The New York Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of civil rights organizations and labor unions today sent a letter to Governor Cuomo urging him to veto legislation that would all but eliminate the ability of local government officials across New York State to discipline police officers engaged in misconduct. The letter comes just days after a Staten Island man died after an NYPD officer put him in an illegal chokehold.
“Police have the power to arrest, jail and use force against New Yorkers,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “Their job responsibilities impact – and can even destroy – the lives of others. This power is simply too great to open up to negotiations. Elected officials must be able to act, and act quickly, when a police officer has abused his authority or engaged in misconduct.”
Under the terms of the legislation – passed in the closing hours of the 2014 legislative session with hardly any debate – disciplinary policies at police departments across the state would be subject to union contract negotiations.
“The death of Eric Garner underscores how high the stakes are and why the governor must veto this legislation,” said Kevin Finnegan, political director of 1199 SEIU. “New York State can’t afford to go back to the days of the blue wall of silence. In order to keep our communities safe, we need a transparent and accountable police force that respects civil rights.”
While law enforcement officers clearly have a right to fair treatment and to collectively bargain, the unique nature of their job and the amount of power they have mean the public’s interest in accountability must be given priority. The authority to investigate misconduct, and pursue discipline when appropriate, must be held by government officials who are accountable to members of the community. It must not be constrained by union rules that are designed to protect union members at all costs.
The letter to Cuomo was signed by 1199 SEIU, the New York State Conference of the NAACP, the National Action Network, Communities United for Police Reform and the NYCLU.
“The tragic and unjust death of Eric Garner is the latest demonstration of how disastrous this bill would be for the public if Governor Cuomo signed it,” said Joo-Hyun Kang, director of Communities United for Police Reform. “Discipline of police officers is too important to be stripped away from officials accountable to the public and left to the politics of contract negotiations. Police unions have demonstrated their willingness to obstruct New York City reforms for leverage in their current contract negotiations, and their comments on the death of Eric Garner are disgraceful and highly troubling.”
Similar pieces of legislation have been vetoed many times, including by Governor Mario Cuomo, George Pataki, Eliot Spitzer, David Paterson and, in 2012, Andrew Cuomo.