Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar in discussion with County Executive Steve Bellone and Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller Wednesday afternoon.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a package of reform measures the State Legislature passed this week aimed at addressing inequality in policing and the criminal justice system.

The measures, dubbed the “Say Their Names” reform agenda, are “the most aggressive reforms in the nation,” the governor said during a press conference today, where he was flanked by state legislative leaders and civil rights activists assembled for the signing.

One of the bills repeals a provision of the State Civil Rights Law that allowed law enforcement to shield police misconduct records from the public.

Another bill bans the use of chokeholds by police officers, establishing the crime of “aggravated strangulation” when a police officer commits the crime of criminal obstruction or breathing or blood circulation, or uses a chokehold or similar restraint, causing serious physical injury or death.

A third measure prohibits racial or ethnic profiling by police and requires law enforcement agencies to take and review racial and ethnic profiling complaints.

A fourth bill makes it illegal to report a nonemergency incident involving a protected class, which Cuomo heralded as a bill to end false race-based 911 reports.

Another bill provides that any person who is not under arrest or in custody has the right to record police activity.

The package also codifies an executive order Cuomo signed more than four years ago that appointed the New York attorney general as special prosecutor in cases where a law enforcement officer causes the death of an unarmed civilian.

In a new executive order signed today, the governor has required local governments and police agencies to develop and enact by local law plans that reinvent and modernize police strategies and programs in their communities.

The executive order makes state funding for local law enforcement agencies contingent on the development and enactment of such plans.

“We’re not going be, as a state government, subsidizing improper police tactics,” Cuomo said.

The plans must be developed with community input and address the use of force, crowd management, community policing, implicit bias awareness training, de-escalation training and restorative justice practices, Cuomo said.

“There must be a transparent citizen complaint disposition procedure — so if you make a complaint it’s not just yelling out the window. You find out what happened to your complaint,” Cuomo said.

Local governments have until April 1 to develop the plan and enact it by local law.

“The goal is to restore trust,” Cuomo said. “There is no trust between the community and police. Without trust, the police can’t effectively police… Trust has to be restored and repaired and the only way to do it is to get in a room, sit around the table and do it together,” the governor said.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, a former New York City Police detective, said she agrees that law enforcement agencies need to work to build trust with the communities they serve.

“We need to open lines of communication across the nation,” Aguiar said this afternoon.

She said a group is “in the works” to have a roundtable discussion of these issues. “I have been invited to attend and I will attend,” Aguiar said. “The intent is to develop that plan and then bring it to the community.”

North Fork Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo supported the bills to ban chokeholds and ban false 911 reports based on race. He did not support the repeal of the law shielding police officers from disclosure of civilian complaints, the bill prohibiting racial and ethnic profiling, a bill requiring officers who discharge their weapons to immediately report it to their superiors or a bill codifying the right of a person not under arrest or in custody to record police activity.

Most of the measures passed largely along partisan lines, with Democratic legislators in unanimous support.

“You can’t legislate around criminal conduct,” Palumbo, a Republican, said today.

“You see headlines about the ‘police secrecy law,’” he said, referring to the repeal of 50-a. “I mean, everyone I know is appalled by George Floyd. Police should not all be painted with the same brush,” Palumbo said.

“People just don’t understand the nature of law enforcement,” said Palumbo, a former prosecutor and the son of a Suffolk homicide detective. “They are dealing with a different element of society. They are dealing with a criminal element of people. A large majority of them, at least, have an axe to grind,” he said. “There is no reason for all complaints to be released by way of a FOIL request.”

Palumbo pointed to records of complaints against a variety of license professions — including doctors, teachers, lawyers and judges — that are not disclosed to the public unless there is an adjudication of malfeasance or misbehavior. Unfounded complaints are expunged, Palumbo said. It should not be any different for police, he said.

Palumbo said 98% of complaints against police are determined to be unfounded.

Some of the other bills, such as the one banning racial and ethnic profiling, concern practices that are already prohibited by law. Smaller police departments are not going to be able to handle the new requirements without additional state funding, Palumbo said.

“It’s overly burdensome,” the assemblyman said of the data collection required by the anti-profiling bill.

“A lot of these bills have been around for many years,” Palumbo said. “They were pushed trough after a nationwide crisis, without fixing, to curry political favor right before their primaries,” Palumbo said of Democratic legislators.

Aguiar said she does not agree with the assemblyman’s take on the issues and their solutions.

“I am a minority and I worked for a large police department,” Aguiar said. “We need to open more lines of communication. We need to make sure some of these laws, like the chokehold, are written into procedures. We need to make sure the community is involved and that the police and town government “maintain and improve communication.”

“This is not going to be solved overnight,” Aguiar said. “The only way it’s solved is by having cohesion, by people coming together and sharing information and having genuine communication.”

We need your help.
Now more than ever, the survival of quality local journalism depends on your support. Our community faces unprecedented economic disruption, and the future of many small businesses are under threat, including our own. It takes time and resources to provide this service. We are a small family-owned operation, and we will do everything in our power to keep it going. But today more than ever before, we will depend on your support to continue. Support RiverheadLOCAL today. You rely on us to stay informed and we depend on you to make our work possible.

Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.