NY AG announces 'robust' reforms to police use of force laws

New York Attorney General Letitia James announced legislation to change the state's laws regarding excessive use of force by police officers on Friday.

The Police Accountability Act will seek to change the use of deadly force law in New York from "one of simple necessity to one of absolute last resort, mandating that police officers only use force after all other alternatives have been exhausted."

According to James' office, current state law sets "an exceedingly high standard for prosecuting officers who have improperly used deadly or excessive force."

The legislation would also establish new criminal penalties for officers who employ force that is grossly in excess of what is warranted in situations with civilians. 

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"For far too long, police officers in this country have been able to evade accountability for the unjustified use of excessive and lethal force," Attorney General James said in a statement. "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. Not only is that gravely unjust, but it has also proven to be incredibly dangerous. The Police Accountability Act will make critical and necessary changes to the law, providing clear and legitimate standards for when the use of force is acceptable and enacting real consequences for when an officer crosses that line."

The law would also eliminate the provision that allows police to use deadly force if they believe a person has committed or attempted to commit a crime. Prosecutors would have the power to review whether or not the officer's conduct required use of force.

However, James says this would not apply to officers making split-second decisions.

"When their life or the life of another individual is being threatened, it will not change those situations," James said. "There are reasonable protections that officers need in situations like those and that should not change and will not change."

James' announcement came under immediate criticism from the Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York.

"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," PBA 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."  

In January, James' office sued the NYPD for its treatment of protesters following the death of George Floyd last year. 

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In February, the NYPD and the Civilian Complaint Review Board signed a "historic" agreement aimed at making the NYPD and its disciplinary process more transparent.