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'Break in the Dam': New York Sees Flood of Long-Stalled Police Reforms in Response to Outcry

Eric Garner police reform NYPD

Eric Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, at a recent press conference (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

New York, and the nation, was teetering on the edge when it was suddenly and violently pushed over it on May 25, as George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota by police officer Derek Chauvin. It was an incident as shocking as it was familiar, an unarmed Black man dying at the hands of a police officer with the episode caught on video and broadcast to millions of people.

“I can’t breathe,” Floyd cried out, as Chauvin knelt on his back and neck for nearly nine minutes and three other officers either helped restrain the man or simply stood by while he was clearly in distress. It was eerily familiar to the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island six years ago. Garner uttered those same words and his death was met with similar anger and protests.

But even though Garner was killed here, the levers of power in New York did not move with the same urgency then as they have now.

No one could have predicted what would happen after Floyd’s death. The country was in the middle of a historic pandemic, suffering from skyrocketing unemployment and an unprecedented fiscal crisis that further revealed and exacerbated the inequities suffered by Black and brown Americans. Almost overnight, there was an immense outpouring of anger and unrest as tens if not hundreds of thousands of people marched and rallied against the abuses of law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and society at large every day for weeks.

What would eventually become the largest movement in the country’s history, and which is still continuing to this day, ushered in a seismic shift and, here in New York, prompted the passage of long-delayed legislation on police reform, some of which had languished since after Garner’s death, new executive measures on accountability at the state and city levels, and significantly shifted conversations about municipal budgets and the people and programs they prioritize. 

“I feel like it is a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Reverend Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network and a longtime civil rights leader, in a phone interview, adding he feels a “guarded” sense of progress. “I’m just making sure that it’s sunlight and not the train coming.”

“It’s been a stunning couple of months,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, reflecting on all the action taken at the city and state levels.

Elected officials were spurred into action, from Governor Andrew Cuomo and members of the State Legislature -- which is led by two Black officials, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins -- to Mayor Bill de Blasio and members of the City Council, led by Speaker Corey Johnson. They said they realized the necessity of responding to the moment and acted accordingly, even if their actions left some activists wanting.

Among the laws that passed were those criminalizing chokeholds by police officers, allowing officer disciplinary records to be made public, standardizing NYPD disciplinary action, mandating disclosure of police surveillance technology, tracking enforcement of low-level offenses by demographics, creating a new hate crime category for filing a false police report based on race, and much more.

“We’ve been trying to do this for years,” said David Galarza, an activist with the New York Justice Committee. “These are movement victories,” he added, calling them nothing short of “monumental.”

Even as some like Galarza are taking stock, the totality of the sweep cannot yet be appreciated, as new laws must be implemented and enforced, executive orders are still being carried out, investigations of police conduct are ongoing, and many, many promises must be kept. And the changes have been met with fierce resistance from members of law enforcement and their close allies, including within the NYPD and leaders of police labor unions, as well as elected officials on the right and center.

For activists, the mass protests helped accomplish in a few weeks what they had sought through years of advocacy. It took five years, after all, for Officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose chokehold killed Eric Garner, to be fired. Repeatedly disappointed in politicians who either opposed their demands or only offered piecemeal concessions, activists -- including mothers and other relatives of Black men killed by police officers -- were now achieving victories that would have seemed unimaginable just a few months ago. Elected officials who had more often than not acted to obstruct or water down police reforms were now bending over backwards to expedite them.

“You have to wonder in the stillness of the night, if we didn’t have the pandemic and everyone’s attention, would they have moved?,” Sharpton said.

The conditions of the pandemic, said Mark Winston-Griffith, a longtime civil rights activist and executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, “created this perfect storm where people had the anger, the bandwidth, the motivation, the focus to take to the streets in a way that was somewhat unprecedented.”

