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Spurred by protests, Cuomo signs sweeping police reform package

June 12, 2020 Marina Villeneuve Associated Press
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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law on Friday a sweeping package of police accountability measures that received new backing following protests of George Floyd’s killing, including one allowing the release of officers’ long-withheld disciplinary records.

The measures were approved earlier this week by the state’s Democratic-led Legislature. Some of the bills had been proposed in years past and failed to win approval, but lawmakers moved with new urgency in the wake of massive, nationwide demonstrations over Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis.

“Police reform is long overdue, and Mr. Floyd’s murder is only the most recent murder,” Cuomo, a Democrat, said.

Cuomo was joined at the signing ceremony by the Rev. Al Sharpton, Valerie Bell, the mother of Sean Bell, who was killed by an officer in 2006, and Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, who was killed by police in New York in 2014.

“It was a long time coming, but it came,” Carr said.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins thanked Carr and Bell “for being brave and strong.”

“We are at a moment of reckoning. There is no doubt about it,” she said.

The laws will ban police chokeholds, like the one used on Garner; make it easier to sue people who call police on others without good reason; and set up a special prosecutor’s office to investigate the deaths of people during and following encounters with police officers.

“These bills mean some substantive change, so that we won’t be sitting here going over this after the next funeral and after the next situation,” Sharpton said.

Some bills, including body camera legislation, drew support from Republicans, who opposed legislation that repealed a state law long used to block the release of police disciplinary records over concerns about officers’ privacy.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the package of police accountability measures into law on Friday. Photo: Office of New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo via AP

Eliminating the law, known as Section 50-a, would make complaints against officers, as well as transcripts and final dispositions of disciplinary proceedings, public for the first time in decades.

And the state’s approximately 500 police departments will all have to come up with plans to address everything from use of force to implicit bias awareness training by next April under an executive order that Cuomo said he will issue Friday.

The governor said New York is the first to come up with such a plan and warned that police departments who fail to do so will not receive state aid.

Cuomo has 10 days to act on other bills passed by lawmakers this week, including legislation prohibiting police from using racial profiling and another bill ensuring that individuals under arrest or in policy custody receive attention for medical and mental health needs.

Lawmakers also passed a bill to require New York to collect and report the race and other demographic details of individuals who are charged. The legislation says police departments must “promptly report” to the state the death of any people who die in police custody and in an attempt to establish custody, and provide a demographic breakdown.

During this week’s legislative debates, many lawmakers relayed their personal experiences with police.

On Friday, Stewart-Cousins, who is the first Black woman to lead the state Senate, said her youngest son was once stopped and frisked when he was 18 and said he ended up with a fractured nose. “Thank God I was able to bring him home,” she said.

“Every parent, every mother who looks like me understood that scary notion with our kids, with our husbands, with our brothers,” she said.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said he’s had “not-so-positive” interactions with the police — from when he was young and even now as legislative leader.

“Growing up when you heard the stories of Anthony Baez and Sean Bell and Eric Garner, as a Black man, I felt that could be me,” Heastie said.

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