The May 25 death of George Floyd – a Minneapolis man who suffocated with a policeman’s knee on his neck – has mobilized the public behind the cause of police reform, and the New York state Legislature has responded by passing long-delayed measures to increase transparency and accountability in policing. While it remains to be seen what will happen at the federal level, New York state began passing a package of legislation on June 8 that includes a legal prohibition on chokeholds by officers, new body camera requirements for local and state police and the repeal of 50-a, a state law that had prevented the public release of police disciplinary records. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to sign the bills into law later this week.
There were no guarantees that such reforms would happen just two weeks after Floyd died, but state lawmakers moved quickly in the days following his death to assemble a bill package from a list of more than two dozen ideas that were already before the state Legislature. These proposals that waited for years now suddenly had a mass movement behind them.
“There's no way on God's green earth that a few weeks ago, we could even think of having a unanimous vote on a bill called the ‘Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold bill,’” said state Sen. Brian Benjamin, who represents a Harlem-based district in uptown Manhattan.
The disproportionate effects of the coronavirus pandemic on black and Latino neighborhoods was already on the minds of state lawmakers in mid-May as members of the state Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus began resuming weekly meetings that had been interrupted by New York’s coronavirus outbreak. While NYPD enforcement of social distancing was already stirring controversy at the time, caucus members were initially focused on addressing public health issues highlighted in a May 18 joint legislative hearing, according to the caucus’s executive director, Kyle Ishmael. “I would have guessed we would have passed some more stuff to deal with the inequities in our health system,” Ishmael said of legislative priorities at the time. “Then Amy Cooper happened.”
Cooper, a white woman in Central Park, called 911 on the morning of May 25 after a black birdwatcher named Christian Cooper (no relation) told her to put her dog on a leash, as park rules require. "I'm going to tell them there's an African American man threatening my life,” she told the man, who was not near her and who did not threaten her life. The video exploded across the internet. To many, she was the latest privileged white person to weaponize the police against black people.
“There's no way on God's green earth that a few weeks ago, we could even think of having a unanimous vote on a bill called the ‘Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold bill.’” – state Sen. Brian Benjamin
As soon as he saw the video on his phone, Benjamin began considering what he could do to move a bill that he had already sponsored that would make race-based, fraudulent 911 calls a hate crime. Other lawmakers began pursuing similar efforts following the death of Floyd a few hours later.
The following days were a whirlwind of phone calls and texts among members of the caucus, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who have enormous power over what bills can move through their respective chambers. While the legislative leaders told lawmakers they were open to pursuing a new round of reforms, they would wait several more days before announcing their plans to reconvene the state Legislature in early June.
By then a few key things had happened. The ongoing protests showed that public outrage over the Floyd killing had staying power. Things only got more personal for black lawmakers following the May 29 pepper-spraying of state Sen. Zellnor Myrie and Assemblywoman Diana Richardson at a Brooklyn protest. “I was really hurt by it,” Richardson said in an interview. “New York needed to see that and New York needed to hear that and New York needed to act on what the people were calling for.”
With the usual opponents of police reform measures – police departments and officers’ unions – on the defensive, Cuomo stated on May 30 that he would sign the repeal of 50-a if it got to his desk. Some state lawmakers also took the lack of involvement of the governor on this issue as a sign that Cuomo would follow their lead on a broader set of reforms. “It’s a blank check,” state Sen. John Liu later said. “We’re going to write in a lot of zeroes.”
A list of 28 bills was compiled for a June 1 meeting of the Democratic Assembly and state Senate conferences. By the time it was over, both chambers had decided to do something, and Heastie and Stewart-Cousins announced later that night that state lawmakers would meet the following week to consider a package of police reforms – but they did not say which ones would make the cut. That would fall to the caucus. “They very much turned to us and said: “We want to see your list,” Ishmael said of legislative leaders. “It had to be a package – not just 50-a and we go home.”