Winston-Griffith, who has been active in central Brooklyn and beyond for decades, pointed to the participation of people who were previously far removed from the justice movement, particularly the involvement of white people. “Ordinary people suddenly became politicized, suddenly got the courage to even utter the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ and were able to consider things that have never been considered before,” he said, citing the debate around defunding police.

In the past months, words like “abolish” and “defund” went from the mouths of activists to the vocabulary of a much larger swathe of the general public. Black Lives Matter, a movement supported by a majority of Americans and already a household term, was now ubiquitous in every form of media. “These notions are things that would have reflexively been rejected before,” said Winston-Griffith, as he reflected on the historic events and how the Overton window shifted to the left on policing and public safety.

Further cementing the very core of the movement’s demands was that the official response to the protests, even in “progressive” New York City, often resembled authoritarian impulses of repressive regimes, with the NYPD repeatedly reinforcing activists’ complaints about brutal policing. Officers often acted as if with impunity, violently cracking down on demonstrations, largely with public approval from Mayor de Blasio, who variously defended his police department while promising to investigate and discipline any misconduct.

As de Blasio repeatedly turned a blind eye to unambiguous evidence that officers had crossed the bounds of permissible behavior, except in select instances where he said he did not like what he had seen, protestors and their supporters -- including many elected officials -- only grew more enraged.

“The veneer of invincibility, impunity has been peeled away,” said Lieberman. “That’s huge because what Black people have known, have lived now part of the consciousness of people of all races and ethnicity and that’s an important foundation for progress.”

“I’m glad I lived to see the day that we start seeing the break in the dam,” Sharpton said, “but I wish George Floyd had lived to see that day, I wish others had lived to see that day.”

Sweeping Sets of Stalled Bills Move Through Albany and City Hall
Within a month of the protests, elected officials at the city and state levels advanced legislation that had long languished and embraced ideas that activists had repeatedly fought for.  

“This is undeniable progress in bending the arc of history a little bit towards justice,” said Lieberman, who spoke of the exasperation that marked decades of incremental progress. “At times, you feel like you’re yelling into the void and there’s no way that people are ever going to get it.”

The state Legislature passed a package of bills that were the most consequential police reforms that New York has seen in decades. On June 12, Governor Cuomo signed what he called the “Say Their Name” agenda, a title meant to evoke the many victims of deadly police violence like Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, Georgia, and Garner here in New York — among many others. The pieces of the package mostly had not been Cuomo priorities in the past, but were on the agendas of certain activists and legislators.

The State Legislature quickly passed and the governor signed a long list of bills, even beyond what Cuomo included in the “Say Their Name” agenda.

The state approved the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act, which criminalized the use of chokeholds by police officers if such use leads to “serious injury or death.” Another significant measure repealed Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights law, which had shielded police officers’ disciplinary records from public disclosure. (The New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board, a city entity that investigates allegations of NYPD officer misconduct and abuse of power, quickly announced it will create a database to make those records available online.)

“We’re tearing down, finally, the wall of secrecy that the NYPD, and other police departments across the state, have used to hide behind to protect abusive police officers,” Galarza said.

Also among the package was a bill that codified a Cuomo executive order appointing the state Attorney General as a special prosecutor in incidents where an unarmed civilian is killed by police. Another was dubbed the ‘Amy Cooper’ bill, which makes it a hate crime to make false 911 calls that are race-based. The bill was prompted by a recent incident of a white woman who called police on a Black man, Christian Cooper, in Central Park when he confronted her about leashing her dog. Her apparent attempt to weaponize his race against him, telling the police that a Black man was threatening her, led to a broad public outcry and even charges of filing a false report by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance.

The governor also signed the Police Statistics and Transparency Act (STAT), which mandates that courts collect racial and demographic data on low-level offenses and publish it online every month. It also requires police departments to disclose any deaths during an arrest to the Department of Criminal Justice Services, with a report due every year to the legislature and governor.

