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State officials, residents pursue police reform

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Update: As of Wednesday, June 10 the state Legislature voted to repeal Section 50-a of the New York State Civil Rights Law, which shields police officer misconduct records from the public. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has vowed to sign the piece of legislation.

As a recent law school graduate, who teaches and practices criminal defense, Valley Streamer Christine Rivera, 26, said that any police reform taking place in Albany would need to include the repeal of a provision that shields police officer misconduct records from the public.

Section 50-a of the New York State Civil Rights Law poses a particular challenge in civil cases against officers in which families are seeking redress for alleged abuse, Rivera said.

“They can’t move forward with their cases because they can’t get access to the documentation that they need,” she explained. “How are they supposed to get justice?”

Discussion of law enforcement reform and increased transparency has come to the forefront of a national conversation about police brutality since the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

Chauvin had 18 disciplinary complaints against him, and Rivera said that Floyd’s death could have been avoided had the victims involved in the complaints been able to lodge successful suits against Chauvin, and possibly gotten him fired.

“It shouldn’t take someone dying for us to be able to look into the histories of these officers,” she said.

It is just one of a number of reforms, Rivera said, that should take place. Others, she said, include protections for black and Latino transgender people, whom she said are disproportionally harassed by police. The decriminalization of sex work, she said, would go a long way in that regard.

Regarding Section 50-a, though, local lawmakers have signaled their support for repealing the statute. State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach, said he would vote for its repeal on Tuesday or Wednesday, after the Herald went to press.

Support for the measure is even stronger in the Assembly. Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages has spoken forcefully for its repeal.

“It pains me to think that one day he walks out the door and he might not return, and not by the hands of an accident, but by the hands of a police officer,” Solages, a Democrat from Emont, said of her young son at a rally for reform legislation on June 4. “It hurts me to know that we all, in this great country, do not have access to peace, justice and liberty.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced on June 5 that he would work with members of the State Legislature this week to pass a “Say Their Name” reform agenda, including revising Section 50-a to allow for greater transparency of police officers’ prior disciplinary records; banning chokeholds; prohibiting false race-based 911 reports; and designating the attorney general as an independent prosecutor for matters relating to the deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of law enforcement.

Additionally, members of the state’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus have proposed a legislative package comprising a dozen bills that would increase transparency, create more oversight of police departments, ensure that suspects receive medical attention, establish strangulation as a crime in the state and ban police from using racial and ethnic profiling. 

So far, measures to establish a right to record police activity, outlaw chokeholds and mandate that courts collect demographic information have passed the Legislature.

“This is not sexy legislation,” Assemblyman Phil Ramos, a Democrat from Suffolk County who chairs the caucus, said at the June 4 rally, “but these are things that are necessary to dismantle and take down that blue wall of silence.” 

Section 50-a makes all police officers’, firefighters’ and corrections officers’ personnel records “confidential and not subject to inspection or review,” except by court order. “We don’t want to reform 50-a,” Solages said. “We want to repeal it.”

The law prevented the New York Civil Liberties Union from obtaining records from the Nassau County Police Department that it requested under the Freedom of Information Law. “It’s time for a real cultural change by and for the police, and for those who need their protection,” said Susan Gottehrer, director of the Nassau County chapter of NYCLU, “and it’s time for oversight and accountability.”

For these bills to pass, Gottehrer said, the legislators need to gain support in the State Senate. “If you are marching with protesters,” she said, “you better be in [the Capitol] legislating tomorrow.”

Nia Adams, a community organizer for the Long Island Progressive Coalition, added that repeal of Section 50-a is “the least” state legislators could do, and said, “Today and tomorrow and every day, black lives matter.”