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New York State Leaders Say They Favor Restructuring, Not Defunding, Police

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.

There’s a growing movement to defund the police, after the death of George Floyd and incidences of police brutality in the nationwide protests that came in the aftermath. New York State’s leaders say they would rather restructure the forces than cut their budgets.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, following 10 days of protests where numerous videos showed incidences of potential police misconduct, announced that he was amending the city’s budget to take funds away from the NYPD’s $6 billion allocation, and put more money into social services including youth programs.

New York’s legislative leaders say they do not back simply cutting police forces, but they do believe there should be more money for other services. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, in an interview with public radio and TV, says it’s about more than simply defunding the police.  

“I think what everyone is saying is that they really want government to focus on social spending in other areas,”  Heastie said, via Skype. “(It’s about) income equality, it’s about access to education, it’s about people needing mental health services.”

Heastie, the first African American to become speaker, says Assembly Democrats have for years advocated for spending more on measures to alleviate income inequality.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the first African American and first woman to lead the Senate,in a recent speech in the chamber talked of her brother, who quit the New York City Transit police force because he felt it was unjust to young African Americans, and of her son, who was stopped and frisked by police and ended up with a broken nose. Stewart-Cousins says she does not back simply cutting police budgets. She says it’s really about deciding what kinds of situations require a police response. And which could be better resolved by someone else, like a mental health crisis, or aid for a homeless person.   

“Certainly we are not calling for defunding the police,” Stewart-Cousins said, in an interview with public radio. “But a legitimate conversation about whether or not the police are the best people to send for a situation is, I believe, a valid conversation.”  

State lawmakers took several steps this week to reform police practices, including banning the use of chokeholds as a form of restraint, and repealing a law that was used to shield police disciplinary records from the public.  

Some state senators want to do more. Senator Alessandra Biaggi, a Democrat from the Bronx, has introduced a bill to ban police use of tear gas, pepper spray and other chemical agents. During the past couple of weeks of protests, police in New York and in many cities across the nation have used the agents on peaceful protesters. Biaggi says there’s no good reason for police to ever use tear gas.   

“It is meant to trigger pain in people, which we have seen in the videos we’ve watched across the entire country,” said Biaggi.

She says it’s even worse to use the chemical agents during a pandemic, because they cause people to cough and sneeze and remove their masks.

“We’re just increasing the risk of spreading COVID, as well,” Biaggi said.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has at times praised and criticized the police, says “one-off” bills regulating a single aspect of policing is not the best approach. He thinks police forces need to be fundamentally “reimagined” and restructured to eradicate systemic racism.

“It’s not about tear gas,” Cuomo said. “It’s much broader than that. This is inherent racism. It’s about decades and decades of injustice.”

Cuomo says the “moment” for real change has come, and should not be wasted.

Senator Biaggi says she agrees.

“There is no one act that will solve systemic racism and injustice,” she said. “It requires collective efforts, and many, many actions over time that build on one another.”

Not everyone is in favor of making changes to the police. Many Republican lawmakers voted against some of the police reform bills, and State GOP Chair Nick Langworthy, in a statement, says de Blasio’s call to defund the police is “extreme” and “radical,” and he predicts it would make citizens less safe against terrorism, and have “catastrophic and deadly consequences.”

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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