‘I don’t believe in coincidence’: How 2 Black lawmakers led New York to real police reform

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‘I don’t believe in coincidence’: How 2 Black lawmakers led New York to real police reform

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. | (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

ALBANY, N.Y. — When Andrea Stewart-Cousins showed up this month at a Black Lives Matter protest in Dobbs Ferry, a small village in her legislative district just north of New York City, she noticed right away that about three-quarters of the crowd was white.

Having watched protesters take to the streets when a Black person died in police custody, only to see reform efforts sputter and outrage subside, Stewart-Cousins had become familiar with the routine of these tragedies. Her voice of protest started to seem lonely.

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But this time, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, seemed different.

“It was always clear to me that I was representing my entire wonderful diverse district, but this was the first time that I felt that they were actually representing me,” Stewart-Cousins, the first Black woman to serve as majority leader of the state Senate, said of her constituents. “So it became clear to me that people were finally understanding in ways they’ve never understood before.”

Within a week, Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who is that chamber’s first Black leader, had sped their Democratic conferences through a 10-bill package of police accountability reforms — the nation’s first substantial policy response to Floyd’s death. The package included legislation banning police chokeholds, clarifying that people have a right to videotape arrests and repealing a long-debated rule shielding officers’ disciplinary records from public view.

It did not pass without notice that these changes were introduced and approved within the virtual confines of the only state Legislature in which both legislative leaders are Black. “I don’t believe in coincidence; I think everything happens for a reason,” Stewart-Cousins said. “The fact that the speaker and I are in these leadership roles at this time, says to me, that there is something that is particularly important about this leadership at this moment, and it’s up to me to figure out what that is.”

Both lawmakers, in interviews with POLITICO this month, said the success only came because the moment was right. They had been waiting for a consensus on police reforms for years, and Floyd’s killing and the anger it inspired provided the momentum needed.

Some of the bills that passed this month and later signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo were languishing in the Assembly when Heastie was first elected to the chamber in 2000. The issue became even more personal in 2012, when a white police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Ramarley Graham in the bathroom of Graham’s Bronx apartment. The Black teenager lived in Heastie’s district.

Still, as recently as just a few months ago, criminal justice reformers were on the defensive in New York. The NYPD had seized onto crimes committed by people released from jail in January under a 2019 law limiting the use of bail, the police unions deployed rhetoric and tactics that had cowed politicians before, and the coronavirus pandemic had literally cleared lawmakers out of Albany.

But the video of Floyd’s final minutes of life changed everything. It “really hit home with people you wouldn’t normally expect,” Heastie said, including some of his Republican colleagues.

And if New York — where Democrats throughout the decades have taken credit for leading the country in social reform — didn’t act, the two leaders said they weren’t sure who would.

“I guess it would be easy for me to say as a Black man, ‘this had to be done,’” Heastie said, referring to the reform package. “I’ve had plenty of negative experiences with the police, but I really think it was a calling by all [Assembly] members, not just [Democratic] caucus members, who said ‘enough is enough,’” Heastie said.

“I think it just touched a nerve in the nation across all races, across all types of people, across all countries where people were saying ‘this type of behavior just can’t be tolerated anymore,‘” he said.

But it was up to Heastie and Stewart-Cousins to determine the scope of those changes and to build as broad a consensus as possible. They began discussing which pieces of legislation were realistic options to pass shortly after two legislators were pepper-sprayed by police during protests in New York City on May 29.

“We still had to come to an agreement with both houses, but I do think the fact that Andrea and I are both African American, that I do think there was maybe an expectation — that people felt like it was important for New York to lead as an example,” Heastie said.

Some criminal justice reform advocates say they believe the leaders’ shared experiences as African Americans allowed them to drown out some of the political opposition to the police reforms. Both have always been “super vigilant and hyper-aware of the fact that they are people of color” publicly and in private meetings, said Khalil Cumberbatch, chief strategist at New Yorkers United for Justice, a group that had advocated for a repeal of police records secrecy law, known informally as 50-a, that was included in the reform package.

“They said, ‘Look, we’re going to do this. And we’re going to do it unapologetically. And we’re going to do it quickly,’” Cumberbatch said.

Heastie, 52, and Stewart-Cousins, 69, have been in charge of the Legislature since the beginning of session in January 2019, after Democrats won control of the traditionally Republican state Senate.

Heastie, a former New York City budget analyst and longtime assemblymember, had been in charge of the chamber since 2015, when he was elected the first speaker from the Bronx since it became a county in 1914. Stewart-Cousins, a former educator and county legislator, took over the Democratic conference in the Senate in 2012, with the blue wave of 2018 enabling her to go from being the voice of opposition to actually running the chamber.