Other new laws require prompt reporting by officers when they discharge their weapons and one that requires that people in custody are given medical and mental health assistance when needed.

The governor also signed into law bills to require State Police patrol officers to wear body cameras and another to create the Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigative Office under the state Department of Law. The office will be tasked with investigating complaints of misconduct against any local law enforcement agency.

“Black New Yorkers, like all residents of this state, deserve to know that their rights, and lives, are valued and protected by our justice system,” said Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester Democrat, at the June 12 bill-signing. “The legislation that will be signed today will help stop bad actors and send a clear message that brutality, racism, and unjustified killings will not be tolerated.”

At the bill-signing, Cuomo called on the federal government to pass criminal justice reforms. But he also insisted that “New York State is the progressive capital. We never sit back and say just what the nation should do, we show the nation what it should do. We lead by example and we lead by getting it done. We are a state of action and that's us at our best.”

Activists, however, have expressed frustration that elected officials like Cuomo and many in the State Legislature and elsewhere only showed the willingness to get things done once it became too politically risky to not do so.

Constance Malcolm’s son, Ramarley Graham, was shot and killed by a police officer in the Bronx in 2012, and she has spent years rallying and marching for better, more accountable policing. “It's important to understand that the murder of George Floyd sparked uprisings across the country but police violence and systematic racism are not new issues,” she said in a phone interview.

Malcolm is among many other New Yorkers who have similarly lost family members at the hands of police and who work with the Justice Committee, a grassroots organization, to push for institutional reform. Gwen Carr, Eric Garner's mother, has also been active with the group, and worked to put pressure on elected officials to pass reforms. Malcolm noted how some, like Iris Baez, the mother of Anthony Baez, who was killed by a police officer in 1994, have had to endure the same pain for so much longer.

“These are movement victories, not his doing,” Malcolm said of the governor. “In fact, Cuomo fought us every step of the way on these bills.”

“It’s sad to see that we’ve been fighting for so long, marching, protesting for this change and it took George Floyd’s death to really wake people up,” she added. “The same words that Eric Garner screamed and yelled...are the words that this man said before he died and it took his death to spark changes.”

In New York City, the City Council simultaneously passed a package of six bills that were not only a response to long-standing demands from advocates but also addressed issues that had arisen in the NYPD’s crackdown on protests.

The Council had its own chokehold bill, which was controversially amended after Floyd’s death to include a prohibition against an officer compressing an individual’s diaphragm during an arrest, and goes further than the state law in that and other ways, such as by criminalizing any instance where an officer uses a chokehold. Chokeholds have long been banned under NYPD policy but they will now be considered Class A misdemeanors. The bill also criminalizes other forms of restraint that place pressure on an individual’s back or neck that could prevent them from breathing or stop blood from reaching the brain.

Eric Garner Gwen Carr City Council“As God as my witness, I never want to see another human being cry out ‘I can’t breathe’ as their life is choked or squeezed out of them by a police officer,” said Council Member Rory Lancman, a Queens Democrat who sponsored the chokehold bill, shortly before its passage on June 18. Lancman first introduced a version of the chokehold bill soon after Garner’s death in 2014. Carr has appeared with him all along the way to fight for its passage, as well as her advocacy for firing Pantaleo and the passage of other reforms in Albany.

“This isn’t a radical idea,” Lancman said. “The NYPD banned chokeholds as a matter of policy nearly three decades ago. Tell that to Anthony Baez. Tell that to Eric Garner. Tell that to the hundreds of New Yorkers who filed chokehold complaints with the [CCRB] in the years after Eric Garner’s death. Someone must police the police.”

The NYPD pushed back and lobbied hard against the diaphragm provision, with top brass claiming that they otherwise supported the bill despite their past opposition to it. After years of his own opposition to the prior version of the bill, de Blasio changed his tune amid the protests sparked by Floyd’s killing.

