New York Lawmakers Pass Bills to Change Police Practices

Measures include criminalizing use of chokeholds and repealing a 40-year-old statute that shields police disciplinary records.

ALBANY, N.Y.—New York state lawmakers began acting Monday on a package of bills in response to continuing protests over police violence, including a measure that will make officer disciplinary records more transparent.

The state Assembly and Senate, both controlled by Democrats, took up the first of 11 bills Monday afternoon. Legislation was completed over the weekend after talks between the legislative houses and with outside advocacy groups.

The agenda includes measures to criminalize the use of chokeholds by police, to require departments to publicize more data on enforcement, to specify that the state attorney general will act as a special prosecutor in instances of police violence and to repeal a 40-year-old statute. Known as 50-a, it kept police disciplinary records hidden from public view.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said Monday that he would sign the bills as soon as they are passed. He said they put New York at the front of a national movement that erupted after the death of George Floyd, a black Minneapolis man killed in police custody after an officer knelt on his neck.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat from the Bronx, invoked Mr. Floyd’s name during a Monday press conference.

“From New York to Minneapolis to cities across the globe, people everywhere are calling for action,” Mr. Heastie said. “They’re tired of seeing people victimized by a system and culture that too often judges them by the color of their skin.”

The highest-profile measure would fully repeal Section 50-a of the state’s Civil Rights law. That rule has been cited by public–safety agencies—including the New York State Police—in refusing to release the disciplinary files of officers.

The bill, which is scheduled for a Tuesday floor vote, adds a specific definition of law-enforcement disciplinary records to the state’s existing Freedom of Information Law. That revision states that any law-enforcement agency responding to a public-records request must redact personal medical and contact information of an officer.

The bill says a law-enforcement agency may redact police discipline records that relate to “technical infractions.” Those are defined as minor rule violations that don’t involve interactions with the public, aren’t of public concern and aren’t otherwise connected to investigative, enforcement, training-supervision or reporting responsibilities.

Police unions said they oppose the legislation. In a Friday memorandum to lawmakers, unions including the Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York—which represents New York Police Department officers—said the legislation was rushed. They said that repealing 50-a could compromise officer safety.

“We are further concerned that the intent behind the purported legislative agenda appears to be to destroy the morale of law enforcement, to subvert our rights and standing in the community, and to expose us to increased risk,” the unions wrote.

Republicans in the state legislature have typically backed police unions. State Sen. Fred Akshar, a Binghamton Republican who previously worked in law enforcement, said he supported some of the Democratic bills but planned to vote against the 50-a repeal.

“I think it strips the officers of their due process,” Mr. Akshar said, adding that he was concerned it would publicize unsubstantiated complaints.

Advocacy groups who say police practices disproportionately burden people of color hailed the bill. Repealing 50-a first gained traction five years ago after the death of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who died during a 2014 arrest after NYPD placed him in a chokehold. The officer, Daniel Pantaleo, was fired in 2019 after a departmental trial.

“This bill finally provides long-overdue and critically important transparency about police misconduct,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, a legal advocacy group.

She also hailed a bill that would require the state’s court system to compile a report on the racial breakdown of people who are charged with crimes or issued tickets, as well as the disposition of the charges.

Another bill would create the felony offense of aggravated strangulation in an instance where a police officer caused serious physical injury or death to another person. And additional legislation would codify and extend Mr. Cuomo’s practice, through executive orders, of naming the attorney general as a special prosecutor in cases where unarmed civilians die at the hands of police.

On Sunday, the governor said he didn’t support the calls by some protesters to reduce funding for police forces. Mayor Bill de Blasio on Sunday said that he would shift some money out of the NYPD’s budget to funding for youth and social services.

Some activists hailed the raft of legislation but stressed that more should be done.

“We are in a tragic situation, but we must connect and make clear that repealing 50-a is good. But it’s not the only thing we need to make sure no cop in New York state abuses or assassinates another human being unjustified,” said Roger Clark, a community leader who works with the group Vocal-NY. “We also need to make sure that no one goes to jail based on police lies and that anyone already in jail on police lies should have that conviction reversed.”