Activists and civil rights leaders on how to reform policing

Black Lives Matter protestors at Columbus Circle on June 6, 2020.
Black Lives Matter protestors at Columbus Circle on June 6, 2020.
Anna Kristiana Dave/Shutterstock
Black Lives Matter protestors at Columbus Circle on June 6, 2020.

Activists and civil rights leaders on how to reform policing

Experts weigh in on policy changes to combat police brutality and systemic racism.
June 9, 2020

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has provoked nationwide protests and revived calls for police departments across the country to be defunded and drastically reformed – if not abolished.

In the years since the police-involved death of Eric Garner in 2014 on Staten Island, some of the steps that have been proposed to reform the New York City Police Department have stalled. But in just the past two weeks, as protests against police brutality turn out huge numbers of people – producing more reports of police using aggressive tactics – it seems that New York is ready to act on a few of those proposals.

Take, for example, the move to repeal Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights Law that keeps the personnel records of police officers, firefighters and corrections officers “confidential and not subject to inspection or review,” without the officer’s permission. After years of lawmakers gradually signing on to the idea, a wave of new lawmakers have come out in support of repealing the law.

And then there’s the proposal to outlaw the use of police chokeholds – the move that killed Garner. While the NYPD has been banned from using chokeholds, it hasn’t stopped some officers from continuing to use them. New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced on Wednesday that the council had a veto-proof majority to go a step further and criminalize the use of chokeholds, making it a misdemeanor for police to put someone in a chokehold while making an arrest.

As momentum builds behind some of these efforts in New York in a way it hasn’t before, City & State reached out to the experts on the movement to fundamentally change policing – the activists organizing around it – to understand why reforms have been slow to materialize and what other policy changes could come next. Weighing in on the subject are Chivona Newsome, co-founder of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York and a candidate for New York’s 15th Congressional District; Stanley Fritz, New York state political director of the advocacy group Citizen Action of New York; and the Rev. Michael Walrond, senior pastor at First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What would repealing 50-a do for efforts to combat police brutality in New York – and what wouldn’t it do?

Chivona Newsome: Before police brutality is captured on film, goes viral, becomes a hashtag or sparks a public outcry, it can be prevented. The NYPD has clear indicators that would stop the assault and murders of New Yorkers, but they have chosen to ignore them. It is a public safety hazard to hide the misconduct and disciplinary records of every officer who mass pepper-sprays, assaults, blatantly covers their badge numbers and engages in other abuse of authority and violence. Section 50-a allows the NYPD to operate in secrecy, protecting and upholding the “Blue Wall of Silence.” This section of the New York Civil Rights Law that deems the “personnel records” of police officers “confidential and not subject to inspection or review” without the officer’s permission needs to be repealed. Transparency is the first step in police reform. If 50-a is not repealed, we will always have an Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and the countless others who lost their lives to killer cops.

Stanley Fritz: Video after video has shown law enforcement acting violently toward protesters and black and brown New Yorkers. These are not isolated situations. They are a reflection of police misconduct that takes place on a daily basis and is kept secret from the public because of 50-a, the New York state statute that is routinely used to shield police misconduct and failed police disciplinary processes from public view. The full repeal of 50-a will end secrecy about police misconduct and discipline records, and help address the systemic lack of accountability for law enforcement behavior by giving the public access to these records. This won’t end police brutality – but it’s a critical first step. If law enforcement knows that their behavior will become public, and that they will be held accountable for misconduct, they are likely to think twice before they engage in violence and force against civilians.

Rev. Michael Walrond: The senseless and brutal murder of George Floyd has once again caused our country, state and community to pause and look at the issue of police brutality. We have seen countless protests around the world, but we will continually find ourselves protesting such heinous acts as long as there are not policy changes that seek to reduce the frequency of police brutality. Although repealing 50-a may not change the attitudes of police officers whose mindsets do not allow them to see the inherent dignity of every human being, it may change practices and behaviors that contribute to police brutality. If police officers’ misconduct or disciplinary records were made public, without court order or written permission, it would not only alert the public to officers who have a pattern of malignant practices, but it may also curb the practices of such officers if there were consequences for those who have a history of misconduct.

Why have efforts to criminalize the use of a chokehold stalled for years in New York City?

