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Cuomo Signs ‘Say Their Name’ Police Reform Package, Orders Police Agencies to Reinvent Themselves

Patti Singer

James Wilson, a licensed practical nurse at the Anthony L. Jordan Health Center Woodward Health Center on Genesee Street, participates in 8 minutes, 46 seconds of kneeling on June 5, 2020, to remember George Floyd. On June 12, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the “Say Their Name” package of laws to reform police. File photo

Police disciplinary records will be public and making false race-based 911 calls will be a crime under a reform package signed June 12 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo signed the “Say Their Name” Reform Agenda package following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and an ongoing pattern of police brutality against minority communities across the nation.

The policing reforms are designed to help reduce inequality in policing and reimagine the state’s criminal justice system, according to a news release.

The reforms include:

  • allowing for transparency of prior disciplinary records of law enforcement officers by repealing 50-a of the civil rights law;
  • banning chokeholds by law enforcement officers;
  • prohibiting false race-based 911 reports; and
  • designating the state attorney general as an independent prosecutor for matters relating to the civilian deaths.

“The murder of George Floyd was just the tipping point of the systemic injustice and discrimination that has been going on in our nation for decades, if not centuries,” Cuomo said in the news release. “These are issues that the country has been talking about for a long time, and these nation-leading reforms will make long overdue changes to our policing and criminal justice systems while helping to restore community confidence in law enforcement.”

Cuomo credited state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie working through what the governor called tough issues. “We never sit back and say just what the nation should do – we show the nation what it should do, and we did that again today,” Cuomo said.

The Rochester Police Department already has banned chokeholds. It also has policies for de-escalation and for holding officers accountable for their actions.

Cuomo also signed an executive order requiring local police agencies to develop a plan that “reinvents and modernizes police strategies and programs in their community based on community input. Each police agency’s reform plan must address policies, procedures, practices and deployment, including, but not limited to use of force.”

Police forces must adopt a plan by April 1, 2021 to be eligible for future state funding and certify that they have:

  • engaged stakeholders in a public and open process on policing strategies and tools;
  • presented a plan, by chief executive and head of the local police force, to the public for comment;
  • after consideration of any comments, presented such plan to the local legislative body (council or legislature as appropriate) which has approved such plan (by either local law or resolution); and
  • if such local government does not certify the plan, the police force may not be eligible to receive future state funding.

The New York Association of Chiefs of Police responded by calling on the governor to “stick to facts. We call upon you to stop fanning the flames of division. We call upon you to stop exploiting anti-police hysteria and unwarranted political rhetoric to ram through legislation that is ill conceived, hastily crafted, and anti-police. We call upon you to involve all stakeholders in this process, and we call upon you to do what’s right.”

In a posting on its Facebook page, the chiefs association said the bills were rushed and that members of the legislature have not had time to give them full consideration. The legislation will put law enforcement in danger. The letter claims Cuomo is anti-police and that he is contributing to “an irrational” ideology of a vocal minority calling for defunding police. That view, “if accepted and acted upon, only serves to put our communities, our families, our neighbors and our public servants at greater risk.”

The letter compares the way in which Say Their Name legislation was enacted to how the criminal justice reforms, such as eliminating cash bail for many offenses, was put in place.

“The time has come to hear each other, to support each other, and to work collaboratively to bring clear, transparent and fact-based information, ideas, and reforms forward. Let us work together to effect the positive change that we all wish to see, and let’s do so in a way that accomplishes our goals without endangering the police officers who already risk so much, or the communities that they serve,” the letter concludes.

The letter is signed by Sheriff Jeffrey Murphy, president of the New York State Sheriffs’ Association and Patrick D. Phelan, chief of the Greece Police and president of New York State Association of Chiefs of Police.

The Say Their Name package was signed a week after the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus called for police reform by holding statewide news conferences.

The legislators had proposed 12 bills:

  • Repeal of 50-a
  • False 9-1-1 complaints;
  • Office of the Special Prosecutor;
  • Police STAT Act;
  • Right to Monitor Act;
  • Local independent oversight of police;
  • Medical attention for persons under arrest;
  • Establishes the crime of strangulation;
  • Failure to obtain medical care;
  • Bans racial/ethnic profiling by police;
  • Reducing arrests for non-criminal offenses; and
  • Expanded use of body cameras for state police and MTA.

During a news conference in Rochester last week about the proposed legislation, Mayor Lovely Warren dismissed the idea that bills to reform police policies could hinder public safety.

“That’s a bridge too far. … We’re talking about very specific reforms in the state of New York that many of them have been called for for a long time.”

Warren said that a community can be protected without citizens having to worry about the protectors.

“We will not tolerate the brutality that has been going on for generations,” she said. “We have to be very careful about how we portray this, as if it has to be either or. It needs to be both. We all know we need a community and police department that work together.”

Here are some details about the bills (and their number) in the Say Their Name package:

  • Repealing 50-a (S.8496/A.10611) Section 50-a of the New York State Civil Rights Law creates a special right of privacy for the personnel records of police officers, correction officers, and firefighters and paramedics employed by the State or political subdivisions. The current law prevents access to both records of the disciplinary proceedings themselves and the recommendations or outcomes of those proceedings, leading to records of complaints or findings of law enforcement misconduct that did not result in criminal charges against an officer almost entirely inaccessible to the public. Repealing 50-a will allow for the disclosure of law enforcement disciplinary records, increasing transparency and helping the public regain trust that law enforcement officers and agencies may be held accountable for misconduct.
  • Banning chokeholds (S.6670-B/ A.6144) In 1993, the New York City Police Department completely banned its officers from using chokeholds, but the ban has not prevented police officers from using this method to restrain individuals whom they are trying to arrest and the continued use of chokeholds has resulted in too many deaths. This new law creates criminal penalties when a police officer or peace officer uses a chokehold or similar restraint and causes serious physical injury or death.
  • Prohibiting race-based 911 calls (S.8492/A.1531) Recent years have shown a number of frivolous and false calls to 911 based on the callers’ personal discomfort with other people and not for any particular threat. This new law makes it a civil rights violation to call 911 to report a non-emergency incident involving a member of a protected class without reason to suspect a crime or an imminent threat.
  • Appointing attorney general as independent prosecutor for police involved deaths (S.2574-C/A.1601) This new law establishes an Office of Special Investigation within the Office of the Attorney General to investigate and, where appropriate, prosecute cases where the death of a person follows an encounter with a law enforcement officer. The law also requires the new Office of Special Investigation to produce a report explaining the reasons for its decision regardless of whether it chooses to pursue charges. This will help improve public confidence in the criminal justice system by removing a potential conflict of interest in these types of investigations. This law builds on the Governor’s Executive Order No. 147 from 2015 which established the Attorney General as an independent prosecutor in instances of police-involved deaths.

This article was updated June 13 to include response from the New York Association of Chiefs of Police.