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Will George Floyd's death be more powerful than New York's police unions?

A protester is detained by police during a

A protester is detained by police during a rally in Union Square about the death of Minneapolis, Minnesota man George Floyd at the hands of police. Credit: Getty Images/Stephanie Keith

Daily Point

George Floyd killing could spark NY police transparency

It will be a very odd turn of events if the killing of an unarmed man by Minneapolis police ends up being the spur that causes New York to repeal a law that local governments use to keep police officers’ personnel records secret. Since New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner on Staten Island in 2014, efforts to repeal the law known as 50-a, which the city used to shield Pantaleo’s previous disciplinary record, never even gathered enough steam to get the reform efforts out of committee.

There was plenty of lip service, though. New York is just one of three states that has a law like this one, defended to the hilt by most of the state’s police unions. 

Section 50-a allows all “personnel records used to evaluate performance towards continued employment or promotion” for police officers, firefighters and correction officers to remain “confidential and not subject to inspection or review.” The only exception is supposed to be by a judge’s order.

State Assemb. Danny O’Donnell, of New York City, has been sponsoring repeal bills of 50-a since 2016, the year New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio directed the city to stop publicly posting the outcome of police administrative trials, as had been the custom for several years. Repeated attempts by lawyers for Garner’s family to get Pantaleo’s Civilian Complaint Review Board records failed.

Since Garner’s death, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and de Blasio have at times made comments supportive of repealing or amending 50-a, but neither had ever put significant political muscle behind spurring the initiative. Cuomo said again Monday that his office believes the law doesn’t prohibit the release, and added that he would support a repeal of it. Police unions and advocacy groups, though, have been ferocious in opposing repeal or changes. They argue that publicizing such information would make cops and their families vulnerable to threats and violence at home, and exposing minor transgressions would embarrass cops for no good reason. 

Advocates for repeal argue that they don’t want to publicize the addresses of officers or trumpet tardiness or minor infractions like disheveled uniforms.

When there was a Republican majority in the State Senate, repeal was a nonstarter, and that seemed to give the Assembly cover not to move it as well. O’Donnell said Monday there had been little appetite among many Assembly lawmakers to vote on a bill that would alienate powerful police unions and still have no chance of becoming law.

But now, with protests and riots in the streets deriding policies and a cop culture perceived to be too protective of police and not protective enough of unarmed black men, 50-a repeal has been seized on as something concrete lawmakers can do to answer critics.

Monday afternoon, Democratic lawmakers from both the Assembly and the Senate conferenced on repealing or amending the law, making it extremely likely change will come in this session. 

“I had planned that 50-a would be my main legislative priority this year, once we were done with the budget,” O’Donnell said, “but then coronavirus happened and it seemed as if it would be very difficult to focus attention on the issue. Now, though, I think we are moving forward.”

And now, O’Donnell has legislative leaders with him. Late Monday afternoon, after conferencing, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins released a joint statement saying they had “productive majority conferences to discuss the issues occurring in our communities that have caused so much unrest over the last several days.”

Chief among those is 50-a, and the pair say they intend to act on the legislation discussed next week. 

—Lane Filler @lanefiller

Talking Point

Mass protests create coronavirus concerns

Local officials around the country are already raising concerns about coronavirus issues raised by mass protests against police brutality. 

“How many super-spreaders were in that crowd?” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo asked Monday about weekend protests in New York.

The concern was clear at some of the region’s densest events which occurred around the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Many if not most of the protesters wore masks, and volunteers gave out masks and hand sanitizer. But thousands of people were packed into the small space between the arena and the train station exit.

Inevitably, masks came down even before the chaotic arrests started. The Point watched an NYPD sergeant pull down her surgical mask and cough into her hand, moments before a nearby protester, panting and sweaty, pulled her own mask down to breathe deeply. 

The protests were outdoors, but arrested protesters were kept in close quarters on buses. 

Then there was the issue of police officers wearing masks. Many did, but at certain times mask compliance appeared fairly low. Protesters complained about the lack of officer masks to little effect. Officers often remained unmasked – as on Sunday, when more than a half-dozen cops crowded into a van together next to Barclays, all with uncovered faces. 

The NYPD did not respond to the Point’s request for officer mask-wearing guidelines. For the county departments on Long Island, masks are generally supposed to be worn. 

“Our members will wear coverings, whenever practical, when in direct contact (six feet or less) with the public,” Nassau County Police spokesman Richard LeBrun said in an email. “With regard to any protest, yes, they will be wearing masks.”

A Suffolk departmental directive issued to all commands April 15 said face masks are “mandatory while in public places” including during traffic stops, foot patrols, and interactions with the public, or when members interact with each other in a public place. The directive said that masks are “not required while operating department vehicles.” 

The Point asked Anthony Santella, associate professor of public health at Hofstra University, about the health risks of these outdoor protests. Santella hypothesized that there wouldn’t be a “blip in our curves” but that there would be “some disease transmission” – which could mean a delayed entry to Phase 2 of reopening for New York City.

He said he understood the protesters’ impulses. 

“While it may not be good timing when you're asking people to adhere to these public health measures, like limiting gatherings and keeping physical distance,” he said, “things happen in the world and people want a way to react and respond and have their voices heard.”

—Mark Chiusano @mjchiusano

Pencil Point

Don't loot

For more cartoons, visit www.newsday.com/cartoons

Quick Points

  • In a year wracked by impeachment, a killer pandemic, a battered economy and exploding racial tensions, 2020 has brought a real stunner – an American president who does nothing to reel back the nation from the precipice.
  • People march against police brutality, burn buildings and loot businesses, and meet more police aggression. Textbook definition of a vicious cycle.
  • President Donald Trump says the United States will designate Antifa a terrorist organization. Did anyone tell him he doesn’t have that power, and that Antifa is not even an organization?
  • What a weekend. Mass protests in the streets, mass responses from police, mass parties elsewhere as states reopen, not many masses of masks. And the coronavirus spreads.
  • Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said dentists statewide will be allowed to reopen Monday. Didn’t have quite the same ring as announcing that beaches were going to reopen. Unless you had a cavity. 

—Michael Dobie @mwdobie

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