By Alejandra O’Connell-Domenech
New York Attorney General Letitia James recommended sweeping police reform in a preliminary report released Wednesday on police actions during last month’s George Floyd protests.
After a video of Minneapolis man George Floyd’s death went viral in May protests against police brutality erupted across the country. Protesters first took to the streets in New York City on May 28 at Union Square. The initially peaceful protest took a violent turn after demonstrators and officers scuffled as the protesters marched toward City Hall ending in dozens of arrests. Violent clashes would continue to mark protests over the following weeks.
After daily reports of officers using batons, pepper spray, and charging at peaceful protesters without provocation, James, the state’s most powerful law enforcement officer, announced in mid-June that she would conduct an investigation into police conduct during the protests under the direction of Governor Andrew Cuomo.
The preliminary report comes after 30 days of “intense scrutiny” and a two-day-long virtual public hearing where over 300 New Yorkers registered to speak about their experiences with officers during protests. Dozens of protesters and activists retold stories of officers charging at peaceful protesters, arresting legal observers, trapping protesters in narrow streets with a tactic called “kettling,” shoving protesters off of bicycles, arresting essential workers traveling past a city-wide 8:00 p.m. curfew, using pepper spray without provocation and arbitrarily throwing protesters to the ground and arresting them during demonstrations.
“It is impossible to deny that many New Yorkers have lost faith in law enforcement, ” said Attorney General James during a conference call ahead of the preliminary reports’ release. Between May 28 and June 7, officers made 2.087 protest-related arrests in New York City, according to the Attorney General’s office. Out of those arrested, 44 % were white, 39% were Black and 13 % were Latino. Out of the those arrested and charged with a felony, 16 % were Black New Yorkers, 8% Latino, less than 4% were white and less than 4% were Asian New Yorkers.
The bulk of felony charges were made on May 31, during a night of city-wide looting following protests, according to James. Most arrests though were made between June 2 and June 6 after Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio instituted an 8:00 p.m curfew suggesting the curfew ” was a significant driver of arrests.” the report found.
Even though the Office of the Attorney General is still conducting its investigation into police conduct during the protests, James issued five recommendations to reform policing in her preliminary report. The first suggestion is to allow for public insight and overview of police policies and leadership. In order to do this, James suggests that the NYPD be overseen by a commission that has the authority to hire and fire department leadership, including the Commissioner, and also has complete access to records and the authority to approve the NYPD budget. The NYPD should also be required to seek public input on rule changes.
The second suggestion is to reexamine and change the role of the NYPD in New York City. Minor offenses should be decriminalized to lower the number of negative interactions between officers and civilians. Officers should no longer be the “de facto” response to issues like mental illness, homelessness, and school safety, the report says. Another commission should lead this transformation equipped with a full-time staff and resources to configure how to remove armed officers from these situations and instead replaced with professionals with specialized training. The commission should be given 12 months to plan the transition with the goal of implementing changes by 2023, James said.
The third area of reform is in the area of accountability and transparency. The Office of the Attorney General recommends the city expand the authority of Civilian Complaint Review Board to have final disciplinary power over holding officers accountable for misconduct. Officers should also be certified through a system that allows for “decertifying” officers guilty of misconduct in order to prevent bad apples from being rehired by another department in the state, the report says. The NYPD should also create an open data portal where the public could easily access body camera footage.
James’ fourth recommendation calls for the Office of Inspector General to become a fully independent agency that reports to the mayor instead of to the Commissioner of the Department of Investigation. The final recommendation is for a use-of-force standard to be codified into state law. Many of the standards related to officers’ use of force in the NYPD’s Patrol Guide are not codified in law placing the responsibility of disciplinary actions on the Police Commissioner. Creating a use-of-force standard into law would obviously establish legal consequences for abusive use.
“The police cannot police themselves,” said James. “At this point in time why is this agency treated so differently than all the others? That is the question we need to address.”
Shortly after the release of James’ preliminary report, City Hall quickly squashed the idea of having a commission oversee the NYPD.
“While we thank the Attorney General for her investigation and look forward to reviewing the report in full and working together to further reform policing in this city, we do not believe creating a commission to oversee the NYPD does that,” wrote top de Blasio spokesperson Freddi Goldstein in an email. “Over the last seven years, stop and frisk became a thing of the past, all officers were trained in implicit bias and de-escalation and outfitted with body cameras, and neighborhood policing improved trust in communities. Change comes from accountability, something a commission lacks. If we want to continue moving forward, more bureaucracy is not the answer.”