Assemblywoman Tremaine Wright, who chairs the caucus, Assemblyman Clyde Vanel and Ishmael decided the following day to focus on 13 proposals that fell into four broad categories: police record transparency, misconduct prosecution, policing procedures and body cameras. This would not be the final list of bills that would get approved. Some would fall by the wayside in later days, as a working group including Assemblymen Walter Mosley, Phil Ramos, N. Nick Perry, Erik Dilan and Vanel continued refining the list.
Among the nixed proposals was the idea of transferring NYPD disciplinary proceedings to the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings. Benjamin’s 911 bill would get replaced by a proposal from Richardson that would make racially-based fraudulent emergency calls a civil offense (rather than a hate crime) while expanding the definition of offenses that can result in monetary damages. Other legislation from the original 28, like a controversial bill to decriminalize the crime of loitering for the purposes of prostitution – activists say this law has effectively allowed police harassment for people “walking while trans” – would not make it back onto the caucus’s list despite the calls of some activists.
“New York needed to see that and New York needed to hear that and New York needed to act on what the people were calling for.” – Assemblywoman Diana Richardson
Proposals to limit the use of solitary confinement in state prisons and to mandate the release of older inmates didn’t make the cut either. Even at a time when public opinion appeared to be on their side, state lawmakers were wary of taking on too much at one time, especially given the tricky politics of dealing with police reform in an election year. “I would say there were definitely lessons learned from bail reform,” Ishmael added. This included the futility of confronting a governor whose powers are at their peak during the budget process. The public backlash to bail reform also underscored the importance of keeping things as simple as possible in order to maintain public support.
“One of the things we will be doing in the next three days is really clarifying in many ways what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in policing,” Stewart-Cousins told WNYC as the voting began on the final package of bills. “Police have had the ability in many ways to construct their own rules.”
In the end, a total of 11 bills passed both houses. Some of them received bipartisan support, like the chokehold ban and a proposal codifying the right to record the police. Others, like the 50-a repeal and a bill establishing the office of special investigation within the office of the attorney general, faced much more opposition from Republicans and police unions. Some GOP lawmakers likened the idea of releasing disciplinary records to inviting the assassination of NYPD officers – though some personal information like home addresses and phone numbers could still not be released under the new law.
Taken as a whole, the passage of the package also marked a turning point for the relationship between the Legislature and a governor who had grown increasingly powerful since the coronavirus struck New York three months ago. After watching the governor largely determine the state political agenda during the pandemic, Democratic state lawmakers are now reasserting their legislative power in a way that has not been seen since Democrats outmaneuvered the governor last year to pass ambitious expansions of rent regulations and a bill allowing undocumented New Yorkers to get driver’s licenses.
The Legislature’s political comeback began with two mid-May hearings on COVID-19 issues and continued later in the month as lawmakers passed a litany of bills addressing the pandemic, including bills aimed at preventing price gouging on personal protective equipment and banning utilities from shutting off services during public health emergencies. Such proposals were much less controversial than police reform, a fact that highlights just how far Democratic lawmakers have come in recent weeks. Just a few months ago, Democratic lawmakers were playing defence on bail reform. Now, criminal justice reforms are once again a political asset rather than a liability.
That does not mean that state lawmakers have solved the problems of police misconduct once and for all. Both Heastie and Stewart-Cousins have said the legislating will continue this year and Democrats are already considering additional measures to rein in the power of law enforcement – including proposed bans on the use of tear gas at political demonstrations. The legislative leaders have also suggested they will likely reconvene their chambers over the summer to address other issues like potential budget cuts to public schools, taxes and the parochial issues that are important to lawmakers’ districts.
A multibillion dollar state budget shortfall, the ongoing pandemic and a fiscally conservative governor will not make it easy to address such issues through the legislative process. But that can always change in the constantly evolving world of state politics – as long as state lawmakers seize the moment whenever it comes. “Sometimes, things happen in the normal course of politics and government where it just opens people’s eyes,” Heastie told reporters on June 8. “What some people believed was a tough issue (can) finally see the light of day.”
Correction: Due to erroneous information from a source, this story included the incorrect date of a phone call between state Senate staff and the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus.