The 2020 session of the State Legislature in Albany began with some Democrats playing defense on criminal justice and pushing for more conservative measures.
Since then, it’s been an abrupt turn resulting in a session that might be remembered for ushering in some of most progressive police oversight measures in decades, a sweeping package signed into law Friday by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and driven by the George Floyd protests nationwide.
The Democratic governor approved a 10-bill package that will loosen restrictions on police disciplinary records, force state troopers to wear body cameras while on patrol, ban chokeholds, establish the “right to record police activity” and make permanent a special prosecutorial unit to investigate deadly civilian-police interactions.
The Democratic-led state Senate and Assembly approved the bills earlier in the week.
“What we passed the last couple of days was monumental,” Sen. Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown) said. “The stars had aligned … during a moment of deep thinking about police accountability.”
Many of the issues had been stalemated in Albany, only to be cracked wide open by the reaction to video of a police officer kneeing on Floyd’s neck till he died.
“The protesters made this happen,” said Assemb. Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn). “They were able to get bills passed that had hung around for years.”
Cuomo said it was a culmination of tragic deaths, including Eric Garner, Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo.
“It’s not just about Mr. Floyd’s death. It’s about being here before, many, many times before … it’s about injustice against minorities by the criminal-justice system,” Cuomo said.
The turnaround also was remarkable, considering the criminal-justice discussion in Albany was going in a conservative direction in January.
Republicans were blasting Democrats for a new bail law that became effective New Year’s Day. No longer could a person be held on bail for dozens of charges, including almost all misdemeanors.
Republicans said the bail law went too far by letting too many repeat offenders and suspects accused of serious crimes go free after arraignments. They cited examples in the news of repeat offenders committing crimes just days after being released.
Within Democratic ranks, Long Islanders led a push that resulted in more than 20 crimes restored the list for which a judge can set bail.
Moving in a progressive direction in June wasn’t contradictory, lawmakers said, because bail and police brutality are distinct issues.
“I think it’s entirely reasonable, and I think the position most Long Islanders take is that they want to be kept safe and protected while wanting law enforcement to be held accountable,” Sen. Todd Kaminsky said.
He noted several bills in the police-oversight package enjoyed widespread Republican support too, including body cameras for state troopers. He called that a “perfect example” of a bill that, before Floyd’s death, might have sparked opposition. This week, it didn’t even generate much debate on the Senate and Assembly floors during voting. The Assembly approved it, 142-2.
“I think the moment has forced people of all stripes, and all parties, to confront the issue of policing in our communities,” Kaminsky said.
The Democrat said the 2020 session could be viewed as almost three in one: a normal session for two months, then a sole focus on the coronavirus pandemic, and then a fast reaction to police brutality issues.
Republicans especially took issue with a bill to repeal “50-a,” the statute that shielded police misconduct records from the public. Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) said the rollback went too far and should have continued to shield “false accusations.” And he sought to link it back to the bail issue.
“After failed Democrat bail reform, which has let New York City rioters and looters walk out of jail free, this is another Democrat policy that could lead to potential danger,” Flanagan said.
It’s too soon to speculate how it might impact New York elections, but the focus on the pandemic and police didn’t necessarily override everything, Michael Dawidziak, a Bohemia-based political consultant said.
“If you went back to pre-coronavirus, bail reform was the one issue all of the Long Island Democrats were worried about. And, now they’re probably hoping it doesn’t come back on the radar again,” Dawidziak said.
The impact of the police-oversight bills won’t be known immediately, either. But lawmakers said it was important to act quickly and make a statement.
Said Thomas: “We are creating a framework in the right direction when it comes to police accountability."