The protests over police brutality that have drawn thousands to America's streets show a hunger for change in this country. Night after night, that hunger is not going away. While violence is never acceptable, raised voices and demonstrations of civil disobedience should convince elected officials that change must finally come.
Smart legislation and new policies can make a difference, and state leaders are already signaling that law enforcement practices are the place to start.
A state law known as “50a” has been used to hide police misconduct. Police unions and the politicians they control have long blocked the disclosure of serious misconduct allegations. Unless those records can be disclosed, officers who abuse their power will remain on the job. The State Legislature must approve a law that makes it clear such records can be made public.
Next is the expansion of a 2015 executive order from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo which allowed the state attorney general to act as a special prosecutor in the death of an unarmed civilian caused by a law enforcement officer. That removed the decision to prosecute from local district attorneys who have inherent conflicts because of their daily interactions with local police departments. Enacting this measure into law as well as expanding the jurisdiction of the attorney general over other cases of police violence is necessary.
The legislature also can strengthen reporting requirements by local departments when officers fire their guns and it should make chokeholds illegal. It should encourage body cameras for police departments across the state, perhaps by allowing the purchasing of equipment through a state-negotiated contract and providing funding for localities if they adhere to uniform set operating guidelines. The Suffolk County Police Department’s Highway Enforcement Section’s Selective Alcohol Fatality Enforcement Team has them, but not the entire force. Nassau County is getting ready to start the process of soliciting bids for the cameras as well as hold discussions with the unions representing its department. Body cameras can help with investigations of misconduct and provide context, and exonerate officers wrongly charged with misbehaving.
A bill pending in Albany, called the Police Statistics & Transparency Act, would require collecting and disseminating geographic and demographic data on low-level enforcement, the kind that again and again seems to target communities of color. On the federal level, lawmakers should stop the Pentagon’s 1033 military gear transfer program. The cop on the beat doesn’t need a grenade launcher, and many officers at the protests over George Floyd look too much like storm troopers already.
Then there are potential changes that could address deeper issues, such as why life expectancy for black Americans has trailed that of white Americans for decades. Also, raise the federal minimum wage, currently $7.25 an hour while on Long Island state law set it at $13 an hour. Funding for affordable housing must increase and a universal basic income must be considered.
There’s plenty to do. Protest peacefully but turn the wheels of government, too. — The editorial board