Rev. Michael Walrond: The use of the chokehold was banned by the NYPD in 1993, but since that time there are those who believe a departmental prohibition is insufficient. There are numerous reasons why attempts to criminalize the chokehold have stalled, but I believe that one of the main points of resistance may be steeped in political expediency. There are elected officials whose reluctance to support this abusive practice is shaped by their fear of retribution from the powerful NYPD police union. These particular elected officials do not want to be viewed as anti-police or pro-crime. Therefore, instead of supporting criminalization of the chokehold and standing against police abuse, there is more concern about their political future than doing what may be morally right. The harsh reality is that training and cultural changes within the police department may not be enough to stop police abuse.

Chivona Newsome: If New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio addressed the unjust murder of Eric Garner by the hands of his police department and held them accountable, we would be a step closer to justice. A step in the right direction would be for the police to admit that a chokehold is a use of excessive force. Without acknowledging the problem, we will not reach a solution.

The laws currently in place are there to protect law enforcement. Officers are not obligated to report racial bias, officers are not held to be accountable for their actions, and they are above the law. If police officers interjected the brutality their colleagues practice and broke the “Blue Code” or “Blue Wall of Silence,” we would be a step closer to justice. If de Blasio addressed the unjust murders by the hands of his police department and held them accountable, we would be a step closer to justice.

Stanley Fritz: What I know from both my professional and personal experiences is that after the NYPD, de Blasio has been the biggest obstacle to getting any traction on this legislation. Even as the demand for police accountability intensifies, because of the NYPD’s spectacular failure to act appropriately during peaceful protests, de Blasio is still siding with the police. This shouldn’t come as a surprise – the mayor has a track record of being incompetent and tone-deaf on issues related to “criminal justice reform.” This is the same man that (campaigned) in Iowa, running a failed presidential (race), only to randomly show up in Albany and criticize a bail law he had nothing to do with.

In a perfect world, what additional policy changes – along with the two mentioned above – would be made to achieve meaningful policing reform?

Chivona Newsome: Legislation is needed to protect black people for an oppressive system. As co-founder of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, our organization has demanded all governors sign an executive order for the “I Can’t Breathe Act.” (The act would mandate the prosecution of any law enforcement officer who denies help to a person in their custody displaying signs of medical distress.)

Stanley Fritz: Passage of the Police Statistics and Transparency Act, which would require police departments across the state to record and report comprehensive data on police enforcement of low-level charges and deaths of (people in police) custody in order to improve transparency of policing activities across the state and give us the information needed to propose and move additional structural reforms.

Repeal the “walking while trans” ban (Section 240.37 of Penal Law). In 1976, New York criminalized behavior described as “loitering for the purpose of engaging in a prostitution offense.” Because of how this law is enforced, it has come to be known as the “walking while trans” ban because arrests under this law disproportionately target and impact marginalized communities, in particular LGBTQ people, women of color and immigrants. Police disproportionately target transgender New Yorkers on the assumption that they are sex workers.

Special prosecutor legislation to strengthen and codify Executive Order 147. This legislation authorizes the attorney general’s office with jurisdiction in all cases of police killings and deaths in police custody. The bill, if enacted, would help to ensure fair and thorough investigations and – when warranted – effective prosecutions in tragic incidents that the criminal justice system has historically failed to address.

Additionally, we have to remember that we are fighting an entire carceral system, and if we don’t address the other aspects of the system, then the abuses by law enforcement that we see in black and brown communities will continue behind the walls of prisons and jails. And so we want this package to also include legislation like the HALT Solitary Confinement Act and the Elder Parole bill. As a nonpolicy issue, we want all electeds who have accepted campaign donations from law enforcement to donate all of those funds to black-led resistance efforts and community groups, and call on them to make public commitments to rejecting donations from law enforcement moving forward.

Rev. Michael Walrond: In a perfect world, in addition to the above policy changes, I would require police officers to reside in the communities they police. There have been numerous attempts to build stronger police and community relationships and partnerships, and many of these attempts have proven to be fruitful, but there is something to be said when residents can see police officers as neighbors instead of viewing them as interlopers. I am fully aware that many officers fear various forms of retaliation if they lived in the communities in which they police, but I am of the opinion that stronger bonds could be made and true community policing could take place.

Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.