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NYPD officers are no longer protected from civil lawsuits after city council passes police reform legislation

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The New York City Council passed a series of reforms for the New York Police Department on Thursday, including ending qualified immunity for officers, which protected them against civil lawsuits.

The city is the first in the nation to end qualified immunity according to Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

The package of legislation included five bills and three resolutions that provide additional oversight and require more transparency from the department. The city council also adopted a policing reform plan mandated by a New York State executive order.

This includes allowing the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) to investigate police with a history of bias and racial profiling complaints, as well as giving support to a state bill that would give the board final authority on discipline recommendations for officers. Previously, the police commissioner had the right to disregard recommendations, which was a point of concern during the internal review of Officer Daniel Pantaleo regarding the death of Eric Garner.

But one of the most powerful moves by the council was eliminating qualified immunity. The term refers to a legal principle that protects government officials from civil suits alleging they violated a person’s rights — and which is a hotly debated topic across the country. By creating a new local civil right through legislation, New York City residents will be protected against unreasonable search and seizure and excessive force, and bans officers from using qualified immunity as a defense.

Other legislation passed includes mandating a quarterly report on all traffic stops, the Department of Transportation taking over investigations for all crashes involving serious injury and supporting a state bill that would require new officers to live within city lines. Press passes for media outlets will now be issued through the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment instead of by the NYPD as well.

The set of legislation was formed over a “months-long engagement process” with the New York City Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative, which worked with the input of stakeholders, experts and the community, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office said.

“We believe the plan ratified today by the City Council reflects the themes brought forward with reforms that center squarely on bringing an end to such policing, the criminalization of poverty, and the lack of transparency and accountability in the NYPD,” a statement from the Collaborative Co-Sponsors Jennifer Jones Austin, Wes Moore, and Arva Rice said. “We know there is more to be done. Now the work begins to implement this plan without delay, and ensure that the City’s budget is fully aligned.”

De Blasio also praised the legislation and thanked the co-sponsors and other city leaders for their efforts.

“These reforms will confront centuries of overpolicing in communities of color and strengthen the bonds between police and community,” de Blasio said. “Together, we’ll make our city safer and fairer for generations to come.”

De Blasio’s office said that all initiatives will be launched, with some fully implemented, in 2021. The city will also launch a commitments tracker on May 1 to monitor their progress, they said.

Reactions from police and activists

In a statement to CNN, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea expressed concern over the legislation, specifically noting his inability to have the final say on discipline.

“Right now, the commissioner hires them, trains them, asks them to go in harm’s way to keep New Yorkers safe and if an officer breaks the rules, I discipline them and if necessary fire them,” Shea said. “If I am not doing that the right way, I am accountable. The buck stops here. To take that away from the Commissioner, ask yourself who has the accountability then?”

“No other city agency uses that system nor does the FBI, the Secret Service, or the Marines. There is a reason for that. You need to know where the buck stops,” he continued.

A coalition of several New York City police unions circulated roving billboards around the city on Thursday to express their strong opposition to the legislation.

The New York City Police Benevolent Association (PBA), which represents approximately 24,000 police officers, was one of the most vocal opposition leaders in the reform effort.

PBA President Patrick J. Lynch issued a searing statement in response to the legislation’s passage.

“New Yorkers are getting shot and police officers are out on the street, all day and all night, trying to stop the bloodshed,” Lynch said. “Where are these City Council members? Safe at home, hiding behind their screens and dreaming up new ways to give criminals a free pass. It won’t get better unless New Yorkers shame the politicians into doing their job.”

The Legal Aid Society, which is a major player in holding the NYPD accountable, also opposed the legislation, saying that the reforms ignored the community’s calls for investment in non-police resources.

“Mayor de Blasio had a genuine opportunity to implement urgently needed policing reforms,” said Tina Luongo, Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society. “He failed to do that and instead produced a plan that at best glosses over the deeply rooted systemic problems within the NYPD that plague the New Yorkers we serve.”

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized two resolutions from the New York City Council’s policing reform plan. The resolutions support a state bill that would give the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) final authority on discipline recommendations for officers, as well a state bill for mandating new officers live within city lines.

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