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Legislators to push for criminal justice reforms

ALBANY — Two dozen black and Hispanic state legislators promised Wednesday to press for New York criminal justice reforms, citing recent police killings of unarmed young men in Baltimore, New York City and other parts of the U.S.

The lawmakers cited underlying issues of racism, poverty and police brutality, increasingly common stories of deaths in police encounters and that nothing meaningful has been done in the past year to address them.

“We can no longer stand idly by and do nothing,” said Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry. “Inaction has bred anger, contempt and distrust.”

The Queens Democrat also chairs the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus whose members gathered Wednesday to say they’ll soon have a package of reform measures. The caucus lists 40 members altogether in the 150-seat Assembly and 13 of the 63 state senators.

They are calling for a special prosecutor and grand jury disclosure in police killings, uniform police practices and training, raising the minimum age for adult prosecutions from 16 to 18, more diversion to programs instead of prison, more mental health and education services, job opportunities and raising the minimum wage.

Lawmakers expressed some support for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s promise Tuesday to push for legislation this year to establish a monitor to review grand jury investigations of police killings and, if that fails, to issue an executive order to establish a special prosecutor for such cases. The promise followed Cuomo’s meeting with relatives of eight New Yorkers killed by police.

“We have a lost generation of black and Latino men and women, and it has not made us safer,” said Assemblyman Luis Sepulveda, a Bronx Democrat. He cited disproportionate numbers in prison, noting a significant percentage are mentally ill. “We are tired of the nonsense where a life can be lost and nothing changes.”

Assemblyman Michael Blake, a Bronx Democrat, said what happened in Baltimore is happening in New York City and can happen anywhere. “This is the year for action,” he said.

Since he was a police officer on Long Island starting in the 1980s until now, Assemblyman Philip Ramos said he’s seen the situation evolve. One significant change is technology, which now allows bystanders to easily create video recordings. Attempts to explain away taped encounters, like a black man being strangled, take racism and denial to “psychotic levels,” he said.

“Justice has only one side,” Ramos said. He said good people need to come together, acknowledge their barriers and biases and end the problem.

Sen. Kevin Parker, a Brooklyn Democrat, said black parents fear for their children being stopped in routine police encounters and coach them how to behave. He doesn’t think problems are unique to the New York Police Department but said racist elements in all police departments need to be rooted out

Fires like those ignited during Monday’s Baltimore riots have been seen in other U.S. cities, and similar mass demonstrations have been held in New York City, said Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson, a Bronx Democrat. Last year, they followed a grand jury’s decision to not indict any officers in the death of Eric Garner despite a widely watched cellphone video showing him held by an officer in what the medical examiner later called a fatal chokehold.

“We do not condone use of violence,” Hassell-Thompson said. What needs to be addressed is “the infrastructure of poverty that plagues our cities, particularly those in the jargon people of color. … Without economic justice, the political rights that we have fought for so hard will never materialize.”