As people protested around the country in response to the death of George Floyd, the nation has seen video after video of police tear gassing, shoving, and shooting at protestors. At massive protests in New York, a police van drove through a protest, and one officer even pulled a handgun on protestors in Manhattan’s Union Square.
Even before these most recent protests, Communities United for Police Reform—a campaign focused on ending discriminatory policing practices across New York City—had been working on a proposal to change the way New York is policed. But the Safer NY Act, a package of five bills already in the New York State legislature, has suddenly become even more relevant. Together, the bills would increase transparency and accountability in policing. Particularly, they aim to benefit communities of color and the underrepresented, who are frequently targeted by draconian police tactics and arbitrary force.
The bills include the Police-STAT Act, a bill that has passed for four consecutive years in the New York State Assembly, but is yet to make it through the state Senate. It would require police departments statewide to record and report data on the demographics and geographic location of people apprehended for low-level offenses, and people who die in police custody, in order to find accurate data about racial disparities in police responses. It’s a bill that emerged as a recommendation of President Obama’s 21st Century Policing task force, set up after the Ferguson unrest in 2014.
The Safer NY Act also calls for the repeal of a statute of the state’s Civil Rights Law, Section 50-a, which permits police departments to refuse to disclose the “personnel records used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion.” This means that defendants or people suing the police aren’t able to find out if police officers have a history of complaints for excessive force or misconduct. The campaign says the repeal would allow more “transparency on police misconduct and discipline.” On Saturday, Governor Cuomo announced his support of the repeal, saying he would sign it as soon as the bill reached his desk. And, in a Sunday New York Times opinion piece, editorial board member Mara Gay recommended it as one of the key steps toward reform the NYPD.
The other components are the strengthening of Executive Order 147, which gives the attorney general jurisdiction in all police killings and deaths in police custody; the Marijuana Taxation and Regulation Act, which would legalize marijuana, ending its longtime association with the War on Drugs and its outsize targeting of minorities; and a bill that calls to reduce arrests for non-criminal offenses, which also tend to target racial minorities.
The package of bills has been endorsed by numerous groups that work with the campaign, including the New York’s NAACP chapter, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and other civil rights groups such as the Transgender Law Center, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and the Arab-American Association of New York. Public figures, such as New York Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, have expressed support, especially of the repeal of 50-a. But, it’s previously been met by pushback by police unions, which claim it would expose law enforcement, as well as firefighters and corrections officers, to undue scrutiny.
Still, there’s hope that this week’s events will have an impact on the passage of the Safer NY Act, and similar legislative efforts around the country. Progressive attorney and political candidate Zephyr Teachout, Cuomo’s gubernatorial opponent in 2014, today tweeted that, since Democrats control the New York Senate and Assembly, they should reconvene this week and be able to pass the entirety of the act.
On Saturday, a campaign spokesperson, Anthonine Pierre, expressed similar sentiments in a statement. “The violence experienced by New Yorkers last night at the hands of police is unacceptable and it is not an isolated incident,” she said. “We call on Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins and Speaker Heastie to immediately reconvene the legislative session and pass Senator Bailey and Assemblyman O’Donnell’s bill to repeal 50-a. No modifications, tweaks, or amendments are acceptable.”