Cuomo Calls on Local Governments To Reform Police Departments

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Joining the Governor for the bill signing are: Rev. Al Sharpton, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Leader Carl Heastie, Valerie Bell, the mother of Sean Bell; Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner; and Hazel N. Dukes is President of the NAACP New York State Conference.

During his Saturday morning press conference, Governor Andrew Cuomo reaffirmed the state’s position that local governments and county executives must work with their individual communities collaboratively to reform their police departments by April 1, 2021, or face debilitating cuts in state aid.

On Friday, Governor Cuomo signed an executive order, the New York Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative, requiring local police agencies to develop a plan “that reinvents and modernizes police strategies and programs in their community based on community input,” according to a press release issued by the governor’s office.

In order to be eligible for state funding, counties and local governments must adopt a plan by April 1, 2021 after going through a process where stakeholders are engaged in a public process on police strategies, where a formal plan is crafted that the public can comment on. If a local government fails to certify a plan by the deadline, state funding may be in jeopardy.

“These bills mean some substantive change,” said the Reverend Al Sharpton, who joined Governor Cuomo on Friday, along with Senate Majority Leader Andrew Stewart-Cousin; Assembly Leader Carl Heastie; Valerie Bell, the mother of Sean Bell, who was shot by New York City Police in 2006; Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, who died in 2014 after being put into a choke-hold by a police officer on Staten Island; and Hazel N. Dukes, the president of the NAACP New York State Conference.

“The entire world is saying enough is enough is enough,” Mr. Heastie said.

“The protests taking place throughout the nation and in communities across New York in response to the murder of George Floyd illustrate the loss of community confidence in our local police agencies — a reality that has been fueled by our country’s history of police-involved deaths of black and brown people,” Mr. Cuomo said in a press release issued Friday. “Our law enforcement officers are essential to ensuring public safety — they literally put themselves in harm’s way every day to protect us. This emergency regulation will help rebuild that confidence and restore trust between police and the communities they serve by requiring localities to develop a new plan for policing in the community based on fact-finding and meaningful community input.”

The governor’s latest effort is in addition to a series of reform policy items outlined by the state in the “Say Their Name” agenda, including allowing for transparency of prior disciplinary records of law enforcement officers, banning choke-holds, prohibiting false race-based 011 reports and making them a hate crime and designating Attorney General Letitia James as an independent prosecutor on matters related to the deaths of unarmed civilians caused by law enforcement.

On Sunday, Governor Cuomo announced he would sign two bills related to law enforcement reform and racial inequality. The first would affirm the right to record police activity. The second would launch a new Department of Health study on the health impacts of COVID-19 on minorities in New York State.

On Tuesday, Governor Cuomo announced he had signed legislation requiring all New York State Police officers to wear body cameras while on patrol. A second law signed Tuesday created the Law Enforcement Investigative Office within the Department of Law to review, study, audit and make recommendations to agencies in the state with the goal of enhancing effectiveness of law enforcement, increasing public safety, protecting civil liberties and civil rights and increase confidence in law enforcement.

The office will also handle misconduct complaints statewide about any law enforcement agencies. Unlike a special prosecutor, which is triggered in the event of a death related to law enforcement, the office will provide independent review of complaints of misconduct for any law enforcement agency.

“I stand with the protesters,” Governor Cuomo reiterated during Saturday’s press conference.

Governor Cuomo called the New York Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative “a major step forward.”

“I believe it is a moment to turn the page on this entire issue … the people of this nation have made their voices heard,” the governor said. “They are outraged after Mr. Floyd’s murder … Now is the time for every community to put pen to paper and enact systematic reform.”

There are 500 police departments throughout the State of New York. In Suffolk County, the Suffolk County Police Department covers five of the 10 towns in the county including Babylon, Brookhaven, Huntington, Islip and Smithtown. The towns of East Hampton, Southampton, Shelter Island, Riverhead and Southold all have their own police departments. The villages of East Hampton, Quogue, Sag Harbor, Southampton and Westhampton Beach also have their own police departments.

