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Cuomo asks NY Attorney General to probe police actions on 'disturbing' videos


Governor Andrew Cuomo said he’s asked the state’s Attorney General to look into what he said are "disturbing" videos of police conduct during protests and unrest in New York’s cities over the weekend, including one of an NYPD police cruiser driving into a crowd of people. He said he’s also sent state police to assist upstate cities where demonstrations occurred, and has the state’s National Guard on standby.

"Last night was an ugly night all across this nation," Cuomo said about the protests Saturday night. "It was an ugly night across this state."

Cuomo said he saw the videos on social media that include an NYPD car driving into a crowd of protesters, and a young African American man getting pepper sprayed while white protesters standing nearby were not targeted. He said while the actions seem "inexplicable," he can’t make a definitive judgement based on the footage alone.

"I’m not going to make decisions off the video, I understand how difficult the job is of the police, and let’s hear what they have today," Cuomo said. "But I agree the videos are very, very, very disturbing."

He said the state’s Attorney General, Tish James, will begin a probe and issue a report within 30 days. He said if any wrong doing can be proved, there will be "ramifications."

The governor also endorsed some changes to laws regarding alleged police misconduct, including the  release of prior police disciplinary records if an officer is accused of wrong doing. Some lawmakers have proposed repealing a 1976 state statute known as  Civil Rights law 50a, which has been interpreted as a privacy protection for the police records. Cuomo on Saturday said he’d sign a bill to repeal that law.

He said he also wants allegations of police abuse investigated by an independent prosecutor or agency, and not by local district attorneys. And he said there should be one national standard for what constitutes excessive force by a police officer.

The governor said he was sending more state police Sunday night to several upstate cities who have requested help as protests escalate there. The city of Rochester will receive 200 troopers, 150 will go to the City of Buffalo, and the governor’s office was talking to leaders in Albany and Syracuse. But he said he is not issuing a statewide curfew, even though many cities have declared them.

The Superintendent of the New York State Police, in advance of the deployment, sent a letter to troopers saying they need to "restore confidence" in law enforcement among the public, and that they "must do better."

"We must continue to be compassionate, empathetic, supportive and professional to every person we come into contact with," said Superintendent Keith Corlett, in a statement. "Continue to choose kindness." 

Cuomo said he is also tired of seeing footage of African Americans beaten or killed during police encounters, beginning with Rodney King who was assaulted by police in Los Angeles nearly 30 years ago. He said the most recent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, where one police officer has been charged with third-degree murder, can’t be in vain. He said people can make changes, as evidenced by most New Yorkers adopting the wearing of facials coverings and social distancing rules to stem to spread of the coronavirus. 

"On April 12th we lost 800 people from COVID-19. Yesterday we lost 56," said Cuomo, who said it was the actions of the public that brought that number down.

And Cuomo said while he understands the anger, the burning and looting hurts the protesters’ calls for racial justice. 

"When you are violent it creates a scapegoat to shift the blame. It allows the President of the United States to tweet about looting rather than murder by a police officer," said Cuomo. "It allows the federal government to politicize what’s going on, and come up with theories blaming the left and the extreme left, which only furthers the politics of division."

On Sunday, President Trump blamed the far leftist group Antifa for the violence, and said he wants to declare it a terrorist organization. Others, including public safety officials in Minnesota, said they believe that far right and white supremacist groups are also trying to instigate violence.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.