When he signed the bill into law at a celebratory event in the Bronx, after painting a Black Lives Matter mural, de Blasio recognized the NYPD concerns and, in an especially rare statement, indicated lawmakers might need to be open to amending the law.

“I am signing this bill, because I believe we can make it work,” de Blasio said. “I believe we can find a way to hear those real concerns, to keep people safe, to retrain our officers the right way,” he said. “But I also believe that we need to acknowledge those concerns, because they’re saying in the effort to keep us safe, they want to make sure they can do their job on our behalf, and I take that as an honest concern. So, we will work together. We will make these pieces of legislation work together. As with all legislation, if something happens that’s unintended, we will name it, and we will determine how to act together.”

The Council also approved another bill that was the subject of significant NYPD pushback, which appeared to keep both off the Council’s calendar for years, the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act, which requires the NYPD to disclose the types of surveillance tools it uses and the privacy safeguards it has in place to protect the public.

The bill package also addressed accountability issues at the NYPD, requiring the creation of an internal disciplinary matrix to standardize discipline meted out to police officers for wrongdoing and improving the Early Intervention System that tracks officer behavior to prevent misconduct and flag those who need additional training or perhaps another line of work.

Other measures that had been introduced in the past seemed particularly pertinent after the NYPD’s actions during the protests – one, sponsored by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, affirms the right of the public to record police activity and another requires that officers display their badges at all times. Repeatedly during demonstrations in the city, officers had attempted to interfere with members of the public and even press who sought to capture their actions on video. Dozens of officers also covered their badge numbers with black bands, a clear violation of NYPD policy. 

“Because of the advocates who pushed this need for years, we are now codifying the right to record into city law, further protecting the ability for the public to provide transparency and demand accountability as we move forward together in a holistic strategy to have safer streets and better policing at the same time,” said Williams, in a statement after the bill was signed. “We cannot give into the false and destructive notion that communities must choose between accountability and transparency in policing or safer streets. The people of this city deserve both. Working together, we can provide it.”

BLM de Blasio signingMayor de Blasio signed all the bills into law on July 15. ”Every time we do these things, we are saying Black lives matter in a tangible and real way,” he said. “Now, we’ve only begun and we have to do more, because...the day has to come where every interaction a New Yorker has with a police officer is filled with neutral respect. That is what neighborhood policing is building...It has to be done, and these bills will help us do it, because they will create more trust and more accountability.”

Promises from Executives
In the wake of the protests, both Cuomo and de Blasio took executive steps aimed at improving police discipline and tactics.

In mid-June, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea disbanded the 600-officer plainclothes anti-crime unit, which targeted getting illegal guns off the street, but was known for its aggressive tactics and was involved in a disproportionate number of shooting deaths of civilians, Shea explained.

Two days after that announcement, the mayor unveiled a set of reforms to the department’s disciplinary system that would ensure that officers would be disciplined faster, discipline decisions would be made public, and that body camera footage would be released in a timely manner. However, the department has been slow to implement previously promised reforms and has missed several of its own deadlines to do so. 

“I came into office with a promise to fundamentally change the way this city is policed - and that’s exactly what we’ve tried to do,” the mayor said in a statement accompanying the announcement. “Historic wounds run deep and we know much work lies ahead, but we won’t give up. This is another step in the right direction and we’re not stopping here.”

As de Blasio has announced these measures and his recalcitrant support for Council legislation, he’s also repeatedly argued that his administration has made significant progress in improving policing and police-community relations over his six-and-a-half years in office. He points to a major reduction in stop-and-frisk, an immense reduction in arrests and summonses, fewer complaints about police officer misconduct, and the new paradigm of neighborhood policing. But, the mayor remains committed to so-called “broken windows” policing that focuses on enforcement against low-level, quality-of-life offenses, which his critics say continues to disproportionately harm communities of color, and data on various fronts has repeatedly showed drastically disproportionate enforcement by race, from marijuana arrests or summonses to those for social distancing during the pandemic.

