Defying Police Unions, New York Lawmakers Ban Chokeholds

Legislators, responding to protests over the death of George Floyd, are approving a package of bills aimed at police misconduct.

Inspired by the protests sweeping the state and nation, New York legislative leaders on Monday began to approve an expansive package of bills targeting police misconduct, defying longstanding opposition from law enforcement groups, including police unions.

The measures range from a ban on the use of chokeholds to the repeal of an obscure decades-old statute that has effectively hidden the disciplinary records of police officers from public view, making it virtually impossible for victims to know whether a particular officer has a history of abuse.

The legislation marks one of the most substantial policy changes to result from the nearly two weeks of national unrest that followed George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, including in New York City, where tens of thousands of protesters participated in mostly peaceful marches to demand more police accountability.

The proposals signify a turning-point in Albany. Many of the policy changes being voted on this week languished for years because of opposition from influential police and corrections unions that contribute generously to the campaigns of elected officials — a tactic that had great effect in the State Senate, which has traditionally been under Republican control.

But Democrats assumed control of the full Legislature last year for the first time in nearly a decade, clearing the way for lawmakers to pass some of the law enforcement bills on Monday. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, said on Monday he supported the bills and intended to sign them into law.

The pressure on elected officials to enact police reforms has reverberated across the nation.

Officials in Minneapolis moved to ban chokeholds and pledged to disband its police department. In Congress, Democrats plan to unveil expansive legislation this week to combat racial bias and excessive use of force by law enforcement. On Sunday, Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed for the first time to cut funding for the New York Police Department.

The protests in New York, which in some cases included violent clashes between the police and demonstrators, sparked a groundswell of support that seemed unlikely just a few weeks ago, placing unavoidable pressure on state and city lawmakers who were already consumed with the deadly coronavirus outbreak.

In one such clash, a police officer was recorded on video shoving a female protester to the ground and was heard calling her a “bitch.” The officer, who has been identified by elected officials as Vincent D’Andraia, is expected to be arrested on Tuesday and face prosecution by the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, according to three law enforcement officials.

Officer D’Andraia, who has already been suspended without pay, is expected to face misdemeanor charges of assault, harassment and menacing over the May 29 incident, one of the officials said. The protester, Dounya Zayer, 20, has said she suffered a concussion and seizures as a result of the attack.

The pending arrest lies in stark contrast to the aftermath of Eric Garner’s death on Staten Island after a police officer held him in a chokehold in 2014.

The New York City Council soon introduced a bill to criminalize chokeholds by the police; after a Staten Island grand jury refused to approve criminal charges against the officers involved in Mr. Garner’s death, the measure gained momentum.

But in December 2014, as anger against the police heightened, two police officers were assassinated in an attack that many officers thought had been inspired by anti-police rhetoric after Mr. Garner’s death. Mayor de Blasio, in danger of losing the support of the rank-and-file police and their unions, threatened to veto the legislation.

The bill, which has languished since, now has enough support to overcome a mayoral veto, and will come to a vote on June 18. It would make the use of chokeholds by members of the New York Police Department a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Rory I. Lancman, a councilman from Queens and the primary sponsor of the city’s chokehold bill, said that when he saw video of Mr. Floyd’s death, he immediately recalled Mr. Garner’s death, and his repeated utterances of “I can’t breathe.”

“There was the same feeling of helplessness and wanting to jump in the screen and push that officer off him,” Mr. Lancman said.

Mr. Lancman’s bill has been expanded this year because of the way in which Mr. Floyd was killed. It will prohibit any action that “restricts the flow of air or blood by compressing the windpipe, diaphragm, or the carotid arteries” in the effort to make an arrest.

The State Legislature on Monday passed its own bill banning police chokeholds; the “Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act” characterizes police chokeholds as “aggravated strangulation” and classifies that as a Class C felony.

