New York state lawmakers repealed a decades-old law Tuesday that has kept law enforcement officers’ disciplinary records secret, spurred by the national uproar over the death of George Floyd.
The measure to make officers’ records and misconduct complaints public is among several police accountability bills racing through the state legislature. Lawmakers passed other bills that would provide all state troopers with body cameras and ensure that police officers provide medical and mental health attention to people in custody.
Many of those bills were first proposed years ago, but got new momentum after huge protests nationwide condemned police brutality.
The passage came as criminal charges were brought Tuesday against an NYPD officer over his rough treatment of a protester during demonstrations following the death of Floyd, who pleaded he couldn’t breathe as a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee on his neck May 25.
Eliminating the law, known as Section 50-a, would make complaints against officers, as well as transcripts and final dispositions of disciplinary proceedings, public for the first time in decades.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has recently supported reforming the law, said that he will sign the repeal by the end of the week. Only Delaware has a similar law.
While supporters and lawmakers were quick to hail the decision, police unions bashed the repeal, blaming "opportunistic politicians" for rushing to pass the bills, and ultimately blaming them for "our increase in crime," the presidents for the detectives' and lietenants' unions said.
Detectives' Endowment Association President Paul DiGiacomo wondered why the police weren't consulted with the bills, and particularly blamed Mayor Bill de Blasio.
" Mayor de Blasio flip-flopped, once again. The other day, he said publicly that 50a needed to be changed, but not fully repealed. The only thing he consistently does is turn his back on the brave men and women in blue who he relies on to keep every New Yorker safe," DiGiacomo said.
Momentum for ending the secrecy law reached a crescendo in recent days as thousands of marchers filled streets in Brooklyn and Manhattan to rally against police abuses — amplifying the calls of reform advocates who spent years pushing for change in the wake of other high-profile police killings, including that of Eric Garner in 2014.
“This is no time for rejoicing,” said State Senator Kevin Parker, a Democrat representing parts of Brooklyn. “This bill has been around for over a decade … And the only reason why we’re bringing it to the floor now because the nation is burning.”
Several family members of New Yorkers killed by police officers gathered at New York City Hall Tuesday to call for the defunding of police and repealing 50-a, which state courts have cited in decisions to withhold officers’ personnel records.
“We are tearing down the wall of secrecy that has been shielding officers across the state,” said Constance Malcolm, mother of the late Ramarley Graham, who was unarmed when he was shot to death by a white NYPD officer in the bathroom of his apartment in 2012.
Also in attendance was Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, and Valerie Bell, the mother of Sean Bell, who was killed on November 25, 2006. Bell was leaving his bachelor party with family and friends when he was killed in a barrage of bullets, despite being unarmed.
"I woke up this morning at 4:56 a.m. — that's the time my son died and he woke me up knowing I was going to come out here today. He woke me up saying, 'Ma, you got this.' That was his favorite saying, you got this," Valerie Bell said before the crowd.
Officers involved in Bell's death were ultimately acquitted, but the NYPD fired the officer who first opened fire after a departmental trial found he used unnecessary force.
It was cases like that and many others that inspired thousands to fill the Brooklyn Bridge Tuesday afternoon, participating in what was called a silent march, organized by New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. The protesters marched into Manhattan, past courthouses and toward Union Square, calling for the city to take funds from the NYPD budget and redirect them for community-based programs.
"We will not be ignored, we will not be pacified, we will not rest, until we see fundamental change that doesn't just say 'Black Lives Matter,' but shows you believe it and are willing to fight for it. We are," Williams said in a statement. "Our silence made a statement, but now, our voices will be raised in protest to honor the names of those lost — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner — and fight for the change that will stop more names from being added to the list. We don't need minor changes to a system of injustice — it's working how it was designed- we need a new system of true justice."
Another large group gathered on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, reflecting on what has transpired in the country, and how the city can move forward.
The state Senate and Assembly passed the 50-a repeal largely along party lines, as Republicans argued the law would allow the release of unsubstantiated or false complaints against officers.
But one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Jamaal Bailey, a Bronx Democrat, said the public has a right to view complaints: “Sometimes unsubstantiated complaints happen because people don’t want to follow up.”
The legislature passed other police accountability measures, such as banning police from using chokeholds, guaranteeing the right to record police activity, requiring body cameras for all state police officers and making it easier to file lawsuits against people making race-based 911 calls.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said that for years they have been "ready to deliver real change and has fought tirelessly for much needed criminal justice reforms. We join the nation in mourning the death of yet another unarmed black man, and we stand ready to answer the call for action.”
“Over the last few years, there has been a national conversation taking place surrounding law enforcement accountability and transparency,” said Speaker Heastie. “For years, the Assembly Majority has been ready to deliver real change and has fought tirelessly for much needed criminal justice reforms. We join the nation in mourning the death of yet another unarmed black man, and we stand ready to answer the call for action.”
While he hasn't yet stated exactly how much he plans on taking from the police budget, Mayor Bill de Blasio said as a way to show support for the movement, the city would begin identifying one street in each of the five boroughs to co-name "Black Lives Matter." The city would also work with community activists to paint each street, similar to what the mayor of Washington D.C. did on the road leading to the White House.
"The streets of our city will now affirm the vital work activists have done to bring us forward," the mayor said in a statement. "With a street in every borough painted with the words Black Lives Matter, we are recognizing where we have been and looking forward to where we will go."
The mayor, who at first resisted calls to defund the NYPD in favor of youth programs, said it wasn't protesters who got him to change his mind but rather his wife, Chirlane McCray, who convinced him it was time to reconsider.
"The fundamental answer is yes, the first lady and the task force said the shift in funds made sense," de Blasio said. Aides to the mayor said that he had been leaning toward reversing cuts he proposed to youth programs for weeks. Now, de Blasio is giving his wife credit for the shift — which could help her as she contemplates running for Brooklyn borough president in 2021.
McCray on Tuesday said that she "talked to my husband about it and I encouraged him to find ways" to bring back funding for the children's programs.
Even as de Blasio said he wants to "relentlessly change this city and this police department over the next 18 months," members of the police department, including the commissioner, aren't cheery about it. As the city's largest police union said that cops are "under assault" due to the current movement, Commissioner Dermot Shea said he hoped that "common sense and cooler heads will prevail — Lord help us if it doesn't."
Police insist that communities of color have asked for more police resources, not fewer.