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As Reform Bills Pass, New York Senate Leader Tells Personal Story Of Life Affected By Racism

Karen DeWitt
Courtesy of New York State Senate
New York Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins speaks on the Senate floor about her personal experiences with racism, Wednesday at the Capitol in Albany.

The New York State legislature Wednesday wrapped up passage of a package of bills on police reform, as the Senate leader delivered a very personal speech on how systemic racism has affected her life.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the first African American woman and first woman to lead the Senate, said in her speech that she has often talked about her father, a World War II veteran who served in a segregated U.S. Army, and has said that as a mother of three sons and four grandchildren she “lives in worry.”

But for the first time she told the story of her brother Bobby, a Vietnam veteran who served a decade as a New York City transit cop, until he quit. She says her brother was a good police officer and joined the force so that he could “help our community” but came to believe that he couldn’t change the system.

“He left because he was convinced that the system was created to give young black men a record,” Stewart-Cousins said.

She says he gave examples of what he had seen.

He saw two white kids fighting, they would be brought down to the stations and their families would be called,” she said. “And then he saw two black kids fighting and they’d be brought to the station and they’d be booked for assault.” 

Stewart-Cousins says the resulting criminal records follow them for the rest of their lives.  

Stewart-Cousins says one of her sons, Stephen, at the age of 18, was with two friends “on the other side of town” when they were stopped and frisked by police. Nothing illegal was found on them. But the experience landed him in the emergency room of the hospital with a broken nose.

“Anybody knew that Stephen would never have resisted,” she said.

She spoke as the Senate and the Assembly passed a measure to create a permanent unit with the state attorney general’s office to investigate allegations of police misconduct that result in the death of a New Yorker. It codifies into law a five-year-old executive order issued by Governor Andrew Cuomo that gave the AG power to appoint a special prosecutor after such incidents.

Senator Jamaal Bailey, the bill’s sponsor, says lawmakers “heard” the voice of the protesters who put aside their fears during the coronavirus pandemic and filled streets in cities across New York and the nation in the past weeks. 

“In the time of crisis and COVID that we are in, people often forget about their own health infirmities and their own concerns about contracting COVID,” he said. “Because it was that important to make sure that they were in the streets, to make sure that their voices were heard, that enough is enough.”

Other measures approved earlier in the week ban police chokeholds, require state troopers to wear body cameras, and repeal of a section of civil rights law, known as 50-a, that many police forces and local governments used to shield police disciplinary records from the public.  

Another bill makes it a hate crime to falsely make race-based claims on a 911 call.

Governor Cuomo is expected to sign the measures.

Senate Leader Stewart-Cousins say passage of the bills give her hope, but she says they can’t alone “fix racism in America.”

Most of the 23 Republicans in the Senate voted against the measure to set up the special unit within the attorney general’s office and all the GOP senators voted against the repeal of 50-a. Several Republicans did vote for some of the other bills.

None spoke publicly on the floor against the measures on Wednesday.

The state’s Republican Party chair, Nick Langworthy, issued a statement on the passage of the package of bills, calling them “anti-police,” saying that Democrats are “creating a safe haven for criminals” while the police are “put in handcuffs.” Langworthy condemned the killing of George Floyd, calling it an outrage and a sorrow and an “evil” act, but he says the reforms need to be more sensible.


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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