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Law enforcement groups, GOP lawmakers seek pause on criminal justice reform

Emily Hunt for WXXI News

Law enforcement leaders and some Republicans in the New York State Legislature are pushing back against recent criminal justice reforms approved by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Democratic-led Legislature. They say a recent uptick in violent crimes might mean the new laws went too far, and they would like to see the policies reversed.

In 2020, new laws eliminated most forms of cash bail for nonviolent offenders. The disciplinary records of police officers were made public after the repeal of a state civil rights law provision known as 50-a, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo is requiring local governments and their police departments to “re-imagine” their policing structure and policies and submit a reform plan to the state by next April.  

Greece Police Chief Patrick Phelan, who is president of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police, said law enforcement has been left out of the decisions made by Cuomo and the Legislature, and as a result, he believes people are less safe.

“They ignore us, they issue edicts, having no idea what the unintended consequences are going to be,” said Phelan, who accused Cuomo and Democratic lawmakers of being on an “anti-police mission." 

“It’s clearly going to lead to an increase in crime,” Phelan said.

Assembly Minority Leader William Barclay, who organized the event on Zoom, claims that homicide rates have increased in some cities across the state. He also said shooting incidents and burglaries are on the rise.

“We can’t say for sure what exactly is causing this spike in crime,” Barclay said. “But it’s hard not to conclude that it hasn’t been the result of endless pro-criminal policies that have been passed in Albany over the last few years.” 

Even with the recent increase, crime rates are still at much lower levels than they were in earlier decades. 

Barclay and other Republicans in the Assembly are calling for a reversal of the bail reform laws, which they call a “revolving door for career criminals." They said they’d like to see a new law allowing judges more discretion in setting pretrial detention rules.

2020 has also seen a pandemic with stay-at-home orders and an economic shutdown, and weeks of protests, largely peaceful, over several incidents of police violence, including the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The officer who held him in a chokehold for nearly nine minutes has been charged with murder.

Washington County Sheriff Jeff Murphy, who is president of the New York Sheriff’s Association, said because of all the uncertainty, the public needs more than ever to feel safe, and police are being hampered in their efforts to do that. 

“We could see more unrest, we could see more rioting, we could see more violence,” Murphy predicted.

A spokesman for the Senate Democrats, who, along with Assembly Democrats approved the criminal justice law changes, said the Republicans and law enforcement leaders are just being political. Spokesman Mike Murphy said they are taking a page out of the “playbook” of President Donald Trump, whom he said deals in “distortion and lies."

Murphy said the reforms are about “providing transparency and equality." 

Cuomo was asked about the crime spike during a recent briefing. He said there’s a “number of contributing circumstances” that might be leading to the uptick, including the early release of some inmates on Rikers Island, some of whom were later rearrested, as well as a downward trend in the number of arrests made by police.

He said the core of the problem, though, is a broken relationship between police and their local communities. 

“I think one of the situations we really have to address is the relationship between the community and the police, which is, right now, dysfunctional,” Cuomo said on July 8. “It's just dysfunctional. And there's no sugarcoating it.” 

The governor said he hopes his executive order to redesign police departments across the state will help change that. 

“And that's the conversation that has to happen. And everything else is just on the edges, as far as I'm concerned,” Cuomo said.  

The law enforcement groups said they want to be included in that conversation.=

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.