At the same time, Commissioner Shea has been decidedly opposed to how far the recent reforms have gone, in part blaming them and the protests for an increase in gun violence in the city. “I think if you examine New York City there has been a chipping away of tools that the NYPD uses, and I think those discussions are good and I think they’re helpful and I think you have to examine each one and what’s the impact on public safety,” he said in a CNN interview on July 16. “And I think that we have gone too far, I think we’ve crossed the tipping point on many levels in terms of taking tools away from the police in these last two months, it's just a completely different situation, where it’s a toxic environment.”

[Read: De Blasio Says He’s Reformed the NYPD and Improved Police-Community Relations. The Reality is Complicated.]

As with Cuomo, de Blasio’s rhetoric rings hollow to some who have spent their lives pursuing the cause of social justice, particularly after the passage of the recent city budget. Advocates had wanted the mayor and City Council to cut $1 billion from the NYPD’s roughly $6 billion annual operating funding, but the final agreement made relatively minor cuts, offers a planned reduction in police overtime that is, based on past performance, highly unlikely to be met, and included a deal to shift school safety out of the police department’s purview and back to the Department of Education, over the course of multiple years.

“He should never have been mayor in the first place,” Constance Malcolm said. “He said he cut $1 billion from the NYPD budget and we know that’s a lie. He’s proved time and time again that we can’t trust him. And then you have elected officials that say they’re protecting Black and brown people in our community when they voted against the budget cuts.”

Also in mid-June, Cuomo signed an executive order, titled “New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative,” mandating that all police departments across the state adopt a plan, approved by the state, by April 1 of next year that “reinvents and modernizes police strategies and programs in their community based on community input.” If any police department fails to comply, it would risk losing state funding (though that funding is a very small portion of the NYPD budget).

Cuomo said localities must bring stakeholders around the table and should discuss a total reinvention of policing as they see fit, arguing that community voices must be heard and made to believe they are designing public safety. At the same time, he disparaged those calling for defunding the police by $1 billion as lacking clear demands for moving forward, though many of the activists and groups do subscribe to certain visions for the future of policing and public safety.

Winston-Griffith noted that the governor’s past actions undermine his newfound enthusiasm for change. Earlier this year, the governor was among those leading a push to roll back an extensive reform passed last year that had banned cash bail for most nonviolent offenses. “In the beginning part of this year, we saw an onslaught on the whole notion of bail reform,” Winston-Griffith said. “Just as the pandemic was breaking, we were fighting the governor because he spearheaded the repeal of bail reform, which essentially meant he was looking to put more people behind bars, to keep them there even in the midst of this pandemic. I don’t think that would have happened in May or June.”

Ongoing and Next Debates
Activists say their fight is far from over, particularly as they worry about the pushback against a movement that has gained much ground, especially amid an increase in gun violence in the city, growing criticism of the reforms, and calls for the NYPD to be re-empowered. 

Winston-Griffith said the push for cutting funds from the NYPD and reinvesting them in communities of color will continue in the next budget cycle. “It sets us up for a fight in next year's budget, where the concept of ‘defund’ has already been introduced,” he said.

Council Speaker Johnson, who conceded that he was “disappointed” with the scope of cuts in this year’s budget after arguing for a true $1 billion cut to the NYPD, has also indicated that that debate has not come to an end. “I think we were able to do a lot of good in this budget, and I look at this as really the beginning, not the end,” Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat who plans to run for mayor in next year’s election, told Gotham Gazette in a recent interview. Johnson said publicly that he was sorry it took Floyd’s death to get the Council to move the chokehold bill, and others, introduced after Garner’s death.

“American politics is a pendulum that swings back and forth,” said Sharpton. “And while it has started to look like it is swinging our way, we need to get much more done...because if it swings back the other way, the only thing that will protect us is if laws are in place.”

Sharpton said the next battle is at the federal level, where Democrats have announced similar sweeping police reform proposals that Republicans have resisted.

