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Police Reform Legislation Moves Swiftly Through New York State Legislature

New York Sate Assemblywoman Diana C. Richardson, D-Brooklyn, speaks in favor of new legislation for Police Reform during a Assembly session at the state Capitol Monday, June 8, 2020, in Albany, N.Y.
Hans Pennink
New York Sate Assemblywoman Diana C. Richardson, D-Brooklyn, speaks in favor of new legislation for Police Reform during a Assembly session at the state Capitol Monday, June 8, 2020, in Albany, N.Y.

New York's legislature moved swiftly Monday to pass a first wave of police reform legislation, including a ban on chokeholds, a prohibition on race-based profiling, and a measure requiring police departments and courts to track arrests by race and ethnicity to help identify patterns of bias.

The session followed a historic wave of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. The protests evolved into a referendum on police brutality.

New York state, where marches drew thousands of people into the streets, has a troubled history of violence by police officers against unarmed black and Hispanic men.

State Sen. Luis Sepulveda told lawmakers police tactics have led to the death and "utter humiliation" of many people of color.

"I can speak from personal experience. When I was 18 years old, I was arrested because a police officer didn't like the way I looked at him," Sepulveda said.

The ban on chokeholds – which passed unanimously with bipartisan support – was named in honor of Eric Garner, a black man who was confronted by police for selling loose cigarettes in 2014. Garner died after a New York City police officer put him in a chokehold. Garner's dying words, "I can't breathe," were captured on cell phone video and became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement nationwide.

The police officer in that case, Daniel Pantaleo, facing likely dismissal eventually resigned from the force, but a grand jury declined to indict him. Last year, the Trump administration's Justice Department declined to bring civil rights charges in the case.

"We unfortunately have not been providing safety for African Americans in this country," said Democratic state Sen. Brian Benjamin. "What this bill does is say, 'You know what? We're going to try to move closer to a system where everyone feels safe in this country.'"

Law enforcement organizations in New York tried to push back against these reforms. The head of the New York State Sheriffs' Association, Jeffrey Murphy, issued a statement rejecting the idea that systemic racism exists in law enforcement, calling the accusation "disgusting."

The powerful New York City Police Benevolent Association called the measures "an attack on law enforcement." But in stunning political development, police saw many of their Republican allies vote with the Democratic majority.

During floor debate Monday, Republican Sen. Fred Akshar, who worked in law enforcement before being elected, said he had intended to vote against the chokehold ban.

He switched sides after being assured that police who use chokeholds in acts of self-defense wouldn't face charges.

Today's rapid-fire votes reflect another profound shift in Albany. Many of the measures being approved had languished for years because they were essentially dead on arrival when they reached the GOP-controlled senate. But Democrats won control of that chamber in the 2018 election. The Assembly and Senate are now led for the first time in history by African American lawmakers, who control the agenda. They seized on the momentum generated by days of street protests to move these reform bills.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat, promised Monday he would sign the measures when they reach his desk. Lawmakers are expected to take up a second package of reforms on Tuesday, including repeal of a law which kept police disciplinary records confidential.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.