Prosecutors would have to meet a higher threshold to charge an officer with a felony, compared to a misdemeanor, and prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer’s intent was to block a person’s breathing in order to get a conviction. They could, theoretically, charge an officer with both a chokehold misdemeanor and felony.

But another policing bill has been even more contentious: State lawmakers received thousands of emails in recent days urging them to repeal a 1970s-era law in the state’s civil code known as 50-a, which prohibits the release of “all personnel records used to evaluate performance” of police officers without permission from the officer or a judge.

Under Mayor de Blasio, the New York Police Department fought in court to expand the interpretation of the law so that it shielded the results of disciplinary hearings against individual officers.

Calls to repeal the law escalated after Mr. Garner’s death at the hands of Daniel Pantaleo, a police officer whose litany of misconduct complaints was kept secret for years. Mr. Pantaleo, whose records were eventually leaked following an unsuccessful lawsuit to make them public, was fired last year after an administrative judge found him guilty of violating a department ban on chokeholds.

Legislation to repeal or modify the law, however, never gained significant traction in the State Capitol.

Assemblyman Daniel J. O’Donnell, a Democrat from Manhattan who sponsored the bill to repeal the law, said that while public defenders and activists supported it, most ordinary citizens were unaware of the bill, and momentum never coalesced.

That changed as New Yorkers learned recently of past misconduct complaints lodged against Derek Chauvin, the white police officer whose actions led to the death of Mr. Floyd, who was black. The records became public because Minnesota does not have a law barring the disclosure of such records; New York is one of the few remaining states with such a secrecy law.

“The biggest problem in our nation now is the lack of trust between policing authorities and the policed,” said Mr. O’Donnell, who first introduced the bill in 2015. “This is one way that would go a long way in restoring that.”

The move to repeal the law drew forceful opposition from the state’s powerful police unions, which argued that the changes could lead to reputational harm if complaints of misconduct that have not been substantiated were allowed to be released.

Union officials, including those from the Police Benevolent Association, which represents 40,000 active and retired New York City police officers, said lawmakers were voting with little deliberation and in the shadow of a pandemic and civil unrest.

“Beyond any specific policy changes, the overall impact of this legislative effort is to foster a view of law enforcement officers as alien agents of hostile power, whose authority can be disregarded or actively opposed at will,” a coalition of unions representing law enforcement officers wrote in a memo of opposition.

Carl Heastie, the Democratic speaker of the Assembly, said that the bills were not anti-police, but that the killing of Mr. Floyd was a breaking point for many lawmakers.

“Sometimes things happen, that even in the normal course of politics and governing, where it just opens people’s eyes,” he said during a news conference in Albany on Monday.

Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, said law enforcement has operated under “rules they set for themselves” for far too long.

“If I’ve got 20 accusations of excessive force that are unsubstantiated, that’s got to be a red flag, one way or the other,” she said in an interview. “We can no longer afford complaint after complaint built up on your record and then nobody does anything about it. That’s over.”

Mr. de Blasio has said he supports reforming, not repealing the law, with certain safeguards to protect officers’ privacy.

Mr. Cuomo, following years of remaining mostly noncommittal on the issue, threw his support behind repeal, acknowledging it would infuriate law enforcement unions.

Lawmakers will vote later this week on 50-a and on a bill that would require state police officers to wear body cameras.

Other law-enforcement bills passed on Monday included legislation to require courts to compile and publish racial and demographic data on low-level offenders. Another measure would enshrine in law the special prosecutor’s office to investigate police killings, which was created by executive order in 2015.

Another bill entitled people to “a private right of action” if they believed someone called a police officer on them because of their race, gender, nationality or any other protected class. The bill was a direct response to incidents of black people being falsely reported to the police, including the encounter caught on video last month of a white woman falsely claiming in a 911 call that a black birder was threatening her.

“I really don’t want to lose this moment,” said State Senator Kevin Parker, a Democrat from Brooklyn who introduced the bill. “The rate of protests is not sustainable indefinitely, so it’s important to get as much as we can during this period.”