The Buffalo News, N.Y.
State Attorney General Letitia James and several state lawmakers on Friday unveiled their support for changes in New York law that they believe would make it easier to hold accountable police officers who use excessive force.
The Police Accountability Act would create a “last resort” standard for the use of force by police and make excessive force by an officer a criminal offense.
The bill introduced in the State Senate would allow prosecutors to consider whether an officer’s own conduct contributed to a situation in which force was eventually used.
Existing New York law makes it “exceedingly difficult to prosecute police officers who kill civilians,” James said. The proposed changes, which also raise the standard for when lethal force is justified, take aim at a system she described as “built to protect and shield officers.”
“Our goal today is to preserve lives by making sure that under the law lethal force is the last resort,” James said during a news conference in New York City. “And while there is legitimate reason why police officers have some special protections, those protections should not preclude them from being held accountable when they needlessly take the life of another or unnecessarily use excessive amounts of force.”
Police officers in New York have “extraordinary wide latitude” to use force and the current law makes it hard to prosecute cops even when the officers are at fault or when a death was not necessary, the attorney general said.
The bill, introduced by State Sen. Kevin S. Parker, D- Brooklyn, would amend a section of state law involving justifications for the use of force when police are making an arrest or preventing a suspect from escaping. A similar proposal was expected to be introduced in the Assembly.
The New York City police officers’ union suggested the proposal would result in officers shying away from circumstances when force might be necessary.
“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,” the union said in a statement posted on Twitter. “The only reasonable solution will be to avoid confrontations where force might become necessary.”
The proposal would raise the standard under which the use of force is acceptable. It would require police to employ de-escalation tactics and use lower levels of force or other reasonable alternatives.
The new standard would cover situations in which an officer is attempting an arrest “that the officer reasonably believes is lawful.”
The proposal would not change what’s allowable in situations in which officers must make “split-second” decisions, James said.
The law would make excessive force by a police officer a crime, with two felony levels and one misdemeanor level.
The proposal “is not about going after the police,” said Assemblyman N. Nick Perry, D- Brooklyn, who plans to introduce the Assembly bill.
“It’s for those who are or are inclined to misuse the power, the awesome power that we give them,” Perry said.
Joining James and lawmakers at the news conference was Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, who died after being put in a chokehold by a police officer in Staten Island in July 2014. A grand jury declined to bring charges in Garner’s death.
James declined to comment on whether any cases of alleged excessive force in recent years in Buffalo may have turned out differently had these proposed standards been in place.
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