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State legislators eyeing police records law in wake of Floyd death

Hundreds of demonstrators demanding justice for George Floyd

Hundreds of demonstrators demanding justice for George Floyd and others who have died at the hands of the police march in Port Jefferson Station on Monday, June 1, 2020.  Credit: Randee Daddona

ALBANY — Driven by the George Floyd case, New York legislators held private talks Monday about reconvening soon to take action on several criminal justice issues — including overhauling a law that shields police disciplinary records.

Senate and Assembly leaders said lawmakers will return to the State Capitol next week for a range of bills, although they didn’t go into details. Efforts to change “50-a,” the 1976 civil rights statute governing police personnel records, have always failed in the past in Albany but could be at the top of the agenda this time.

“The climate has shifted dramatically,” one Democrat said, regarding momentum for an overhaul, following the killing of Floyd, by a Minneapolis police officer who reportedly had 17 misconduct complaints filed against him during his career, and the massive weekend protests.

Besides discipline records, legislators discussed codifying into law a special prosecutor’s office to investigate deadly police-civilian encounters and mandating reports on the race, ethnicity and gender of people ticketed with violations and charged with misdemeanors. They also discussed a proposal to end solitary confinement in state prisons, sources said.

Late Monday, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) issued a joint statement, saying: “We will be developing a legislative package based on the ideas put forward. We intend to act on them next week.”

“Repealing 50-a is at the forefront of my mind,” said Sen. Jamaal Bailey (D-Bronx), chairman of the Senate Codes Committee, which handles all criminal justice legislation.

“I have nothing but utmost respect for the police,” Bailey said. “But I think the public should know who is policing them. And I believe transparency could benefit the police by singling out bad actors.”

He added: “We shouldn’t be finding out 17 cases later,” a reference to Floyd case.

“I think there’s a consensus in my house that it’s the right thing to do,” said Assemb. Danny O’Donnell (D-Manhattan), who sponsors the 50-a repeal bill in the Assembly. “That doesn’t mean it’s a done deal.”

O’Donnell added: “I think where we are in this country is there is a severe lack of trust between police officers and the people they police” and ending the secrecy around disciplinary records could help address that.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo repeated Monday his promise to sign legislation to “reform” the law if the legislature approves a bill doing so. But the governor didn’t spell out any particular changes or say that he would support a full repeal.

Police unions, who have had enough political clout to block O’Donnell’s bill before, blasted the governor’s statement.

The governor has “vowed to diminish the civil rights of your New York State Troopers through changes to NYS Civil Rights Law section 50a,” Thomas H. Mungeer, president of the troopers’ union, wrote in a letter to Cuomo which said the Democrat hasn’t sufficiently supported State Police during the protests.

Mungeer concluded: “We deserve better.” 

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