Cuomo meets with activists, lays out his plan for oversight of police

Albany – As Baltimore smoldered following the death of an unarmed man in police custody, Gov. Andrew Cuomo offered lawmakers a choice about future oversight of similar controversial cases in New York state.

If lawmakers don’t approve his call for an independent monitor to oversee legal proceedings that follow such deaths, Cuomo will use his executive powers to go even farther and create a special prosecutor who would have the power to pursue charges against officers.

The choice was outlined behind closed doors on Tuesday, when the governor met with members of a watchdog group, the Justice Committee, and families of more than a half-dozen New York City residents who died unarmed at the hands of police during the past few years.

The group believes a special prosecutor is needed to pursue justice against police if they have acted illegally in cases where suspects died at their hands. After a roughly hourlong meeting with Cuomo, Justice Committee members said they would continue to push for the establishment of a special prosecutor’s office even as the governor pursues his more moderate route.

“We are not in agreement with the governor. We still think that his proposal for an independent monitor doesn’t go far enough and would be counterproductive,” said Yul-San Liem, a co-director of the Justice Committee, a group fighting what they say is police violence and racism in New York City.

“If it’s not passed, he would give us the special prosecutor that we asked for,” said Gwen Carr. Her son Eric Garner died last summer after police put him in a chokehold as he was arrested for selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island street corner.

Garner’s death, as well as police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., and North Charleston, S.C., and the recent death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray have focused national attention on use-of-force policies and broader issues involving police and minorities. All of the victims in those cases were African-American men.

Calls for greater scrutiny and oversight following the deaths of unarmed civilians emerged after Garner’s death and a grand jury’s decision not to indict any of the officers involved. But they haven’t gained traction in the full Legislature.

Senate Democrats have pushed for a creation of a special investigator within the Attorney General’s Office to investigate unarmed deaths, but Republicans who control the majority haven’t moved it forward.

The creation of a special prosecutor is opposed by many district attorneys and police unions around the state.

The Baltimore demonstrations and riots following Gray’s death from a spinal injury have moved the debate up several spaces on the list of agenda items for the New York Legislature to deal with before the end of the session in June.

Not all of the police-related deaths have occurred in major metropolitan areas.

In Albany, the public is still grappling with the April 2 second death of Donald “Dontay” Ivy, a 39-year-old city resident and former basketball star who suffered from schizophrenia. Ivy died after police used a Taser on him during a stop on an Albany street. Police contend he had lunged at them and ran when they were frisking him for weapons. Ivy also had a heart condition.

Liem said her group was reaching out to Ivy’s family to see if they wanted to join the push for a special prosecutor.

“We’re just getting in touch with them,” she said.

Justice Committee members believe a special prosecutor is needed in part because local district attorneys and police officers work so closely together.

Local district attorneys “cannot be impartial,” said Carol Gray, whose 16-year-old son, Kimani, was shot and killed by police in Brooklyn in March 2013. The officers claimed the teen had pointed a handgun at them.

The activists, while disagreeing with Cuomo’s approach, described their meeting as a positive step. They plan to meet again before the legislative session ends.

“These families have endured unspeakable losses and their voices are important ones in this debate,” Cuomo’s counsel Alphonso David said in a statement. “The governor has vowed to keep the dialogue open and meet with them again in the coming weeks.”

Constance Malcolm, whose 18-year-old son, Ramarley Graham, was shot by police in the Bronx in 2012, earlier on Tuesday observed that the advent of smartphone videos has brought far more scrutiny to police actions.

Both Garner’s death and the April 4 shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., as he fled a police officer were recorded and became national symbols of what critics say is police misconduct.

“The proof is in the video,” Malcolm said.

rkarlin@timesunion.com • 518-454-5758 • @RickKarlinTU

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