“We can’t stop until these laws are national, federal laws and that all 50 states are subject to those laws...We have the Eric Garner law in New York State on chokeholds, but if you go through the Holland Tunnel to New Jersey, that doesn’t cover you,” he said.

The pushback that Sharpton spoke of has already been underway, or rather, is a persistent factor. In the city, calls to cut $1 billion from the NYPD budget weren’t fully met, and divided the City Council that includes 47 Democrats and three Republicans, with one empty seat, exposing complicated fault lines among the majority, with many Black and Latino members supportive of the budget deal, not clamoring for a blanket defunding of the NYPD, while also insisting on legislating reforms.

Law enforcement unions, in particular, have sought to curtail or reverse efforts at reform, often with misleading and incendiary rhetoric, warning that changes will lead to a return to “the bad old days” when crime was rampant. Though there is no clear connection to the reforms being passed, they point to a recent increase in crime citywide, particularly shootings, as proof of their warnings.

City Council Member Joe Borelli, a Staten Island Republican, voted against the recently approved city budget because of the cuts to the NYPD. “I think 2020 will be a marked moment when the pendulum began swinging back in the other direction after three decades of violent crime reduction,” he said in an interview. “Holding police accountable is important. It’s something the NYPD has long done but we will look back at this moment as a time when we reversed 30 years of good work from police and Democratic and Republican elected officials.”

He particularly opposes the city’s ‘chokehold bill,’ which would criminalize any arrest maneuver where an officer compresses a person’s diaphragm and many police officials and their allies have come to call the ‘diaphragm bill.’ Borelli echoed the NYPD and police union belief that it makes it impossible for officers to arrest a person who is resisting. “It changes the balance of criminality in the types of struggles that occur every single day between police officers and those they are trying to arrest,” he said.

“I challenge the mayor and any member of the City Council to put handcuffs on me without violating this rule. Show me how it’s done,” he added. The former Assembly member said he would have voted for the State Legislature’s proposal, which is less restrictive.  

There are also criminal justice proposals at the state and city levels that have gathered new momentum, such as a bill that would require that juveniles be allowed to speak with a lawyer before being interrogated by police officers, measures to end solitary confinement, expand elder parole, and more.

After being asked by Governor Cuomo to do so, Attorney General Letitia James is currently leading an investigation of the NYPD’s actions towards protesters during demonstrations in the city, with an eye towards systemic reforms. On July 8, she issued a preliminary report, which recommended, among other things, the creation of a commission to oversee the NYPD with the power to select and terminate the commissioner and other members of department leadership. James said her investigation of the NYPD’s tactics is ongoing, but that given the clear lack of trust many New Yorkers have in the police, she thought it was essential to offer broader reform proposals before her review is complete.

The Democratic leaders of the State Assembly and Senate have pledged to continue to pursue more reforms. “We know that this is the beginning, but it's a move to bring justice to a system that has long been unjust,” said Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins at the June 12 bill-signing held by Cuomo.

"The Assembly Majority has fought tirelessly over the years to deliver meaningful and necessary criminal justice reforms for our state. This year, our members answered the call from people from across New York and the country by passing sweeping law enforcement reforms that will build on the gains we have made,” said Speaker Heastie, in a statement. “We have accomplished a great deal, but we know our work is not finished. We will continue fighting to improve police and community relations, and to create a more fair and equitable system for all people.”

There are several other pieces of policy that advocates also want to pursue, said NYCLU’s Lieberman, including legalizing recreational marijuana (and investing the revenue in communities of color), eliminating the police’s enforcement of “walking while trans,” and removing cops from schools, as well as prison reforms like banning solitary confinement.

“These are the bills that could’ve and should’ve been passed as part of a fundamental change agenda by the State Legislature,” she said. “They speak to the moment. They’re about undoing injustice and bending New York towards justice and they’re yet to be done. So there’s work to do.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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