After more than a week of protests over racist police brutality stemming from the murder of George Floyd, New York state senators and assembly members voted Tuesday in favor of a long list of reforms to increase police accountability and transparency across the state.

Chief among the reforms is the repeal of Section 50-A of the Civil Rights Law, which has kept police disciplinary records in New York confidential since the 1970s. State Senate Bill S8496 repeals 50-A and subjects police records, like the records of other public agencies, to the Freedom of Information Law, requiring police departments across the state to turn over relevant information to journalists, lawyers, and members of the public following a violent police incident.

50-A was originally posed as a way to prevent defense attorneys from dredging up irrelevant personal information to embarrass or discredit officers testifying at trial. Over the years it’s morphed into a blanket protection for police that applies not only to lawyers, but to the media and public.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration is responsible for broadening the law’s interpretation to include anonymous, aggregated data that would not expose any single officer, and to applying 50-A protections to redacted records.

The repeal bill was introduced by Bronx State Sen. Jamaal Bailey and co-sponsored by State Sens. Luis Sepúlveda, Brian Benjamin, Alessandra Biaggi, and Neil Breslin.

“For generations we have been hunted, abused, mentally and physically by bad police, those who are supposed to serve and protect us,” said Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes. “No longer can law enforcement agencies hide behind civil rights law 50-A to shield the public from truly knowing who is behind the badge.”

After weeks of protest against racist police violence, the New York state legislature moved on a package of reform measures, many of which have stagnated in Albany for years. Photo: Anna Bradley-Smith/BK Reader

Both houses of the state legislature also passed bill S.3253A, which gives bystanders the right to record police and maintain possession of the recording.

“This will both protect New Yorkers rights and hold law enforcement accountable for their actions. It is past time that the right to record was codified in state law,” said Assemblymember Nick Perry.

Another law (dubbed the “Amy Cooper Bill” after the white woman who called 911 on a black man in Central Park last month after he asked her to leash her dog) makes it a hate crime to make a false 911 report motivated by race, gender, or religion.

“This legislation sends the message loud and clear that it is not a crime for people of color to exist in public spaces, and it establishes a means of recourse should they encounter such treatment,”said Brooklyn Assemblymember Diana Richardson, who sponsored the bill in the assembly.

Lawmakers also passed a law named for Eric Garner, the man strangled by an NYPD officer for selling loose cigarettes in 2014, which makes using a chokehold on arrestees a Class-C felony.

Another law passed Wednesday, S.1830C, requires courts and police departments to release data on the demographic makeup of low-level offenders, and to submit data on arrest-related deaths.

“This legislation will provide the public with the transparency they deserve, and allow the Legislature to make informed, evidence based decisions regarding future policy decisions,” said Brooklyn Assemblymember Joseph Lentol, who sponsored the assembly bill.

Bills establishing the rights of people in custody to medical and mental health attention, requiring police to use body cameras, and requiring officers to file a report any time they discharge their weapon in a context where someone could be struck, also passed the state legislature on Wednesday.

The bills now move to Governor Andrew Cuomo to be signed into law. The governor has said he will sign any bill on 50-A reform that reaches his desk.

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Alex Williamson

Alex Williamson is a Brooklyn-based reporter whose work has appeared in Brooklyn Eagle, Queens Eagle, Gothamist and elsewhere.

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