ALBANY — Attorney General Letitia James and Democratic legislators have proposed a law that would change the standards under which police can use deadly force.
James, a Democrat, said the current use-of-force law should be changed "from one of simple necessity to one of absolute last resort." The change is needed because current law is too broad and shields police from accountability, she said.
A recent Newsday review found that a special prosecutor’s office created in 2015 to review the more than 20 cases in which civilians died at the hands of police has resulted in zero convictions of officers. Some legislators cited the legal standard for using force, which they said gave police wide latitude if they deemed force necessary and made it nearly impossible to gain indictments.
The attorney general said police should use force "as seldom as possible" and the law should carry "real consequences for when an officer crosses the line."
"For far too long, police officers in this country have been able to evade accountability for the unjustified use of excessive and lethal force," James said. "In New York, our laws have essentially given police blanket defense to use force in interactions with the public, making it exceedingly difficult for prosecutors to go after officers who have abused this power. Not only is that gravely unjust, but it has also proven to be incredibly dangerous."
A leading Republican said backers of the bill are going too far and contended New York has tougher standards than other states for police use of deadly force.
"I'd have to study the bill, but I wouldn't agree with them at first blush," said Assemb. Michael Montesano (R-Glen Head), a former police officer and ranking member of the Assembly Judiciary Committee. "I'm not supportive of something that would suppress police officers' ability to defend themselves."
James said the bill would establish a "last resort" standard that says "officers can only employ (lethal force) when there are no reasonable alternatives to avoiding force."
It also would say suspicion of criminal activity isn't enough justification for lethal force and allow prosecutors to determine whether an "officer’s conduct created a substantial and unjustifiable risk that force would become necessary."
Sen. Kevin Parker (D-Brooklyn), sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said: "Currently, the ‘excessive use of force’ is a term of poetry in the state of New York. We say it, but it doesn't have any use in the law."
Assemb. Nick Perry (D-Brooklyn), Assembly sponsor, said the revisions were "long overdue." He and others previously said the standards for charging police were part of the reason why the special prosecutor's office created in 2015 — operating within the attorney general's office — had yet to yield any convictions.
Opponents of the special prosecutor law argued the lack of convictions raised questions of whether it was needed at all.
If legislators are going to change the law this year, they'll have to act fast: The state legislative session is set to adjourn June 10.
The head of the New York Police Department union criticized the proposal.
"This sweeping proposal would make it impossible for police officers to determine whether or not we are permitted to use force in a given situation," said Patrick Lynch, police union president, in a statement. "The only reasonable solution will be to avoid confrontations where force might become necessary. Meanwhile, violent criminals certainly aren’t hesitating to use force against police officers or our communities."
Montesano said New York is the among the strictest states in granting police latitude to use deadly force.
"I think they're trying to punish all officers for the misdeeds of others in other states," Montesano said.