N.Y. Bans Chokeholds and Approves Other Measures to Rein in Police
New York on Friday became the first state to take meaningful action to rein in police forces after the killing of George Floyd, banning the use of chokeholds by law enforcement and repealing a half-century-old law that has kept police disciplinary records secret in the state.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the expansive package of bills less than three weeks after Mr. Floyd’s death at the hands of the police in Minneapolis, which has since sparked widespread civil unrest and demonstrations against police brutality and racism.
New York City also took tentative steps toward meeting protesters’ calls to “defund the police.” On Friday, the City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, said the Council had identified $1 billion in cuts to the Police Department’s $6 billion budget, and would urge Mayor Bill de Blasio to agree in advance of the July 1 budget deadline.
Mr. de Blasio quickly rejected the proposal, while indicating that he was open to further negotiations over the size of the Police Department. “The mayor has said we’re committed to reprioritizing funding and looking for savings, but he does not believe a $1 billion cut is the way to maintain safety,” said Freddi Goldstein, Mr. de Blasio’s press secretary.
A similar reckoning is occurring across the nation, as lawmakers are weighing various changes to police tactics that may have exacerbated racial disparities in law enforcement. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom called for an immediate end to the use of “strangleholds” last week, saying such use of force had “no place any longer in 21st century practices and policing.”
In Washington, where authorities used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Park for President Trump to stage a photo op at St. John’s Church, the District of Columbia’s Council unanimously passed a sweeping series of changes earlier this week, including prohibiting the use of chemical irritants, riot gear and stun grenades on demonstrators exercising their First Amendment rights.
The specter of George Floyd’s killing has loomed over the nation, as protests against police brutality continue to fill the streets.Credit...Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times
And in Minneapolis, where Mr. Floyd was killed on May 25, the City Council voted on Friday to seek “a transformative new model for cultivating safety in our city” just days after vowing to dismantle the city’s police department. But even there, change would take time — months if not more, and not before a citywide vote and rounds of bureaucratic wrangling.
The obstacles to the kind of sweeping and immediate changes made in New York could also be seen in Minnesota’s State Capitol, where an ambitious package of police reforms proposed by Democrats faced an uncertain future.
Republicans who control one legislative chamber said they would oppose some of the most far-reaching changes, including restoring voting rights to felons or putting the state’s attorney general, rather than local prosecutors, in charge of investigating killings by the police.
The clash over how much change lawmakers are willing to accept in a state that has become ground zero of a new movement to address racism and police brutality shows how difficult it may be to bring real changes across a patchwork of state governments and in a divided Washington.
“For years, policing has been a neglected corner of government when it comes to legislative activity,” said Barry Friedman, the director of the Policing Project at New York University School of Law. “I see movement in both parties to address that, but that movement is definitely unequal right now and that’s too bad.”
House Democrats unveiled a sweeping bill on Monday aimed at addressing racial bias and overuse of force in policing. The bill would require all uniformed federal officers to wear body cameras, and would limit the military-grade equipment being shipped to state and local law enforcement.
Republicans, who have been put on the defensive by public support for both protests and police reform, are still formulating a legislative response. But at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Republicans on the panel spoke of “bad apples” among police officers, and decried calls to defund the police, even though no such proposal was in the Democrats’ bill.
In the Senate, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, the sole African-American in the Republican majority conference, said he would introduce a police reform bill next week, calling for reports on use of force incidents, and a so-called duty to intervene, by officers witnessing incidents of police brutality.
“This is an issue whose time has come,” Senator Scott said on the “Today” show on Thursday, adding that police tactics against minorities has been “a serious issue that has been running rampant throughout communities of color for far too long.”
At the same time, the role of police in daily life was also being examined, with school districts in several states abandoning the use of sworn officers in hallways, saying their presence interferes with their educational missions.
Three black assemblymen held their fists aloft in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement at a news conference of state lawmakers in Albany.Credit...Cindy Schultz for The New York Times
“This is not just about Mr. Floyd’s murder,” Mr. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat said, shortly before signing the bills in Manhattan. “It’s about being here before, many, many times before. It is about a long list that has been all across this country that always makes the same point: injustice against minorities in America by the criminal justice system.”
