NY AG calls for removal of power from NYPD commissioner following protests

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Protesters confront NYPD officers in Brooklyn on June 3, 2020, as part of a solidarity rally calling for justice over the death of George Floyd.

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NEW YORK CITY — New York Attorney General Letitia James is calling for the removal of unilateral power from the NYPD commissioner in the wake of violent clashes between police and protesters.

James issued a preliminary report and recommendations on Wednesday amid an investigation into the interactions between police and demonstrators during protests in late May and early June following the police custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Citing a breakdown of trust between the NYPD and the communities it serves, the report recommends sweeping police reforms, including the creation of a commission to lead the department that would have the authority to hire and fire the commissioner and other top brass.

James said her office’s investigation is ongoing, but after 30 days of scrutiny, “it is impossible to deny that many New Yorkers have lost faith in law enforcement.”

“We must bridge the undeniable divide between the police and the public, and this preliminary report, and the recommendations included, is an important step forward,” James said in a statement. “We must begin the hard work of reevaluating the role of police in society and ensuring that there are mechanisms for public oversight, accountability, and input. Progress is possible, but, first, change and accountability are needed.”

In addition to the recommendation to relieve the commissioner of unilateral power, the report also suggests that the NYPD be required to seek public input on rule changes that impact the community.

Additional recommendations include:

  • Redesigning the role of police in handling such issues as mental health, homelessness, and school safety.
  • Expanding and strengthening the authority of the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
  • Establishing a police certification process that allows for officers to be decertified if they are found guilty of misconduct.
  • Moving oversight of the Office of Inspector General from the police commissioner to the mayor’s office and expanding its authority.

NYPD deputy commissioner of public information Richard Esposito called the attorney general’s report, “political and not an investigative document.”

“Rather than rehash rhetoric we should come together — state and local law enforcement and electeds — and confront and solve the crisis at hand. Meanwhile we at the NYPD will continue to protect and serve the public as we have for 175 years,” Esposito said in a statement to PIX11 on Wednesday.

Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch said James’ report “tells only one side of the story and delivers reheated proposals that have been part of the anti-police agenda for decades.”

“If the goal is to heal the rift between police officers and the public, that won’t be achieved without giving meaningful consideration to the perspective of police officers on the street,” Lynch said.

James was tapped on May 30 by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to investigate police-protester interactions, as the early days of peaceful demonstrations against systemic racism and police brutality in New York City quickly turned volatile.

A curfew was imposed in an attempt to quell the violence, but protesters continued to march in defiance.

Clashes between police and protesters resulted in over 2,000 arrests, an untold amount of property damage and hundreds of injuries on both sides.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea have defended the “vast majority” of officers who handled the protests properly, but acknowledged there were individual incidents that needed further investigation and action.

Several officers have since been suspended without pay following NYPD Internal Affairs investigations. One of those officers faces criminal charges, including assault and harassment.

The attorney general, meanwhile, has collected over 1,300 complaints and pieces of evidence against police as part of her independent investigation.

James also heard from over 100 protesters, community-based organizations, and elected officials, as well as the NYPD commissioner during a three-day public hearing as part of the investigation.

The attorney general’s preliminary report points out that of the 2,087 protest-related arrests in New York City between May 28 and June 7, 44% were White, 39% were Black, and 13% were Latino.

However, 16% of Black protesters who were arrested were charged with a felony, 8% of Latino protesters were charged with a felony, and less than 4% each of White and Asian protesters were charged with a felony.

According to the report, almost all of those charged with felonies were arrested on May 31, amid a night of widespread looting in the city.

The vast majority of arrests between June 2 and June 6, after the curfew was implemented, were made after the curfew went into effect, suggesting this was a significant factor in arrest numbers, the report found.

James said a final report with more recommendations related to the NYPD’s conduct during protests will be released at a later date when her office’s investigation is complete.

The office of the attorney general is expected to address the use of force by police during protests, officers use of the “kettling” tactic on protesters, the treatment of essential workers and arrest-related practices.

The attorney general’s office is still accepting civilian complaints regarding police activity during the recent protests via an online portal. Click here to learn more.

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