Policing reforms proposed by Albany Council stuck in committee

A series of police reform bills introduced by the Albany Common Council in June in the wake of the murder of George Floyd won’t be getting a vote anytime soon.

Councilman Kelly Kimbrough, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, where those bills are currently pending, said at a meeting of the Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative on Tuesday that those bills won’t get a vote until the Collaborative finishes its work.

That group, mandated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, isn’t required to pass a reform plan until April 1, 2021, and its meetings so far have not been home to much discussion or debate. 

When asked about the legislation Kimbrough said that through conversations with “Leadership and the mayor,” it was decided that it would be a “disservice to our residents” to pass legislation before having discussed it with members of the collaborative and the community. 

The Council announced the package of reforms with much fanfare on June 5, with Council President Corey Ellis saying, “This council has heard and understands what the citizens of this city would like, so we in our capacity as legislators, would like to begin the process of addressing some of those concerns,” at a City Hall news conference. 

Seven days later Cuomo issued an executive order mandating the creation of police reform commissions. Localities that do not comply risk losing state funding for their police departments. 

Since the collaborative has started its work, major reforms have been announced in Rochester following the police killing of Daniel Prude.

While Cuomo’s executive order is new, the issues addressed in the council legislation certainly are not. 

One bill would give the Albany Police Review Board subpoena power. The board is notoriously toothless and can only recommend punishment or mediation to the police union, which has final say. Officers can simply refuse to comply and will have the backing of their union. 

Activist Lukee Forbes who has called for the adoption of a number of the reforms says he feels the collaborative is delaying real action. 

They’ve met for weeks now and I haven’t heard real discussion. They are wasting people’s time. They are not trying to solve anything, but those bills can make a huge change to the Police Department. We could have meaningful change right now. Why wait?” 

Further, Forbes notes that the presence of Albany Police Officers Union president Greg McGee on the Reform Collaborative is a reminder of where the power really lies. “We haven’t seen the police union’s contract. We know they have historically stopped reform, so we need to know who their donors and backers are so we know who is supporting their efforts to prevent real change.” 

Other bills put forward by the council would codify communication between the Mayor, police and the community, mandate police use of body cameras and mandate increased recruitment of non-white officers. 

Asked about the reforms earlier this month, before Kimbrough’s statement, Councilman Owusu Anane said he was aware the legislation was in committee but that “The police is under civilian control; that’s how our democracy works. If the people want reform that is what we are going to deliver and the police department is expected to abide by it.” 

Asked about her feelings on the decision to delay reforms until the Collaborative finishes its business, Kori Dobbs of E.L.E.V.A.T.E. 518 said she feels the initiative in Albany “Is just politics.” 

Dobbs questioned why it took an executive order by the Governor to get powerful people like District Attorney David Soares and Police Chief Eric Hawkins to commit to something with the smallest bit of transparency. “I’m not sure once this is over how we hold people accountable. It’s live, I diligently tune in every week but I don’t have much faith we can uphold it once it’s completed.”

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