ALBANY — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, after a week of publicly struggling with how to balance support for demonstrators with his long-standing relationship with powerful police unions, said on Sunday: “I figuratively stand with the protesters.”
When the state Legislature returns to the Capitol this week, hungry to pass police reforms, Cuomo will find out if the protesters are standing with him.
From New York City to Buffalo, the outcry over police abuses after the killing of George Floyd has crescendoed in the past two weeks and given new momentum to critics who have been demanding systemic reforms at the state level. Cuomo’s response to the conflicting pressures of protest politics and the desire to keep order has been erratic.
After a night of looting in New York City early last week, Cuomo said the NYPD failed its core function, leading to bitter criticism from police leaders and unions. Within hours, he had apologized privately to police brass and told reporters the next day that the NYPD was the “best in the United States.”
By Saturday, Cuomo was again calling for reforms to law enforcement and delivering impassioned monologues on the long history of police mistreatment of black men in America, including several who died after encounters with the NYPD going back to the late 20th century.
“What the people want is very simple — they want an America as good as its promise,” Cuomo said. “They’re saying enough is enough. Mr. Floyd’s death, Eric Garner’s death, Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo’s death, Rodney King’s [beating] — when does it end? I think they’re right. This is a national moment for change. New York is going to lead the way on this change.
Cuomo, a three-term Democrat who has in recent months attracted national attention for his response to the coronavirus pandemic, finds himself wedged between two competing, potentially irreconcilable interests.
The governor has a close relationship with the police and police unions — five years ago, the Police Benevolent Association honored the governor as its “man of the year,” and Cuomo in turn said the NYPD “saved the city“ by reducing street crime. But that relationship is unlikely to survive any legislation that satisfies the clamor for reform. And if Cuomo manages to placate law enforcement by watering down changes, he risks going the way of his favorite adversary, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, by being labeled a traitor by the left.
“You can’t have it both ways on this,” said state Senate Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris, a Queens Democrat. “There are too many videos of brutish police tactics against peaceful protesters, members of the media and essential workers to claim these are isolated incidents. The problem is systemic and requires a systemic solution.”
The governor on Friday touted a “Say Their Name” agenda — four core reforms which members of the state Legislature’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus had laid out in a larger plan earlier in the week.
At the center of the agenda is a portion of state law known as 50-a, which restricts the release of disciplinary records for police and other first responders. Cuomo said reforms are needed and he will sign any 50-a bill the Legislature sends him, but has stopped short of saying the statute should be deleted entirely, as many are demanding.
Cuomo also wants to ban chokeholds by law enforcement officers; prohibit false race-based 911 reports and make them a crime; and designate state Attorney General Tish James as an independent prosecutor for matters relating to the deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of law enforcement.
“This is real reform,” Cuomo said on Sunday. “It changes fundamental policies about how we police.“
Senate Democrats bristled that the governor was co-opting policy measures designed by the Legislature — where both chambers are led by African Americans.
“The governor publicly said he would sign what we pass,” Senate Democratic spokesperson Mike Murphy said. “I’m not sure who he has been talking to but he has not been involved in negotiations.”
“The governor’s been clear,” said Cuomo advisor Rich Azzopardi in a written statement. “Bad police officers are the enemy of good police officers, just as looters and criminals are the enemy of peaceful protesters. That’s not having it both ways, that’s just the facts.”
“For years we’ve counseled localities to not hide behind 50-a, and have instituted more criminal justice reforms than any other administration in modern history. We also said we’d be open to changing the law — just as we have been trying to codify the Governor’s executive order empowering the Attorney General to investigate police-involved killings — but not one single proposal ever advanced in the legislature. Hopefully that changes this week.”
For police unions, known for their “with us or against us” world view, the reforms are anathema and a danger to the women and men in blue.
“The overall impact of this legislative effort is to foster a view of law enforcement officers as alien agents of hostile power, whose authority can be disregarded or actively opposed at will,” read a statement issued Friday by six prominent police unions from around the state. “The consequences of this viewpoint are not abstract: we currently have several law enforcement officers laying in hospital beds because of it.”
A typical Albany negotiation involves some back and forth between the governor and Legislative leaders. When Republicans controlled the Senate, it was easier for Cuomo to play to the center, against the left-leaning Democratic majority in the Assembly. But with a groundswell of criticism directed at police and thousands taking to the streets every night, it’s unlikely Democratic leaders who now control both houses will be looking to compromise.
“As angry as people have been, not even this year, but before this year, they [Cuomo and de Blasio] have just been trying to appease, appease, appease,” said Anthonine Pierre, deputy director of community organizing group Brooklyn Movement Center. “They need to move from trying to appease the people to actually listening to the people. And what people are saying, very loud and clear, is repeal 50-a with no modifications, and defund the police significantly.”
The New York City PBA, which represents rank and file city cops, spent years fending off changes to the law and is prepared to spend more to influence the latest effort.
Cuomo, a native of Queens, feels a sense of hometown pride for the NYPD, he said last week. He has been critical of videos of violence from both rioters and cops — especially after a video of police leaving a bleeding 75-year-old on the concrete in Buffalo went viral. But he has said bad behavior will be deterred by the good cops who don’t want their reputation besmirched, as well as the knowledge that protesters are filming nearly their every move for potential review in an ongoing investigation.
His closeness with the police and his tendency toward centrist compromise could challenge Cuomo’s national popularity — heightened by his response to the coronavirus pandemic — as some Democrats push for extreme overhauls of police culture and budget cuts to law enforcement agencies.
“Mario Cuomo liked to say you can’t have one foot on the boat and the other on the pier, but that’s where the governor finds himself right now,” said Bob Bellafiore, who was a senior aide to former Republican Gov. George Pataki. “He’s trying to balance his role as the chief executive of a complicated state while leading a party increasingly dominated by younger, more progressive and, in many cases, less experienced people.”
Cuomo, who calls himself a true progressive because he “gets things done,” has led New York through transformational change, including legalizing gay marriage and a minimum wage boost. And now, as clamor to address social disparities expands to other arenas, such as health care and taxing the rich, that Cuomo has been wary to address, voters might again demand more plays on offense, said Neal Kwatra, a Democratic consultant who has advised both Cuomo and de Blasio.
“That’s the conversation America is going to increasingly have to have over these next few months heading into this election,” he said. “And Cuomo’s either going to be sort of stuck in trying to defend and rationalize his past record, or he will recognize the moment we’re in and get out in front of it like he did on gay marriage.”