ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law Friday a sweeping package of police reforms that he described as the most aggressive in the nation, criminalizing choke holds and compelling police departments to disclose disciplinary records.
The batch of bills repeals a controversial statute known as “50-a” that localities have used to shield police disciplinary records from the public.
The reforms also authorize the state Attorney General’s Office to set up an investigatory unit to probe police-involved shootings and misconduct and prosecute when appropriate any incident in which a person dies at the hands of a police officer.
“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 said.
The package comes after years of stalled efforts in Albany and fervent opposition from police unions, who have pushed back against reforms.
But the death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes last month, ignited nationwide protests against police brutality and racism, triggering a swift outpouring of activism that led state lawmakers to take action.
“It just touched a nerve on every person,” said state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who attended the bill signing alongside state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton and mothers of unarmed black men who died during police encounters.
The bills also require state police to wear body cameras, make it illegal to make 911 calls based on race and tighten up the timeline for when officers must report discharging their weapons to their superiors.
Courts will be required to compile and publish racial and other demographic data of all low-level offenses, including misdemeanors and violations.
“These bills means some substantive change so we won’t be sitting there going over this at the next funeral and the next situation,” said Sharpton, adding he was surprised by the swiftness and scope of the reforms.
But lawmakers stressed the package is only the first step to reduce inequality in policing and help rebuild community trust.
“We know that this is the beginning, but it’s a move to bring justice to a system that has long been unjust,” Stewart-Cousins said.
Advocates for repealing 50-a have argued for years that the statute allows police and fire departments and correction officers to hide corruption and the records of violence-prone officers.
Those files will now be made available under the standard Freedom of Information Law process.
But police departments argue disclosing their identities would put the safety of officers and their families at risk.
“A dangerous cop-hater only needs a police officer’s name, linked to a few false or frivolous complaints, to be inspired to commit violence,” said NYC PBA President Patrick J. Lynch. “While lawmakers pound their chests about exposing ‘bad cops,’ all of the ‘good cops’ and our families are now in jeopardy. Newly released records will be stitched together to further the false anti-cop narrative.”
City Police Chief Eric Clifford is opposed to the rollback and will now pivot to ensure personal information is safeguarded, citing a lack of state guidance on the degree to which that information will be protected.
“The public exposure cannot be used to publicly shame them,” said Clifford, who is wary of “fishing expeditions” by those seeking to malign officers over personal grudges or after getting cited for minor violations like a traffic ticket.
Cuomo said personal information will be redacted.
“We redact all the personal information, home address, et cetera, so the privacy of the police officer is maintained,” Cuomo told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Friday night. “But the disclosure is now going to be the same as any other public service official, same as a teacher, same as any other government worker where you can get their disciplinary file and you can get complaints that have been filed against them by citizens.”
COMMUNITY INPUT ORDERED
Cuomo on Friday also signed an executive order designed to make local police departments more responsive to public input.
All local police departments are now required to develop plans based on community input at the risk of losing state funding.
The effort, dubbed “New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative,” tasks departments with developing plans 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.
- Engage the public in an open process on policing strategies and tools.
- Present a plan, by chief executive and head of the local police force, to the public for comment.
- Submit that plan to the local legislative body for approval.
Without local certification, police forces may be ineligible to receive future state funding, according to the Governor’s Office.
Sharpton said he hasn’t always seen eye-to-eye with Cuomo, but said the reforms set a nationwide blueprint to follow.
“To say that every mayor must come up with a plan along these areas or they will withhold state money is a model for where we ought to be dealing with 21st century civil rights in this country,” Sharpton said.
Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo declined comment, citing the need to review the executive order in more detail.
Clifford said he hasn’t studied the broader details of the executive order, but the effort aligns with the department’s efforts to be more responsive to the community.
He said he’s already had preliminary conversations with Mayor Gary McCarthy about what the community engagement process would look like.
“It’s already something we’ve been discussing,” Clifford said. “We welcome statewide input and guidance.”