a criminal offense. And this measure was named after Eric Garner, a black man who died in 2014 after he was placed in a chokehold by a white officer. His dying words, I can't breathe, were recorded on a cellphone video. They became one of the rallying cries of the Black Lives Matter movement. And yesterday, state Senator Brian Benjamin, who represents Harlem, said this reform just had to happen.


BRIAN BENJAMIN: We, unfortunately, have not been providing safety for African Americans in this country, period. What this bill does - it says, you know what? We're going to try to move closer to a system where everyone feels safe in this country.

MANN: And one remarkable thing yesterday, Rachel, Republican senators who've blocked similar reforms for years in New York, they voted with Democrats on this. It passed unanimously.

MARTIN: So this happened really fast. Is it all driven by the marches and demonstrations?

MANN: Yeah, George Floyd's death was the big catalyst, for sure. But we also had this violent incident last week in Buffalo, N.Y., where a 75-year-old man was pushed to the ground by police. That also caught on video, created a ton of momentum.

And then one other thing that's a big deal driving this in New York. In 2018, democrats took control of the state Senate in New York for the first time in years. And for the first time ever in history, black lawmakers lead both chambers of the state Legislature here, so there are politicians in Albany with a lot of power who say they really get what the protesters are talking about. Yesterday, state Senator Luis Sepulveda, who represents the Bronx, he said many people of color have a deeply troubled relationship with police.


LUIS SEPULVEDA: Not only the death of black and brown men and women, but the utter humiliation - utter humiliation - of many of us. When I was 19 years old (ph), I was arrested because a police officer didn't like the way I looked at him. I have a brother who was beaten up by a police officer. We remember this.

MANN: So lawmakers acted yesterday. They also passed measures banning racial profiling, requiring police departments to collect data that might reveal bias in policing. And today, they're expected to go further, approving a controversial measure that would make disciplinary actions against police far more transparent. One important note, though - there is nothing on the table in New York right now that would defund or significantly dismantle whole police departments, which is one of the things protesters have been calling for.

MARTIN: What do police unions, police organizations say?

MANN: They're furious. The head of the New York State Sheriffs' Association issued a statement rejecting the idea that there's systemic racial bias in policing. He called the idea disgusting. Police plan to hold a big rally later today here in New York, but they've seen many of their Republican allies vote against them on some of these measures. It's a big shift, and it puts those police organizations in perilous territory politically.

MARTIN: NPR's Brian Mann reporting today from upstate New York. Brian, thank you. We appreciate it.

MANN: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.