Attorney General pushes limiting deadly force

New York Attorney General Letitia James at a press conference in Manhattan earlier this year. File photo

NEW YORK — Officials announced legislation Friday to require all New York police officers to reserve using lethal force as a last resort when responding to an incident and hold law enforcement accountable, state Attorney General Letitia James said.

The Police Accountability Act, which was introduced in the Senate and Assembly on Friday afternoon, would amend state Penal Law to require any state police officer or peace officer to refrain from using excessive or deadly physical force to arrest a person or prevent his or her escape from custody.

Lethal action may only be taken when an officer believes a person commits a felony involving kidnapping, arson, death or serious bodily injury, or that the person is armed with a firearm or other deadly weapon, according to the proposed law.

“At its core, the system is built to protect and shield officers,” James said Friday. “Along with my colleagues, I am introducing legislation to change New York state laws that govern police violence and accountability through the most far-reaching reforms for the use-of-force laws in the nation. The center piece of this effort is to amend the use-of-force law to amend simple necessity to one of absolute last resort, and under the current law, police officers are justified in using deadly force to defend themselves or others when they believe an individual has committed a crime.”

The legislation was announced days before Tuesday’s anniversary of the killing of George Floyd — a 46-year-old unarmed Black man killed by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin who pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes before his body went limp on the pavement.

James announced the state’s next proposed police reform during a press conference in Manhattan on Friday afternoon with bill sponsors Sen. Kevin Parker, D-Brooklyn; and Assemblymember N. Nick Perry, D-Brooklyn.

“Currently, the ‘excessive use of force’ is a term of poetry in the state of New York,” Parker said Friday. “This important legislation corrects that and defines it in the law. This creates a reasonable expectation for law enforcement as well as the people of our great state.”

The legislation is intended to establish a “last resort” standard to limit an officer’s use of force. The state’s current law does not require officers to exhaust other options, such as de-escalation, verbal warnings or lower before using force, including deadly force.

The law would eliminate justification for lethal force when an officer suspects an individual has engaged in particular criminal conduct and to allow prosecutors to evaluate an officer’s conduct for creating a substantial and unjustifiable risk where use of force is necessary, according to the attorney general’s office.

“I am proud to sponsor the Police Accountability Act in the New York Assembly to reform police use of force laws in New York state. I do so on behalf of all those men and women who were taken from their families and loved ones far too soon because police used unjustified and excessive force. The shoot first mentality must end, whether you are wearing a badge or not. This act will save lives, and make the use of deadly force, an absolute last resort.”

New York Police Department’s union was swift to speak out against the Police Accountability Act.

“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,” Police Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch said. “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 argued the new measure will not change officers’ split-second decisions at an incident.

“I want to be clear, this is not going to change those split-second decisions that officers must make,” the attorney general added. “Split-second decisions that law enforcement must make in the City of New York particularly when confronted with the dangerous situation. It will not change those situations.”

Senate Republicans pushed for lawmakers to pass a series of bills before the end of legislative session next month to increase protections for law enforcement and criminal charges for assaulting or harassing officers, among other measures to protect their responses to violent incidents.

Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, an unarmed Black man who died at the hands of New York Police Department officers in 2015, recalled how her son told officers that he couldn’t breathe 11 times before he died from excessive restraint and force until he suffocated.

“It doesn’t matter if you wear blue jeans or blue suits or a blue uniform, there should be accountability,” Carr said Friday. “All those officers on my son’s neck and on my son’s back and the police officers who looked the other way — they should all have been fired and criminal charges should have been brought forth. There could be no justice without accountability.”

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