politics

New York Attorney General James Unveils Bill to Limit Cops' Use of Force to Standard of ‘Absolute Last Resort'

Brendan McDermid | Reuters
  • New York Attorney General Letitia James introduced a bill that would tighten the rules governing the use of force by law enforcement.
  • The centerpiece of the legislation would change the use-of-force law "from one of simple necessity to one of absolute last resort," James' office said in a press release.
  • James invoked the memories of George Floyd and other unarmed men and women of color who have died in altercations with police, directly tying those high-profile deaths to her push for police reform.

New York Attorney General Letitia James introduced a measure Friday that would tighten the rules governing the use of force by law enforcement.

It would lower what her office calls the "exceedingly high standard for prosecuting police officers" who wrongly take excessive or lethal actions.

The centerpiece of the legislation would change the use-of-force law "from one of simple necessity to one of absolute last resort, mandating that police officers only use force after all other alternatives have been exhausted," James' office said in a press release.

James at a press conference Friday afternoon invoked the memories of George Floyd and other unarmed men and women of color who have died in altercations with police, directly tying those high-profile deaths to her push for police reform.

"At a time of racial reckoning in this country, it's important that we reform the laws and that we provide justice for all individuals who feel that their lives do not matter," James said.

The bill was unveiled four days before the one-year anniversary of the killing of Floyd, whose death at the hands of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin ignited a nationwide protest movement against police brutality and systemic racism.

Chauvin's recent conviction on murder and manslaughter charges is the "exception that proves the rule," James said at the press conference.

She was accompanied by Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, an unarmed Black man who died in 2014 after then-New York Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in a chokehold. The Department of Justice in 2019 under then-Attorney General William Barr chose not to pursue charges against Pantaleo in Garner's death.

James' office touts the new bill, dubbed the Police Accountability Act, as "the most far-reaching use of force reform in the nation."

But "this is not going to change those split second decisions that officers must make," in life-threatening situations, James assured, attempting to head off inevitable criticism that the bill could hamper cops' ability to enforce the law and that it could create a chilling effect on recruitment.

"There are reasonable protections that officers need in situations like those," James said. "That is not what these reforms are about."

The Police Benevolent Association of New York City, a major police union, nevertheless blasted the bill as a danger to New York cops.

"This sweeping proposal would make it impossible for police officers to determine whether or not we are permitted to use force in a given situation," the union's president, Patrick Lynch, said in a statement to CNBC.

"The only reasonable solution will be to avoid confrontations where force might become necessary," Lynch said. "Meanwhile, violent criminals certainly aren't hesitating to use force against police officers or our communities."

"The bottom line: more cops and more regular New Yorkers are going to get hurt," Lynch said.

By establishing a "last resort" standard for the use of force, the legislation would require officers to first exhaust alternative approaches, the attorney general's office said. Those methods include "de-escalation, lower levels of force, verbal warnings" and other tactics.

The bill would also raise the standard of proof of criminal conduct required to establish justification for lethal force. Current New York law allows officers to use lethal force "based simply on an officer's reasonable belief" that a person committed a certain category of crime, according to James' office.

In addition, the bill would allow prosecutors to probe whether an officer's own conduct led to them later requiring the use of lethal force. It would also impose criminal penalties for officers who "employ force that is grossly in excess of what is warranted under the circumstances," the press release said.

"Currently, the 'excessive use of force' is a term of poetry in the state of New York. This important legislation corrects that and defines it in the law," said New York state Sen. Kevin Parker, a Democrat, who sponsored the bill.

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