Governor signs bills aiming to address police misconduct following nationwide protests

National outrage over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed last month after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, has led to protests and unrest in all 50 states and now, renewed calls for criminal justice reforms.

Earlier this week, New York lawmakers voted to repeal 50-a, a law that shields officers’ disciplinary records from being made public.

The bill, which passed in both the Senate and Assembly earlier this week, also bans police use of chokeholds and false, race-based calls to 911.

The legislation was signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo Friday.

“This is not just about Mr. Floyd’s murder,” he said. “It’s about being here before. Many, many times before. Today is about ‘enough is enough.’ ”

In addition to signing the package of bills into law, Mr. Cuomo announced an executive order that will require municipalities and their respective police departments to develop a plan that addresses use of force, implicit bias, de-escalation techniques, restorative justice and other issues raised by the community.

“This is systemic reform of police departments,” the governor said, noting that the goal is to restore trust in police especially in communities of color.

Police agencies that do not comply, he said, will not be eligible to receive state funding.

The new law makes it a “civil rights violation to call 911 to report a non-emergency incident involving a member of a protected class without reason to suspect a crime or an imminent threat.”

Criminal justice reform advocates, including the Innocence Project, Legal Aid Society and New York Civil Liberties Union all lauded the measure. 

In a statement, NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman described 50-a as “the most restrictive police secrecy law in the country,” and said its repeal was long overdue.

“This repeal is the result of years of work by advocates led by families whose loved ones have been killed by police and who were routinely rebuffed when they tried to find out whether the department was doing anything to hold the officers accountable,” Ms. Lieberman said. “The NYPD invoked 50-a to hide the long disciplinary record of Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who killed Eric Garner. The Garner family only found out about Pantaleo’s record after it was leaked to a reporter. Too many other families and loved ones have faced those same barriers to justice. The old system of police violence and impunity can no longer stand.”

Disciplinary records have also been brought to light in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s murder. Multiple reports indicate that Derek Chauvin, the officer responsible for his death, has had at least 18 complaints filed against him that include excessive force.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and we know that transparency is a critical first step to change the way police interact with communities in New York,” said Tina Luongo, attorney in charge of the criminal defense practice at the Legal Aid Society in a statement.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said the county is looking forward to working with the state.

“These are issues that the Suffolk County Police Department has been working on for many years now and have developed some really leading edge initiatives,” Mr. Bellone, a Democrat, said.

Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) railed against the measure in remarks he gave on the chamber’s floor Wednesday night, claiming the legislation “tramples on” the civil rights of police officers. Multiple police unions have spoken out against the repeal, arguing it adds to an “anti-cop” sentiment.

He described the repeal as “dangerous” and “reactionary” in an interview Thursday.

Mr. Palumbo, whose father was a detective for the Suffolk County Police Department, said he believes disciplinary complaints should only be released as part of court proceedings if they’re relevant to the case at hand, citing that 98% of complaints lodged against NYPD officers are unsubstantiated. Mr. Palumbo also noted teachers and physicians, among other professions, are subject to confidentiality protections under similar statutes.

Mr. Palumbo, the Republican candidate for New York State Senate in November, also suspects there will be blanket requests under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain records.

“They’ll put together a database,” he said, which could be used to harass, shame and possibly harm police officers.

Under the new bill, officers’ phone numbers and addresses will be redacted but details of complaints against them will become public. It’s not clear if access will be granted to prior records, or just complaints filed after the bill becomes law.

Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said Friday that his top concern is protecting officers’ personal information.

“None of us want to protect bad apples. As chiefs, we do everything in our power to get rid of someone who doesn’t belong here,” he said.

Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

In addition to reforms and protests, Mr. Floyd’s death has sparked a movement calling to defund the police. The idea behind the movement is to shift funds into areas like education, drug prevention, housing and other social services.

But Mr. Palumbo says the movement is “anarchy” and warned against painting law enforcement officers with the same brush.

“Every cop I know is appalled by what happened in Minneapolis,” he said. “That wasn’t police conduct. That was a murder.”