New York State lawmakers are passing a series of police reform bills in the wake of the death 16 days ago of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and the ongoing nationwide demonstrations over police brutality.
The bills, which include outlawing police chokeholds and opening up police disciplinary records, are sponsored by majority Democrats in the Assembly and Senate.
Both Assemblyman Joseph Giglio, R-Gowanda, and state Sen. George Borrello, R-Lakewood, voted in favor of the ban on chokeholds, a bill named after Eric Garner, a black man who died in a New York City police chokehold on July 17, 2014. He had been suspected by police of selling loose cigarettes on the street.
A bill that both Republican state lawmakers said they could not support was the repeal of a portion of the Civil Code, 50-a, which shields police and first responders’ disciplinary records.
Both Giglio, of the 148th Assembly District representing Cattaraugus, Allegany and part of Steuben counties, and Borrello, the 57th Senate District representative of Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Allegany and part of Livingston counties, feel the police reform bills are being rushed through.
Giglio said lawmakers should hear from police officials on the proposed changes. Passing the bills over three days gives legislators very little time to check with constituents before voting, he said. “What are you really trying to accomplish?”
Some of the reforms may be unconstitutional, Giglio said. “Most of it is New York City-centered. I represent the 148th Assembly District. I need time to read it and decide how it’s going to affect my community. I still feel that if we were a body that worked together, this would be better.”
Giglio fears police officers could hesitate to do their job because they are afraid they will be sued because of things that have happened elsewhere.
“I’m frustrated with the way this is going,” Giglio said. “I want to do the right thing by everyone. I want a safe community and to be fair to everyone.” This is like driving a stake between rural and urban communities, he added.
As far as banning chokeholds, Giglio said, “most departments already have banned it. I support that.”
The problem with the proposed repeal of 50-a in the Civil Code is that the record of a police officer can include unfounded and unsubstantiated information, Giglio said. Everything would be subject to the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). “Who wants the information and why?” he asked.
Giglio said the difference between police and other local government employees is that “a police job is dangerous and contentious. There is the risk of life and the chance something bad can happen.”
The assemblyman said he agreed with transparency, but police need protections from frivolous complaints.”
Borrello said he voted in favor of some of the Democratic police reform bills, but voted against most of them.
The bills are a reaction to the “tragic and unjust death of George Floyd,” Borrello said. “It is something we need to address as a nation. We need to do our due diligence before making the sweeping changes that are proposed.”
Borrello predicted “unintended consequences” of the hastily-passed bills. “It is being rushed through the process. No one took time to look at unintended consequences.”
Borrello said the police records that contain unsubstantiated and unfounded claims “will be able to be used as weapons” because they would be available under a FOIL.
The information is already available under court subpoena, Borrello said.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has recently supported reforming the law, has said in the wake of the protests that he will sign the repeal. Only Delaware has a similar law.
“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.”
The legislature on Monday passed other police accountability measures, including guaranteeing the right to record police activity and making it easier to file lawsuits against people making race-based 911 calls.
State lawmakers were also expected to pass bills providing all state troopers with body cameras and ensuring that officers get proper medical and mental health attention for people under arrest or in custody.
(Contact reporter Rick Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @RMillerOTH)