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New York Police Reforms Offer Reason for Cautious Optimism

March 16, 2021, 8:01 AM

In the 10 months since George Floyd’s tragic death, the conversation about racial justice and police brutality in America has changed dramatically.

The about nine deadly minutes that Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, spent pinned to the ground with now-former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck sparked a long-overdue national conversation. Now, as Chauvin, who is White, is on trial for murder and manslaughter, attention turns to the criminal justice system, which traditionally has not often delivered guilty verdicts in police abuse cases.

But while the drama plays out in the courtroom, the hard work of reimagining law enforcement continues in communities across the country, and in New York, concrete changes are being made.

New York Takes a Unique Approach

It turns out that police reform is difficult, as cities like Seattle, Portland, and my hometown of Rochester, N.Y., have learned—in some cases, with years of failed attempts on the books.

Incidents of police misconduct continue to make headlines, including the case of Daniel Prude, who died after an encounter with the Rochester Police Department. And a sweeping federal bill (HR 7120) to combat excessive use of force and racial discrimination in law enforcement has stalled in the U.S. Senate.

There is reason for cautious optimism, however. New York, for example, in addition to swiftly passing reform legislation in the wake of Floyd’s death, has taken a unique approach to incentivizing reform. Municipalities must adopt a plan to improve how local law enforcement impacts and interacts with communities of color by April 1—the constitutionally mandated state budget deadline—or risk losing future financial support.

To be clear, we have a moral imperative to make changes that ensure police officers are truly protecting and serving their respective communities. But history has shown, time and again, that entrenched protectors of the status quo are not motivated by high-minded arguments about doing the right thing. New York’s carrot-and-stick method may prove to be the most effective way to get results.

Last December, New York adopted a series of state-level reform measures, including a ban on chokeholds and a repeal of Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights Law, a once-obscure provision that was used to shield police disciplinary records from public view for decades.

But when it comes to improving the day-to-day interactions between police officers and the residents they are sworn to protect, decisions must be made at the local level. A one-size-fits-all approach would be doomed to failure.

The gubernatorial executive order that linked police reform plans with state funding was followed by a letter that directed the state’s 500 law enforcement agencies to engage in an inclusive process designed to “rebuild the police-community relationship.”

As the April 1 deadline approaches, municipalities are putting the finishing touches on their respective plans, having spent months in conversation and debate—no doubt often heated and uncomfortable—with a wide variety of stakeholders.

The NYS Bar Task Force’s Role in Police Reform

This process has perhaps been painful, but it is necessary. At the New York State Bar Association, the nation’s largest voluntary state bar association, we are engaging in a similar undertaking through the Task Force on Racial Injustice and Police Reform. The task force was created in the aftermath of Floyd’s death to harness the widespread knowledge and experience of NYSBA members to analyze current police practices and propose additional reforms.

The task force has hosted a series of public forums, attended by a wide variety of stakeholders, including current and former police officials and officers and religious leaders and community activists. All have volunteered their time in recognition of the watershed moment we have reached as a society, and the need to act to finally deliver on pledges of long-term, meaningful change.

The task force will soon deliver its recommendations to NYSBA’s governing body, the House of Delegates, and then share them with policymakers, state and local elected officials, and law enforcement agencies statewide. Our hope is that we will be able to contribute in a meaningful way on matters such as police policies and training, civilian oversight review boards, recruitment and more.

Regardless of the outcome of the current trial, George Floyd’s death was both untimely and unnecessary. It is up to us all to ensure that he did not die in vain, and that his legacy will result in a new, more effective and equitable form of policing that New Yorkers, and the nation, both need and deserve.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Author Information

T. Andrew Brown, president-elect of the New York State Bar Association, is co-chair of NYSBA’s Task Force on Racial Injustice and Police Reform. He is founder and managing partner of Brown Hutchinson LLP in Rochester, N.Y., and has played an active role in NYSBA for nearly three decades, and has chaired the Trial Lawyers Section and Finance Committee.