Together they passed dozens of progressive bills, from expanding reproductive rights to strengthening gun control. They also challenged Albany’s “three men in a room” construct — the insiders’ reference to the traditional three-way backroom agreements with the governor’s office — not only because of Stewart-Cousins’ gender but because she and Heastie sometimes finalized agreements without Cuomo’s input.

Under their guidance, the 2019 session was broadly characterized as one of the most productive sessions in recent memory, but political strategists wondered how long the two-chamber harmony could last in 2020, with a looming elections and the low-hanging policy fruit all but devoured.

The Assembly’s overwhelming Democratic majority gives Heastie’s conference more leeway to lean left, especially as some members have seen younger, progressive challengers pushing them to do so. The Senate’s Democratic majority is less secure, and it depends on some freshmen from suburban and predominately white districts who tread lightly on matters like law enforcement and raising taxes.

Those skeptics weren’t entirely off base. Earlier this year, just before Covid-19 began to consume lawmakers‘ full attention, the political dynamics separating the chambers emerged in a weekslong standoff about racial implications of revisions to a new law that eliminated bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies.

Both chambers passed bail reform with much fanfare in 2019. But when the law took effect in January, critics pointed out several oversights that they said allowed dangerous individuals back into society. Stewart-Cousins said her conference was looking at revisions, something Heastie — who has long said his legacy as speaker hangs on improving the criminal justice system for people of color — publicly opposed.

The chambers were in open battle by February, when Stewart-Cousins said the Senate would embrace a plan to tweak the law, an announcement Brooklyn Assemblymember Tremaine Wright called a “Jim Crow-style rollback.” Assemblywoman Latrice Walker, also a Brooklyn Democrat, mourned, “We have a departure from the family.”

By the annual Black and Puerto Rican Legislators conference over Valentine’s Day weekend, the tension burst into full view at the Wilborn Temple First Church, where Heastie rallied the troops from the pulpit, imploring them to hold off on the Senate plan.

“Since we’re in church, and Jesus had disciples, I’m asking you to be disciples. Have some patience,” Heastie said, to applause and amens.

Then Sen. Brian Benjamin, a Manhattan Democrat, took the pulpit on behalf of Stewart-Cousins, who was not in attendance. If members of the caucus gathered in the church that day could not support one another, “we have no right to tell other people they should support us,” he said.

“If [Stewart-Cousins] was here she would say she would agree with the lion’s share of what Speaker Carl Heastie referenced, but I think what she would also say is that her leadership is about breaking down barriers, breaking down walls, that have consistently kept people of color from being able to participate in our economy, our society, in the way that we should have.”

The bail reform debate wasn’t resolved so much as it was overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic and a version of the Senate-proposed rollbacks were included in a hastily passed state budget. But the debate highlighted the political realities that the two leaders will have to deal with as the Legislature looks to expand on police accountability and tackle other systemic issues.

Michael Dawson, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, noted that even though most Black elected officials are “overwhelmingly Democratic,” they also “are a very heterogeneous group.”

Future conversations nationwide about what it means to revamp policing systems will vary along generational lines and political factions, Dawson said. Former law enforcement personnel or those tied to the mainstream Democratic Party will probably favor reform of the legal system while younger Black elected officials with ties to youth organizing over the past few years might prefer defunding or abolition.

“Having black legislative leaders may make it more likely that addressing the question of systemic bias in criminal justice becomes a higher priority, but the actual policies they pursue will vary substantially,” he said.

Neither Stewart-Cousins nor Heastie has indicated what may come next, nor have they committed to any larger measures like defunding police departments. But they say that they’re not finished with reform. Practically speaking, they aren’t scheduled to resume session any time soon, but new remote voting powers allow them to more easily convene if needed.

Heastie said that despite the state’s dire financial situation, he thinks the momentum for reform should expand to more social service spending, a concept the Assembly has always embraced more warmly than the Senate. The Legislature should also reexamine the way the pandemic has affected Black communities, he said.

“It’s not just police reform,” he said. “The protesters weren’t just protesting about that. There are other racial inequities that we face, in health, in economics, in social work, and how our youth are being educated. To me, this is just the beginning.”

There’s a collective education unfolding, one that needs to continue through uncomfortable conversations and a willingness to hear awkward answers to difficult questions, even among peers and colleagues, Stewart-Cousins said.

“The consciousness has been awakened. So we have to continue to stay awake because it gets very easy for people to go back into their slumber,” she said. “We’re not going to solve all these things. It’s like all these bills — we didn’t solve everything. It is a step towards justice, and we have to take millions more steps.”

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