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NYSSA Calls On Lawmakers To Protect Police As Protests Continue

As activists and lawmakers call for police reforms across the country, the New York State Sheriffs’ Association came out with its own list of priorities Wednesday. 

The 10 proposals announced by association President Jeffrey Murphy start with making resisting arrest a Class E felony, unable to be reduced by plea bargaining and made eligible for cash bail – which the state widely eliminated earlier this year. The Washington County Sheriff says he doesn’t necessarily disagree with recent reforms enacted by Governor Andrew Cuomo, like the banning of police chokeholds and the repeal of 50-A – but he worries law enforcement has lost its seat at the table.

“We’ve seen these bills come across in favor of the criminal defendants, and we think it’s time that the legislature consider bills like these that would support law enforcement in a time where if the police were ever needed, it’s now.”

In addition to bumping up resisting arrest from a misdemeanor to a felony, the list raises the level of seriousness for any type of assault on a police officer by one degree, and designates any crime committed against law enforcement as a hate crime. Murphy would like to turn May 15 into “Police Memorial Day,” a state holiday with a formal ceremony at the Police Memorial Wall on Albany’s Empire State Plaza.

“In honor of the more than 1,500 police officers who died in the line of duty in New York. And we’d require the governor to appear in person at that ceremony and say aloud the names of the police officers who died during the previous year from injuries incurred in the line of duty.”

Murphy attributes the state’s recent reforms to outrage over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, when an officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes. But despite previous arguments from Murphy that such moves aren’t practiced in New York, the subject hit home in the Capital Region July 6, when an online video appeared to show a Schenectady police officer placing his knee on the head and neck of a city resident, sparking ongoing protests across the city.

Schenectady protests
Credit Jesse King / WAMC
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WAMC
Protesters gathered at Schenectady City Hall Monday to support Yugeshwar Gaindarpersaud, the city resident at the heart of a controversial arrest caught on video July 6. Gaindarpersaud faces charges of criminal mischief and resisting arrest following the release of additional police video. The officer seen placing his knee on Gaindarpersaud's head and neck, Brian Pommer, has been placed on desk duty.

Stanley Fritz, political director with Citizen Action of New York, calls NYSSA’s list offensive and a “non-starter.”

“One of the simplest ways that police use to escalate on people and charge people is resisting arrest," he notes. "That’s usually the piece they use when they have nothing else. So that’s a non-starter.” 

The list also proposes making “failure to retreat” from a working officer a Class D felony, which Fritz worries could be used to discourage the public from recording the police. He argues most of the proposals depict incidents where it’s an officer’s word against a defendant, and miss the point of the moment.

“The police culture and the institution of policing is feeling very much against the wall right now, because we’re having some very serious conversations about accountability," Fritz explains. "And maybe if there was some accountability we could have a conversation about the ways that we do put police in bad situations – because police are not social workers, and we should fund different people to do that work so that police don’t have to do it. But we can’t even get to that now, because they won’t even acknowledge the fact that they’re murdering people in cold blood.”

Citizen Action of New York has called for divestment from police departments to better fund schools and social programs, particularly in minority communities. In addition to the state’s measures, Governor Cuomo has directed municipalities to come up with their own plans for police reform by next April.

Rensselaer County Sheriff Patrick Russo and Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo were on hand for the announcement Wednesday. Murphy’s fellow Republicans admit they’re not confident the proposals will be picked up – but they hope to spark a conversation.

“We know there all has to be changes made. We know there are some bad apples in the bushel – probably in every department," says Russo. "But the majority of our people go out every day, the majority of law enforcement go out every day and protect the public."

“So I think the bottom line is give us a seat at the table," Zurlo adds. "They listen to other groups, and we should be a part of that group.”

Jesse King is the host of "51%" and a producer for WAMC's afternoon news programs. She also produces the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."
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