State lawmakers in New York approved the final leg of a package of bills Wednesday to change the way members of law enforcement do their jobs, and shift more power to members of the public to oversee those officers
Democrats, who control both chambers of the state Legislature, will now send those bills to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who’s said in recent days that he’ll approve the package.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Westchester, said Wednesday that the package of bills isn’t a silver bullet to end racism, or incidents inspired by race, but that it will push back on a system often seen as unfairly balanced against people of color.
“Make no mistake, we know that what we did is not a cure. We know it’s a first step. It acknowledges that laws, alone, are important, but they can’t fix racism in America,” Stewart-Cousins said.
“But, it begins to root out injustice and to bring justice to our justice system. It is a step, and it is a path to equality.”
Lawmakers passed 10 bills this week as part of the package, with the final two approved Wednesday.
One of the two bills passed Wednesday has been in the works for five years, partly due to action from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The legislation will establish the Office of Special Investigation in the state Attorney General’s Office, which will be charged with investigating, and potentially prosecuting, members of law enforcement when someone dies in their custody, or after an encounter with the police.
It builds on an executive order from Cuomo, five years ago, who appointed the Attorney General’s Office as a special prosecutor for instances where someone dies during an interaction with police and may not have been armed.
That order, and the legislation approved Wednesday, means local district attorneys will, permanently, be stripped of the authority to investigate police-involved deaths.
Supporters of the legislation have argued that local prosecutors could treat local members of law enforcement differently during an investigation than a special prosecutor, like the Attorney General’s Office.
"The Assembly Majority is committed to real, substantial reform of our criminal justice system," said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx. "The Office of Special Investigation will eliminate a potential conflict of interest, and help assure even scales of justice in our state."
Lawmakers also approved a bill Wednesday to establish another office within the Attorney General’s Office to review, study, audit, and make recommendations regarding the operations of law enforcement agencies around the state, including their relationship with the community.
Earlier this week, lawmakers approved legislation to repeal 50-a, a section of state law that’s been used to block the public from requesting access to police disciplinary records. Those records will now be available through a request under the Freedom of Information Law.
Republicans largely voted against that change, saying it would deny members of law enforcement their constitutional right to due process. That's because, they said, the public would also be able to access unproven claims made against officers.
"This change does something un-American, it provides records that include false accusations made against officers, and that does little to advance the cause of transparency," said Senate Republican Leader John Flanagan. "What it allows is a flood of information requests to obtain information on officers who currently face heightened anti-police rhetoric."
They also codified a ban on the use of chokeholds in New York state, and made the practice a felony for members of law enforcement to use.
That legislation was inspired by the death of Eric Garner, who died on Staten Island six years ago after an officer with the New York City Police Department placed him in a chokehold. His last words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Among the other bills approved this week were a new program to equip the State Police with body cameras, a new penalty for people who call the police on individuals when there’s no threat to themselves or others, and more.
Cuomo has said he’ll sign the package of bills when they’re sent to his desk.