In State of the State address, Gov. Cuomo addresses police reform amidst ongoing controversies

Governor Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday.  Source :  Official Photograph/New York Governor's Office/Flickr

Governor Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday.  Source :  Official Photograph/New York Governor's Office/Flickr

By LOUIS FLORES

In the State of the State address delivered Wednesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-New York) finally made public suggestions that, in part, addressed complaints by police reform activists that the criminal justice system allowed police officers to commit homicides with impunity.

The criminal justice reforms were amongst over 100 other proposals Governor Cuomo made as part of his State of Opportunity agenda for 2015.

"We are currently in the midst of a national problem, where people are questioning our justice system," Governor Cuomo said, in part, during his State of the State address, adding, "And they're questioning whether the justice system really is fairness for all."

Gov. Cuomo's 7-point proposals for criminal justice reforms, taken verbatim from his State of the State presentation materials, are as follows :

  1. Create a statewide Reconciliation Commission to address police/community relations in affected neighborhoods.
  2. Recruit more minorities into law enforcement.
  3. Obtain and make publicly available race and ethnic data on summonses, misdemeanors, and other police actions statewide.
  4. Fund replacement vests, body cameras and bullet-proof glass for patrol cars in high crime areas.
  5. District Attorneys may issue a grand jury report or a letter of fact in police cases where an unarmed civilian dies and the case is not presented to the grand jury or the grand jury fails to indict.
  6. The Governor will appoint an Independent Monitor (a retired judge, for example) to review police cases where an unarmed civilian dies and the case is not presented to the grand jury, or the grand jury fails to indict. In those cases, the monitor can recommend to the Governor the appointment of a special prosecutor.
  7. The Independent Monitor will have access to police files and grand jury information, which will be protected.

In December 2014, the New York Police Department, or NYPD, was shown to have engaged in brutal encounters with civilians, sometimes so brutal that, over the last 15 years, 179 fatalities resulted from those encounters, according to an analysis conducted by The New York Daily News.  Out of these 179 fatalities, only three cases resulted in criminal indictments of the involved officers, leading to only one conviction, affirming a chief complaint of police reform activists that NYPD officers can kill civilians with impunity.

Governor Cuomo's proposed reforms were praised by some of New York City's district attorneys, who did not want to completely lose jurisdiction of cases of officer-involved crimes.  Queens County District Attorney Richard Brown lauded the proposals, as did Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, as well as Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, who particularly welcomed the proposal of ending a grand jury with a report or letter if a grand jury fails to vote to file charges against an officer in a case of a death of an unarmed civilian.

Attorneys from the various District Attorney's Offices would nevertheless maintain authority to prosecute cases of officer-involved fatalities, according to a report by The Associated Press, meaning, that the inherent conflicts of interest between district attorneys and police departments will continue.

As Progress Queens has reported, district attorneys, who are boastful about their records of convictions and guilty pleas, can see those records unraveled if a police officer relied upon by prosecutors is found guilty of misconduct.  Were a police officer to ever be found guilty of official misconduct, it could possibly raise questions about the cases and arrests that that officer made in his career, possibly leading to the reversal on appeal of prosecutions and guilty pleas based on such cases and arrests.  Furthermore, district attorneys' successful rates of convictions and guilty pleas depend on having an amicable relationship with police departments.  If police unions were to begin to view district attorneys as possible adversaries, then that perception would create a chill between their relationships, possibly hampering prosecutions by district attorneys, leading to poorer rates of convictions and guilty pleas.

Separately, Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, praised the race reporting proposal, saying in a statement that, "Public reporting of race data is the crucial first step toward turning a thorny, painful issue into reforms that protect and promote basic rights and liberties along with public safety. The legislature should act swiftly to enact the transparency that we so desperately need."

Notwithstanding the minimal reforms proposed by Governor Cuomo, they were too much for one district attorney, Daniel Donovan (R-Staten Island), who believes that the system that allows police to get away with murder is just fine as it is.

In contrast, other advocates for reforms, such as Public Advocate Tish James (WFP-New York City), had been calling for the complete release of grand jury records, not for the issuance of one-off letter reports.  

