What to Know
- New York Attorney General Letitia James announced Friday a robust reform to change the state laws regarding the excessive use of force by police officers.
- Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner who died when a police officer used a banned chokehold on him in 2014, was at James' press briefing and discussed police accountability.
- "In most cases, officers who kill individuals are not even charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one. In fact, according to the Mapping Police Violence Project, less than 2% of officers are charged and only about a quarter of those are ultimately convicted," James said.
New York Attorney General Letitia James announced Friday a robust reform to change the state laws regarding the excessive use of force by police officers.
The Police Accountability Act looks to amend the state's law that justifies police use of force given that the current state law sets "an exceedingly high standard for prosecuting officers who have improperly used deadly or excessive force," according to James' office.
The act includes a series of reforms aimed at improving protocols and strengthening accountability measures when police use force, especially lethal force, while also establishing new criminal penalties for officers who use force that is "grossly in excess of what is warranted in an interaction with civilians."
These changes aim to reduce deaths at the hands of police by ensuring that police officers adhere to practices and tactics that aim to preserve life and only use lethal force as a last resort.
"So many women and men of color have died at the hands of police and this has rekindled the flame of righteousness and righteous indignation that has been smoldering for centuries. We are in the midst of a racial reckoning in this country. While these killings are not new, with more cell phones and recordings more people are witnessing the unbearable truth that many of us have known for a very long time," James said during a press conference Friday.
"Last month we saw a police officer convicted for the murder of George Floyd, but the Derek Chauvin verdict is exactly the exception that proves the rule: accountability in these cases is rare," she went on to say. "In most cases, officers who kill individuals are not even charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one. In fact, according to the Mapping Police Violence Project, less than 2% of officers are charged and only about a quarter of those are ultimately convicted."
The newly introduced policy aims to eliminate the justification for lethal force when an officer simply suspects an individual has engaged in criminal conduct. It will also allow prosecutors to consider whether an officer’s conduct created a substantial and unjustifiable risk that force would become necessary.
James said that "for far too long," police officers "have been able to evade accountability unjustified use of excessive and lethal force" including in New York where laws have given police blanket defense to use force in interactions with civilians, making it difficult for prosecutors to go after cops who abuse their power.
“Not only is that gravely unjust, but it has also proven to be incredibly dangerous. This is a departure from the current law which does not provide a way for prosecutors to consider an officer’s own responsibility for creating the need for force in the first place," James said.
Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner who died when a police officer used a banned chokehold on him in 2014, was at James' press briefing and discussed police accountability.
"Almost seven years ago, my son was murdered by NYPD. He said 'I can't breathe 11 times. And, 11 times they decided not to let him live, and we all saw the video. So we know that it was excessive force that was used. My son should have been alive today if the police officer would have followed protocol or if there was any accountability."
In 2019, an NYPD trial judge found former officer Daniel Pantaleo guilty of "reckless assault" when he used an impermissible chokehold on Garner, a 43-year-old Staten Island father. She found the officer not guilty of "intentional strangulation." An autopsy had found Garner's death was caused in part by a chokehold; the medical examiner ruled the case a homicide.
Pantaleo was fired following the incident -- a move that was lauded by advocates and local leaders, including Mayor Bill de Blasio who said that “justice was done.” Rev. Al Sharpton praised the decision to fire the controversial cop, and called Pantaleo’s decision to seek subsequent reinstatement “not only disrespectful to the Police Commissioner and NYPD, but also the Garner family” —adding that if he does get his job back, he will “pose a threat” to minority populations in New York City. Although he is no longer an NYPD officer, a grand jury in New York City did not indict Pantaleo in Garner's death.
"The Police Accountability Act will make critical and necessary changes to the law, providing clear and legitimate standards for when the use of force is acceptable and enacting real consequences for when an officer crosses that line," James said. "While this is an important step in addressing the shortfalls of our criminal justice system, it is not a cure all for the ills that have impacted too many families and claimed too many lives. We must continue to do everything in our power to protect our communities and ensure that no one is beyond the reach of justice.”
However, not all were cheering James' decision. Paul DiGiacomo, president of the Detectives' Endowment Association, said James is finding "new ways to make the jobs of police even more difficult and dangerous.
"The already emboldened criminals are also paying attention — and they're ready to continue plaguing our neighborhoods wit deadly violence," DiGiacomo said. "As the state's top law enforcement official, AG James should be concerned about the children and hundreds of others being shot on our streets. We have heard nothing at all about the victims!"