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New York Lawmakers Repeal 50-a, Used To Shield Police Disciplinary Reports

Hans Pennink
New York Sate Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, speaks in favor of new legislation for police reform during a news briefing at the state Capitol in Albany on Monday.

The New York Assembly and Senate approved the repeal of a measure that’s been used to shield police disciplinary records from the public. But opponents, including police unions and some Republican senators, says it unfairly singles out officers for scrutiny that other public servants don’t face.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, the first African American to hold that title, has long supported the repeal of the provision in the state’s civil rights law known as 50-a, but it has long languished in the legislature.

Heastie, in an interview with public radio and TV, says the death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, who is now charged with second degree murder, and its aftermath, finally spurred the changes. He spoke via Skype.

“When you have people around the world literally laying down with their hands behind their backs, saying ‘I can’t breathe,’” said Heastie. “It raised the awareness and hearts and consciousness of people.” 

Other measures approved outlaw the use of chokeholds by police. Another makes a false race based 911 report a hate crime. It stems from a recent incident in Central Park, where a white woman was asked by an African American man who was bird watching to leash her dog. Amy Cooper called 911 and said an African American man was threatening her.

Assemblyman Clyde Vanel, who represents portions of Queens, cited another recent incident, where Ahmaud Arbery, an African American man out for a run, was chased down by two white men and shot to death. The men have been charged with murder. He says he and other African Americans simply want a level of personal safety in their daily lives that many white people take for granted.  

“I’d imagine if I were to live in a New York where I was able to walk to Central Park and be able to birdwatch without my skin color being used as a weapon against me,” said Valen. “Imagine I was able to go for a run in my neighborhood without the fear of someone trying to hunt me down and kill me.”

Opponents include police unions and some Republican lawmakers, who say the repeal of 50-a puts police in a separate category form other public workers, where even prior complaints against them that are not proven to be true can now be released to the public.

Assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Long Island, says it just gives “red meat to the mob.”

“The problem I have with this bill is that allowing unsubstantiated claims to be made available is not only unfair but plays into the hands of those forces of anarchy that want not to just defund and disband, but want to destroy the police departments of this country,” Fitzpatrick said.

Senate GOP Minority Leader John Flanagan in a statement, called the repeal of 50-a “un-American.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has agreed to sign the bills into law, says he also wants to “reimagine” police forces around the state so they can get along better with black and brown communities. He says he knows the  police unions are angry, but he says he can tolerate opponents “yelling” at him.

“I’ve been yelled at by the best of them for a long time,” Cuomo said. “The yelling doesn’t bother me anymore.”  

Lawmakers on Wednesday are expected to approve another measure, setting up a permanent unit in the state attorney general’s office to investigate allegations of police misconduct.  

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.
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