The legislation in New York, which the Democrat-controlled Legislature passed earlier this week, was years in the making. Many of the bills were introduced years ago but gained little traction because of fierce opposition from powerful police unions that for years held sway over elected officials in Albany, especially when Republicans controlled the State Senate.
But Democrats, propelled by the national progressive fervor that swept the nation in 2018, took control of the State Capitol two years ago, opening the door to long-stalled liberal priorities.
Still, it was Mr. Floyd's death, and the protests that followed, that provided the catalyst to get this week’s legislation over the finish line.
Weeks of massive and relentless protests from New York City to Buffalo, and bubbling anti-police sentiment, prompted legislators to hurry back into session in Albany and swiftly vote on the set of bills — overcoming the law enforcement unions that wield their influence through sizable campaign contributions and vociferous condemnation of officials they deem as weak on crime.
The most contentious of the legislation was a measure to repeal an obscure statute in the state’s civil code known as 50-a, which prohibits the release of “all personnel records used to evaluate performance” of police officers without permission from the officer or a judge.
Under Mr. de Blasio, the New York Police Department expanded the interpretation of the law to shield the results of disciplinary hearings against individual officers, leading to criticism that the department was shrouding police abuse in secrecy. Mr. Cuomo for years remained largely noncommittal on efforts to repeal 50-a.
Criticism of the law came to a head following the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island after a police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, held him in a chokehold in 2014. Despite a lawsuit to make them public, Mr. Pantaleo’s disciplinary records remained secret for years until they were leaked, revealing a long history of complaints.
In stark contrast, the past misconduct complaints of the police officer who knelt on the neck of Mr. Floyd, Derek Chauvin, were made public shortly after Mr. Floyd’s death because Minnesota doesn’t have such a law barring their disclosure. In fact, New York was one of the few remaining states with such a secrecy law; California had one of the most restrictive ones until state legislators dismantled it two years ago.
Mr. Cuomo, who signed four of the 10 bills lawmakers passed, and is expected to sign the others, also signed into law a bill that would give recourse to people who believe someone called a police officer on them because of their race, gender, nationality or any other protected class.
Weeks of massive and relentless protests from Brooklyn to Buffalo prompted lawmakers to return to session in Albany.Credit...Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times
The new law banning the use of chokeholds by law enforcement officers — named after Mr. Garner, whose mother, Gwen Carr, attended the law’s signing ceremony — makes the use of the technique a felony. Another law, pushed by a group of black mothers whose sons were killed by the police, codified into state law a special prosecutor’s office within the state’s attorney general’s office to investigate and prosecute police killings of unarmed civilians.
Law enforcement unions quickly pounced on state leaders, accusing them of politicizing police officers’ safety and arguing that the repeal of 50-a would recklessly make public the unsubstantiated misconduct complaints against officers, possibly causing reputational harm.
Michael Palladino, the president of the National Police Defense Foundation, said the law changes would “emasculate” police officers. Mr. Cuomo, he said, “wouldn’t stray five feet from his police security detail on his own, yet he’ll do anything to emasculate law enforcement for his own political gain.”
Mike O’Meara, president of the New York State Association of Patrolmen’s Benevolent Associations, claimed that police averaged 375 million annual interactions with the public and that the vast majority were positive.
“But we all read in the papers all week that in the black community mothers are worried about their children coming home from school without being killed by a cop. What world are we living in? That does not happen!” Mr. O’Meara said. “It’s disgusting. Our legislators abandoned us. The press is vilifying us.”
Reporting was contributed by Jack Healy, Edgar Sandoval, Nate Schweber and Ashley Southall.
Luis Ferré-Sadurní covers New York State politics in Albany. He joined The Times in 2017 and previously wrote about housing for the Metro desk. He is originally from San Juan, Puerto Rico. @luisferre
Jesse McKinley is the Albany bureau chief. He was previously the San Francisco bureau chief, and a theater columnist and Broadway reporter for the Culture Desk. @jessemckinley