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As reform bills pass, NY Senate Leader tells personal story of life affected by racism

Andrea Stewart-Cousins

The New York State Legislature Wednesday wrapped up passage of a package of bills on police reform, as the Senate Leader delivered a very personal speech on how systemic racism has affected her life.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the first African American woman, and first woman to lead the Senate, said in her speech that she has often talked about her father, a World War II veteran who served in a segregated U.S. Army, and has said that as a mother of three sons and four grandchildren she "lives in worry."

But for the first time she told the story of her brother, Bobby, a Vietnam veteran who served a decade as a New York City transit cop, until he quit. She said her brother was good police officer and joined the force so that he could "help our community," but came to believe that he could change the system.

"He left because he was convinced that the system was created to give young black men a record," Stewart-Cousins said.

She said he gave examples of what he had seen.

He saw two white kids fighting, they would be brought down to the station and their families would be called," she said. "And then he saw two black kids fighting and they’d be brought to the station and they’d be booked for assault."

Stewart-Cousins said the resulting criminal records follow them for the rest of their lives. 

Stewart-Cousins said one of her sons, Stephen, at the age of 18, was with two friends "on the other side of town," when they were stopped and frisked by police. Nothing illegal was found on them, but the experience landed him in the emergency room of the hospital with a broken nose.

"Anybody knew that Stephen would never have resisted," she said.

She spoke as the Senate, and the Assembly, passed a measure to create a permanent unit with the state Attorney General’s office to investigate allegations of police misconduct that result in  the death of a New Yorker. It codifies into law a five-year-old executive order issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that gave the AG power to appoint a special prosecutor after such incidents.

Sen. Jamaal Bailey, the bill’s sponsor, said lawmakers "heard" the voice of the protesters who put aside their fears during the coronavirus pandemic and filled streets in cities across New York and the nation in the past weeks.

"In the time of crisis and COVID that we are in, people often forget about their own health infirmities and their own concerns about contracting COVID," he said. "Because it was that important to make sure that they were in the streets, to make sure that their voices were heard, that enough is enough."

Other measures approved earlier in the week ban police chokeholds, require state troopers to wear body cameras, and repeal a section of civil rights law, known as 50-a, that many police forces and local governments used to shield police disciplinary records from the public. 

Another bill makes it a hate crime to falsely make race-based claims on a 911 call. Cuomo is expected to sign the measures.

Stewart-Cousins said passage of the bills give her hope, but she said they can’t alone "fix racism in America."

Most of the 23 Republicans in the Senate voted against the measure to set up the special unit within the attorney generals’ office and all the GOP Senators voted against the repeal of 50-a. Several Republicans did vote for some of the other bills.

None spoke publicly on the floor against the measures on Wednesday.

The state’s Republican Party Chair, Nick Langworthy, issued a statement on the passage of the package of bills, calling them "anti-police," and saying that Democrats are "creating a safe haven for criminals," while the police are "put in handcuffs." 

Langworthy condemned the killing of George Floyd, calling it an outrage and a sorrow, and an "evil" act, but he said the reforms need to be more sensible.   

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.