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Use of force a last resort

New York Attorney General Letitia James unveiled Friday legislation that seeks to change how law enforcement officers can use force in responding to incidents.

In a press conference with lawmakers and other supporters of the Police Accountability Act, James outlined the key provisions of the bill. Among the changes the legislation would make is that the use of force must be a “last resort” tactic.

The changes come nearly a year after George Floyd was murdered as he was being arrested by Minneapolis police officers. One of those officers, Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder in a Minnesota court last month.

Floyd’s death and others at the hands of law enforcement led to protests around the country last year, including in New York. It also led to calls for reforming police tactics.

James cited a study that showed Chauvin’s case is more the exception than the norm. According to the Mapping Police Violence Project, only about 2% of the officers who kill someone are even charged. Of that, just about a quarter of them are convicted.

“In New York, it is exceedingly difficult to prosecute police officers who kill civilians because of an expansive justification law that gives officers extraordinary wide latitude to use force, diminishing prosecutor’s ability to hold police accountable, even when officers may be at fault or when the death was not necessary,” she said.

Besides making use of force the last resort, the bill would also prevent officers from using lethal force based on only their suspicion.

It also would allow prosecutors to weigh whether an officer’s actions escalated an incident that ultimately led to the need to use force.

The attorney general added that the bill would not cover “split-second” situations where officers have to make a choice to protect themselves and the surrounding public.

Senate Majority Whip Kevin Parker, D-Brooklyn, said the legislation provides additional transparency and accountability. He said the term “excessive use of force” is a poetic term in that it really has no substance under current state laws.

“What the attorney general is doing today is putting teeth into that law,” said Parker, the bill’s lead sponsor in the state Senate.

Law enforcement unions criticized the legislation.

In a statement, Patrick Lynch, the president of the New York City Police Benevolent Association, said if the bill became law it would mean law enforcement officers would be unable to do their jobs. He feared it also will lead to more people, including officers, getting hurt.

“The only reasonable solution will be to avoid confrontations where force might become necessary,” he said. “Meanwhile, violent criminals certainly aren’t hesitating to use force against police officers or our communities.”

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