Governor Cuomo's first proposal called for the creation of a state reconciliation commission, "so we could have a dialogue, community-by-community, where the community could talk to the police, and the police can talk to the community in a safe situation and a safe setting, with frankness and candor, to work through issues," Governor Cuomo said, in part.  

Governor Cuomo's proposal for a community relations commission that is only going to promote dialogue may not be enough to heal the broken relationship between police and community.  Under the administration of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R-New York City), such a commission was appointed by the mayor following the sodomy attack of Abner Louima.  That community relations task force, chaired by Governor Cuomo's new political advisor, Christine Quinn, made watered-down recommendations that were later rejected by then Mayor Giuliani.

The press office for Governor Cuomo's office did not immediately answer questions about the scope, powers, authorities, or mandate of the proposed new commission. 

One of the demands of some police reform activists is for the creation of a new, permanent commission, modeled after the precedents set by the Knapp and Mollen commissions, only this time this new, permanent commission would be empowered with both authorities to investigate and prosecute cases of police misconduct.

Governor Cuomo's proposals for reforming police accountability in New York State are not coming voluntarily.  He's been under pressure by police reform activists to deliver radical changes that get to the root of the lack of any police accountability.  Before Governor Cuomo delivered his State of the State address, for example, he was the target of #BlackLivesMatter protesters, who staged a sit-in at the entrance to the Empire State Plaza in Albany, where Governor Cuomo was set to deliver his address.  New York State troopers arrested 22 activists, according to a report published by The Daily Gazette.

However, Governor Cuomo is very close to the big business community, which is seen favouring heavy-handed policing tactics, as Progress Queens has reported, rendering Governor Cuomo's police reform proposals as pie in the sky, because the proposals would need approval by a state legislature, the control over which is divided between Democrats and Republicans, a dysfunctional situation that many claim Governor Cuomo actually prefers.

Notable, also, was the lack of any proposal to deal with other forms of police misconduct, including police brutality ; violations of the Handschu Agreement ; and sexual orientation, gender identity, racial, and religious belief profiling by police officers.

Governor Cuomo's proposals were made public on the same day when the U.S. Department of Justice leaked information to The New York Times, indicating that federal prosecutors were considering closing their civil rights investigation of the shooting homicide of Michael Brown by Ferguson Police Department officer Darren Wilson.

The closure of the Brown case without charges filed by federal prosecutors may eliminate a last sense of justice for the Brown family.  A federal review of the NYPD officer-involved chokehold homicide of Anthony Baez, who was killed by the NYPD in a chokehold homicide, led to the officer's conviction, said former Judge Milton Mollen during an exclusive interview with Progress Queens.  Judge Mollen chaired the Mollen Commission empaneled by former Mayor David Dinkins to root out police corruption.

When pressed about the failures to hold the NYPD accountable for acts of misconduct or crimes, Judge Mollen said, “In some degree, it makes sense to get the federal government involved,” but, separately adding about the role of federal prosecutors to hold police departments accountable when local prosecutors fail, he also said, “I can’t tell you that’s the cure for the problem, if there is a problem.”  

During an extensive interview with Progress Queens, Judge Mollen refused to say whether the NYPD lacked accountability.

Besides the Brown case, two local, recent cases of officer-involved fatalities are at the nexus of a national debate over holding police accountable for fatalities :  the chokehold homicide of Eric Garner by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo and the shooting homicide of Akai Gurley by NYPD officer Peter Liang.  The Garner case is now reportedly under review by federal prosecutors in the office of U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, and a grand jury is reportedly reviewing the facts in the Gurley case.  Under the current legal framework, the families of both homicide victims face a grim prospect for justice.

Proposed rail link to La Guardia Airport 

Separately, in the lead-up to the State of the State address, Governor Cuomo announced a proposed "Air-Train" like link between the 7 MTA subway line and La Guardia Airport.  No plans are definite, yet, but some reports claim that Governor Cuomo envisions the new La Guardia Air-Train to be completed by 2020.