The Police Accountability Act, which James’ office is calling “the most far-reaching use of force reform in the nation,” would not only set a higher standard for when officers can legally use force but would also make it easier for prosecutors to hold officers who have committed unjustified or excessive force accountable.
Calls for accountability surrounding excessive force grew louder last summer during the protests against the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans. Cell phone videos from the demonstrations showing officers employing tear gas, batons, bicycles, and even a police vehicle against citizens only seemed to confirm the anger of the protesters.
Earlier this year, James sued the NYPD for their treatment of protesters. Now, she is hoping to further address this issue through the Police Accountability Act.
“For far too long, police officers in this country have been able to evade accountability for the unjustified use of excessive and lethal force,” James said.
“The Police Accountability Act will make critical and necessary changes to the law, providing clear and legitimate standards for when the use of force is acceptable and enacting real consequences for when an officer crosses that line.”
This announcement comes about a month after New York City became the first major U.S. city to ban qualified immunity, the controversial legal doctrine that allows government agents to avoid being sued for violating constitutional rights in many cases. Qualified immunity is often used as a defense in cases of police misconduct, with the New York Times reporting that the NYPD turned to the doctrine in at least 180 lawsuits over the last three years.
The Police Accountability Act seeks to further reforms, primarily by establishing that officers must use force only as a last resort after all other alternatives are exhausted. The current state law does not require police officers to use alternatives such as verbal warnings or de-escalation prior to the use of force.
State law also allows the use of force, even deadly force, simply based on the suspicion that a suspect has committed a certain level of crime, whether or not they present a current danger to the officer. The Police Accountability Act would no longer allow for this justification.
In addition, the legislation allows for prosecutors to determine whether or not the conduct of police officers resulted in the need for the use of force and sets standard criminal penalties for officers convicted of excessive use of force.
In a statement, Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch came out in opposition of the bill. “This sweeping proposal would make it impossible for police officers to determine whether or not we are permitted to use force in a given situation,” he said.
“While this is an important step in addressing the shortfalls of our criminal justice system, it is not a cure all for the ills that have impacted too many families and claimed too many lives,” James said.
“We must continue to do everything in our power to protect our communities and ensure that no one is beyond the reach of justice.”
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