By Lily Kaplan ’21
Police brutality has been a pressing issue in the United States for decades, but in the past months, following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other black Americans, citizens across the country have joined the Black Lives Matter Movement in order to call for racial justice. One of the protesters’ primary demands is for police reform. The reforms range from increasing training for officers to redistributing excessive police funding to the full abolition of the police. States across the country have been meeting these demands in different ways. Louisville, KY’s Metro Council voted unanimously to ban no-knock search warrants, and Minneapolis’s City Council passed measures to begin deconstructing the city’s police department.
In New York City, though, the future of police reform remains unclear. In June, the New York City Council passed a package of police reform bills that begin to address police brutality within the NYPD, some of which have been waiting to be approved for years. The six bills aim to improve policing transparency, decrease police brutality, and hold officers accountable for their misconduct.
One bill directly addresses police misconduct, by criminalizing restraints that restrict the flow of air through a person’s windpipe or blood through the arteries of the neck. The law, sponsored by Council Member Rory I. Lancman (D), characterizes chokeholds as well as the act of putting a knee on someone’s neck as examples of illegal restraint. An officer found to be in violation of this order would be guilty of a class-A misdemeanor. This bill has been in the works since the tragic murder of Eric Garner in 2014, whose death sparked outrage across the country. Yet, the law only criminalizes restraints made by officers when making an arrest, not when used by an officer in self-defense—an addition perceived by many to be a loophole for otherwise guilty officers.
Two bills were passed with the intention of improving police transparency. The first bill aimed to affirm the right to record police interactions and was sponsored by NYC Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams (D). For individuals who are prevented from recording police activities or threatened to not do so, this bill emphasizes the ability to sue in New York State Court for a violation of this right. The second bill, sponsored by New York City Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel (D), requires police officers to display their badge when on duty, an important step in keeping officers accountable when interacting with citizens.
In order to improve the NYPD’s system for identifying problematic officers, Council Member Donovan J. Richards (D) introduced a bill that requires the NYPD to create a disciplinary matrix, outlining the range of penalties of each type of police misconduct violation. The new law also requires public reporting on the development of the matrix. The caveat is that the NYPD commissioner still retains the power to override the penalties assigned within the matrix.
New York City Council Member Vanessa L. Gibson (D) proposed two of the six bills in the package. The first aimed to expand the NYPD’s Early Intervention System by requiring the NYPD to include incidents of excessive force, ongoing disciplinary proceedings, and occurrences of excessive force by officers into the Early Intervention System and to publicly report this information. The second bill requires the public reporting on and the regular assessment of NYPD surveillance technology. The Department is now required to release a “surveillance impact and use policy” on the technology used, including a description of guidelines, capabilities, and other measures created to protect information. The Department of Investigation’s Inspector General for the NYPD is now responsible for guaranteeing compliance with the law.
Although many deem this legislation the first step towards police reform in New York City, others believe this was a far cry from the depth of immediate reform needed to repair the relationship between Black and brown communities and the police.
The legislation has also been criticized for loopholes that prevent tangible change from occurring. Michael Blake, the Assemblyman representing New York’s 79th district in the Bronx, vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee and currently a candidate for Congress, gave a statement to The Iris about his stance on what our local government needs to do: “We should always prioritize hiring more youth over more officers and building more schools and less jails. Given the economic and social unrest, the Mayor and City Council should have cut at least $1 billion from the NYPD to invest into our communities. The brutality is not just police denying Black people the ability to breathe, it's making it impossible for us to live and thrive.” In the coming months, New Yorkers will see if their hopes of more reform will come to fruition.