“Bring the community to the table, have the conversation and come up with a redesigned police force for 2020,” Mr. Cuomo said. “Come up with the reforms you actually want in specifics and remake your police force. That is the stage we are in at this point.”

Mr. Cuomo said he expects different communities will have different needs and wants for what law enforcement looks like through the lens of the reform and that it will be the local governments that tell the state what works for them, not the other way around.

“County by county, city by city — what police force do you want? We heard you. You are right. We agree with you, protesters. Now tell us what the police force looks like and let’s do that over the next nine months … There is no one size fits all. It is what the community wants and New York City may want something different from Suffolk, may what something different from Erie, and that is fine because it is for that community to design,” he said.

“If you don’t do it, local government, you won’t get any state funding, period,” Mr. Cuomo said. “We are not going to tell you what to do, but we will tell you, you have to go through this process and you have to pass a law with your redesigned police force and you have to do it by April 1 or you don’t get state funding.”

“And look, it has to be done anyway,” he added “We don’t have a choice because no police department can function, not in this state and not in this nation, if you don’t have the trust and respect of the community.”

“We are and will be working with the state under the governor’s executive order developing our plans on the local level with community input, with the police department and I think we need to look at our entire criminal justice system,” County Executive Steve Bellone said on Saturday. “I think that’s what we need to look at and we will do that.”

“The good news is our police department has been doing some really great things around community policing, and made incredible advances and that has largely been able to happen because of the relationships that have been built and the bridges that have been built in communities across this county, all of our communities in the county,” he added. “So we look forward to providing that information to the state.”

Mr. Bellone noted the county has implemented anti-bias police training and said the implicit bias training used by Suffolk County Police has been lauded by the Justice Department as a national model to help train other departments.

“We believe police are part of the community, they’re not some entity that comes in, they are part of the larger community,” he said. “And to really make that work in practice, it means listening to people, it means having conversations on a continual basis and having an open line of communication that goes in both directions, and that’s what the police department has done here and because of that we’ve made some great advances, and we believe that we should constantly be striving to get better, so we look forward to the community input and putting together our plan we can submit to the state and we’ll have a lot of information that’s helpful to share with others.”

Asked what the redesign might look like, he said, “We just got the governor’s executive order and we will be looking to comply, and I think a lot of the work we’ve done already will be included in the plan.”

“As a New York State [Division of Criminal Justice Services] accredited agency, we have always ensured transparent compliance with all state and federal requirements and will take the necessary steps to ensure these standards are met,” East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo said in an email on Sunday morning. “We have always had an open dialogue with the stakeholders in our community and engaging our concerned citizens will obviously continue in this new mandate. Our policies and procedures and departmental planning have been forward thinking, included community policing models and actively worked to ensure the most professional and fair enforcement of laws for all members of the community.”

“The Southampton Town PD continually works to improve and modernize,” said Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki. “We invest in public outreach on many levels, cooperative community policing, and internal management that includes anti-bias training and de-escalation on a regular basis. We are well prepared to meet the suggested standards, if not there already.”

On Tuesday, Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Austin J. McGuire said he had already been working on updating the village’s police code, some of which has remained unchanged since the 1980s. It is a project he began in March 2019, with the aid of Lexipol, an international firm that helps police, fire and EMS departments revise their codes.

“It’s been a really big project,” said Mr. McGuire, who said he would bring the department’s Use of Force policy for 2020 as well as an Anti-Bias policy to the village board work session, scheduled for Wednesday, June 17, at 2 p.m.

On Monday, Mayor Kathleen Mulcahy said she hoped to convene some kind of town hall meeting — perhaps virtually due to COVID-19 — this summer when as many stakeholders as possible can attend.

“I want to have this conversation while people are still thinking about this and when as many people are here as possible,” said Ms. Mulcahy.

With Kitty Merrill

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