With the immediacy of voting rights relaxed, another major issue steps to the front. Police reform has come to the attention of the country and world following the George Floyd killing and the numerous incidents of police abuse of power since then.
This year New York enacted the Police Statistics and Transparency Act (STAT Act) in an attempt to make the actions of the police more transparent.[i] Under the new law, courts are now required to compile and publish racial and other demographic data of all low-level offenses, including misdemeanors and violations. This should allow outside groups to see evidence of the police possibly targeting minorities. The law also requires the police to report any arrest related deaths to the Department of Criminal Justice Services and make an annual report to the Governor and Legislature.
Another law requires that any discharge of a weapon by a law enforcement officer or peace officer where a person could be struck by a bullet from the weapon must be verbally reported to the officer’s supervisor with six hours followed by a written report within 48 hours.[ii]
Another law requires law enforcement to provide medical and mental health care to anyone in custody. It says the Police may be liable if someone is injured due to lack of care.[iii]
Civil Rights Law 50-a has been reformed to eliminate the provision that keeps police officer’s disciplinary records private.[iv]
Choke holds have been banned by law in New York State.[v]
The NYPD Department of Investigation has recently released a 115 page report on how the NYPD handled the George Floyd protests.[vi] It concluded that the NYPD was unprepared and its heavy handed tactics made the situation worse and more violent. It made recommendations on training and tactics. Unfortunately it failed to address the underlying issue of racism in the police force. It is hard to ignore the incredible disparity between the way the police respond to Black Lives Matter protests and, for example, the way the Capitol Police handled the attempted coup by white supremacists.
The report does address the lack of oversight for the police. They acknowledge that relations between the police and the public are at an all-time low due to the perception that the police can act with impunity and will not face any repercussions for their misdeeds. It recommends that the oversight of the police be consolidated into one organization with an independent board.
Similar suggestions were made in 2011 following the Occupy Wall Street protests and the police made similar promises of reform. Those promises have clearly been forgotten.[vii]
Another recent investigation by the NYPD determined that Deputy Inspector James F. Kobel, the man responsible for combating workplace harassment in the New York Police Department, wrote dozens of virulently racist posts about Black, Jewish and Hispanic people under a pseudonym on an online chat board favored by police officers.[viii] Kobel has filed for retirement and faces a departmental trial.
Just this week, New York State Attorney General, Leticia James has announced that she is suing the NYPD for excessive use of force.[ix] The complaint outlines the abuses by the NYPD in the recent Eric Garner and Black Lives Matter protests and the years of abuse the proceeded it. It shows some of the tactics the department has used such as the use of force, kittling, and unlawful detention. The suit seeks broad injunctive relief preventing these practices along with monitoring programs to enforce the prohibitions.[x]
There seems to be an increase in the public expression of hatred and support of violence by police. The Plainview Project[xi] has been undertaking a survey of social media posts by law enforcement personnel and has found a disturbing trend of racist talk and other hate speech advocating violence.[xii] A police chief in Arkansas had to resign after posting that Democrats should be summarily executed.[xiii]
Once again we get into a debate on the purpose of police in our society. What the public thinks the police are for is vastly different from the role police see themselves playing. In general terms, the public thinks the police are supposed to protect them from bad guys. The police, on the other hand, seem to view the world as an “us versus them” situation.[xiv]
The ACLU has an excellent editorial on the role of police in society.[xv] Even the neo-conservative group the Charles Koch Institute recognizes the problems with policing, saying that the public “have increasingly come to view police as warriors and enforcers, not guardians. In fact, almost a third of the public now view their local police as serving an enforcer role instead of a protector role.”[xvi] The ACLU and the Charles Koch Institute both recognize the value of “community policing”.
Community Policing forges cooperation between the police and the community they protect. It trains the officers to develop relationships and personal connections to the community and its residents. It reduces conflict and increases cooperation between the police and community.
All that takes time and it requires both sides to let go of some deeply held prejudices and distrusts of the other. In the meantime something must be done about the apparent immunity the police have for committing violence. High profile cases such as Eric Garner, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor among many others[xvii] have led to the public perception that police can get away with murder.
There are many obstacles to holding a police officer accountable. The lack of outside oversight, strong unions and support from other arms of the government all obstruct the process. District attorneys that are supposed to prosecute police officers often decline to press charges or they manipulate the presentation to grand juries to reduce the likelihood of charges. If the officers are fired they have little difficulty getting hired by another department.
The police claim that they are fighting a war, that they need support. They are often judged whether the way they reacted to a situation was reasonable for a normal person. They are not normal people. They are police officers who are supposed to be trained for these situations. We give them guns and powers to protect us. It is hard to avoid the cliché that with great power comes great responsibility, but it is true. The police should be held to a higher standard than “normal” people.
Two other reports with very good and comprehensive discussions of the problem with policing today:
The author[s] is solely responsible for this blog submission. It does not represent the position of the New York State Bar Association or its Committee.