EDITORIAL: Words are important, but actions are needed

State legislation is one tool that could help curb police abuses
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Categories: Editorial, Opinion

They’ve shared their voices in cities across America.

People are fed up with the violence toward citizens, in particular black citizens and other minorities who are most often targeted by racist and violent police officers.

They’re fed up with the inherent discrimination that fuels many of the abuses.

They’re fed up with the leniency shown toward police officers who abuse their power — who beat or maim criminal suspects and ignore them when they’re in medical distress leading to injury or death — then go right back to work with a slap on the wrist.

They’re fed up with laws designed to protect rogue officers by preventing the public from learning about past abuses, disciplinary problems and violations of citizens’ civil rights.

They’ve shared their voices. They’ve shown up in large numbers. They’ve carried signs and demanded change.

But unless government takes strong action to curb abuses, the opportunity for change brought about by these protests will have been for naught.

If nothing is done after all this attention, make no mistake, there will be a next beating.

There will be another arrest in which an officer snuffs out a suspect’s life with his knee on that suspect’s throat.

There will be another shooting of an innocent black person in their home, another black kid in a hoodie shot by a cop while reaching for his cell phone.

Talk is important. But talk is also cheap.

State lawmakers could make a real difference by passing a package of police reform legislation that addresses many of the issues raised by the protests.

One bill (A4615A/S1137A) would address one of the underlying causes of police brutality and fear in the black community by prohibiting officers from using racial and ethnic profiling.

The bill would also establish a procedure for taking complaints about racial profiling and provide relief or damages for victims of profiling.

To ensure that police abuses are investigated thoroughly, bill A1601/S2574A would set up an Office of Special Investigation within the state Attorney General’s Office to investigate and prosecute any alleged criminal offense or offenses committed by a police officer that results in death.

Right now, local prosecutors often handle these cases. Because they often work closely with police agencies, this arrangement presents a potential conflict of interest and undermines public confidence in situations involving police officer misconduct.

Assigning those cases to an independent special state prosecutor is more likely to ensure cases will be investigated and prosecuted without favoritism, and more likely the public will be able to trust such investigations.

Another part of the package (A1360A/S3253A) would codify the public’s right to record police actions and prohibit police from confiscating the recordings. Police often intimidate or outright prevent citizens from recording their illegal or inappropriate conduct. This would make that against the law.

Another piece of legislation (A2513/S3695), which we advocated for last week in this space, would repeal Section 50-A of the state Civil Rights Law, passed in 1976, that shields disciplinary records of police misconduct. The public has a right to know which officers have been charged or disciplined for past abuses — exposing individual officers’ conduct and allowing the public to evaluate how their representatives are responding to such behavior.

Another piece of proposed legislation (A8226/S6601) would address the issue of medical care of suspects in custody, by requiring officers to obtain medical attention and mental health services for those under arrest who need it.

In response to the case of a white woman in New York City’s Central Park last month falsely reporting that she was being threatened by a black man who had asked her to put her dog on a leash, lawmakers are considering a bill (A3566) that would allow such false 9-1-1 calls to be used in prosecution of hate crimes. The bill does not yet have a Senate sponsor.

Other proposed bills are designed to reduce arrests related to noncriminal offenses, expand body camera use by law enforcement, and provide local independent oversight of police.

Those are the highlights of the package. And they’re just the tip of the iceberg as to what legislation is needed. But passage of these bills would be a good start.

No laws by themselves will reduce racism and misconduct in law enforcement.

But they will empower citizens, victims and law enforcement itself to prevent such incidents and to get justice for victims.

Police agencies must be more vigilant in identifying and removing officers who demonstrate such tendencies, and police unions need to support the many good and decent officers by weeding out the bad ones.

They also need to revisit, revise and enforce their use-of-force policies to expressly prohibit the type of restraint practices that led to George Floyd’s death, as well as the deaths of victims like Eric Garner and Freddie Gray.

And we as a society need to continue to stand up against racism and the causes of police abuse.

The voices of the people have brought us to the brink of real change.

We need to go further now and make sure the opportunity isn’t wasted.

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