ALBANY (TNS) — New York lawmakers voted Wednesday to establish a special prosecutor’s unit to investigate police-involved deaths.
The legislation, codifying and expanding an executive order issued by Gov. Cuomo five years ago, grants the state Attorney General’s Office the ability to investigate and potentially prosecute incidents when a person dies in custody or after an encounter with a police officer.
“New Yorkers deserve a judicial system that is impartial and fair,” said Assemblyman Nick Perry (D-Brooklyn). “Creating the Office of Special Investigation will address conflicts of interest and foster public confidence that when civilians die as a result of an interaction with law enforcement, justice will be served.”
The measure, along with the repeal of a statute known as 50-a that shielded police disciplinary records, is a cornerstone of a slate of criminal justice reform bills taken up by the Legislature this week amid a backdrop of civil unrest against police brutality that has engulfed the nation.
Protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis when a white cop knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, spurred state lawmakers into action.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) talked about being an African-American woman with four grandsons in an emotional and personal address from the floor of the Senate before the bill was approved.
“What we did is not a cure, but it is a first step towards acknowledging that while laws alone cannot fix racism in America, they can begin to root injustice out of our justice system, and start us on the path to equality,” she said.
The bill takes the investigative authority away from local district attorneys, who often work closely with local police departments, when someone dies after an encounter with police or in custody and creates an Office of Special Investigation within the office of Attorney General Letitia James.
In 2015, Cuomo tasked the attorney general’s office with investigating such cases in the wake of the death of Eric Garner, a black Staten Island man who died after a cop put him in a chokehold, a year earlier.
The governor has repeatedly called on the Legislature to codify the order into law in recent years, but the measure stalled under Republican control and did not go up for a vote last year after Democrats took over the Senate.
A separate piece of legislation will establish the Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigative Office within the state Department of Law to investigate allegations of corruption, fraud, use of excessive force, criminal activity, conflicts of interest or abuse in local law enforcement agencies.
“Recent events, both across the country and in New York have further illustrated the need for increased transparency in law enforcement,” said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx). “This legislation will help ensure that there is transparency and oversight of these entities so that New Yorkers can have confidence in the law enforcement serving their communities.”
Other bills passed this week include bans on chokeholds and race-based profiling, a measure mandating state police wear body cameras and a measure requiring police departments and courts to track arrests by race and ethnicity to help identify patterns of bias.
The chokehold ban was named in honor of Garner, whose dying words, “I can’t breathe,” have become a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Cuomo said Wednesday he plans to sign all ten measures passed over the last three days.
“It will happen in New York this week,” he said.