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New York State Orders Police To Develop Local Plans For Reform

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Last summer, New York state ordered all of its 500-plus police departments to, quote, "reform and reinvent." The deadline is tomorrow. So how have these departments changed? And do they define reform the same way? Charles Lane from member station WSHU has the story.

CHARLES LANE, BYLINE: After the killing of George Floyd, protesters swelled even the small-town streets in New York. Governor Andrew Cuomo gave them a direction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW CUOMO: Tell me specifically what you want from your police department - not abstract, not conceptual. Write it down on a piece of paper.

LANE: All police departments in the state were required to form a task force with community groups and draft a reform plan. This gave people like Kiana Abbady hope.

KIANA ABBADY: This is great. We have our foot in the door.

LANE: Abbady first met with her village mayor and explained how she wanted fewer interactions between the community and police.

ABBADY: I don't want to say that he didn't care, but I don't know how else to describe it. It just wasn't on his radar. It wasn't that big of a deal.

LANE: So instead, she joined other activists and met with the larger Nassau County Police Department, which overlaps and provides police to her village and others. She had dozens and dozens of meetings about civilian oversight, unarmed traffic enforcement and how Black and Latino residents are arrested five times the rate of white residents. But then, after all of these meetings, Nassau's police commissioner drafted his own reform plan without telling Abbady and the others. This is from the day that she and her group resigned in protest.

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ABBADY: Our membership has been led to believe that we can trust this process. And unfortunately, young eyes are also naive.

LANE: Nassau's police commissioner, Patrick Ryder, said that he was open to future reforms but that his department doesn't need to change.

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PATRICK RYDER: We're not Minneapolis. We're not Chicago. This is Nassau County.

LANE: And like many departments in the state, Nassau did make some changes. It adopted body cameras and tweaked how 911 responds to mental health calls. But the large-scale reinventing that Abbady and others had hoped for, it didn't happen. Alice Fontier is president of the New York Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. She says Abbady's experience was replicated all across the state because, as she says, that's how Governor Cuomo designed his executive order.

ALICE FONTIER: What he did was place everything and all the power and all of the decision-making in the hands of the localities.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) No justice.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) No peace.

LANE: From upstate to downstate, reformers say that police and mostly white elected officials dodged true reform and maintained the status quo. But that's not universally true. The city of Ithaca plans to completely rebuild its police department with a mix of both armed and unarmed patrol officers. Suffolk County on Long Island is banning consent-only searches during traffic stops. And overall, New York's Association of Police Chiefs says small departments are professionalizing their policies, collecting more demographic data and doing more training.

Ava Ayers is a law professor at Albany Law School.

AVA AYERS: We're seeing incremental changes along those lines. I think those may be significant.

LANE: She has consulted with both reformers and police departments all over the state.

AYERS: The thing that I think may ultimately prove most impactful about the executive order is the way communities have become activated to engage with conversations about policing.

LANE: Even with all these reform plans drafted, there's still nothing actually requiring that police implement them. For that to happen, New York's many local legislatures need to enforce the new plans.

For NPR News, I'm Charles Lane in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.