New York AG targets lethal force law in new police reform push

ALBANY — New York’s attorney general is pushing legislators to overhaul state law and legally bar police officers from using lethal force unless there is no other option.

Attorney General Tish James on Friday announced a bill being introduced in the state Legislature that would change New York’s use of force law “from one of simple necessity to one of absolute last resort.” It would also create new criminal penalties for officers found to have used “far more force that is necessary” in situations where some force was required, she said.

James hinted earlier this year that she would pursue such initiatives after a grand jury decided not to convict the seven police officers involved in the death of a Rochester man who was experiencing a mental health crisis in March 2020. The push comes amid an ongoing debate in the state’s Democratic circles about the balance between police reform and tamping down a crime surge in New York City as it emerges from the pandemic.

She was joined at a press conference in the city Friday by a handful of Democratic lawmakers and Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who died in 2014 after being placed in a police chokehold.

“In New York, our laws have essentially given police blanket defense to use force in interactions with the public, making it exceedingly difficult for prosecutors to go after officers who have abused this power,” she said.

According to James’ office, the new proposal would make use of force a last resort, would ensure that suspicion of criminal conduct cannot justify lethal force and would allow prosecutors to evaluate if police conduct had contributed to the use of force.

The New York City Police Benevolent Association warned the measure would put police and civilians in danger.

“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,” said PBA president Pat Lynch in a statement. “The only reasonable solution will be to avoid confrontations where force might become necessary. Meanwhile, violent criminals certainly aren’t hesitating to use force against police officers or our communities. The bottom line: more cops and more regular New Yorkers are going to get hurt.”

James said the law, if passed, would not take away from officers’ ability to make split second decisions to take “reasonable protections” for themselves and their colleagues. Rather it is “a critical step forward” to heal rifts between law enforcement and communities that have been unfairly disadvantaged by aggressive policing, she said.

When asked about how police might react to stricter legal standards, James said she does not subscribe to “the politics of fear” and that non-lethal methods of restraint are already spelled out in NYPD patrol guides.

The bill is sponsored by Assemblymember Nick Perry and Sen. Kevin Parker — both of whom are Brooklyn-based Democrats. Parker indicated that leadership in his chamber is on board and said he hopes the measure will be passed as part of a larger criminal reform package built on legislation approved by the body last summer in response to protests across the country after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

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