Despite all of the pressure that protesters have put on City Hall, it’s the New York State Legislature that’s really been pushing police reform in Syracuse. They acted fast to repeal 50-a and to actually ban chokeholds just days after mass protests demanded those actions in cities across the state. Now, State Senator Rachel May has written a bill that would prohibit the Syracuse PBA specifically from negotiating officer discipline as part of its contract contract with City Hall.
These three actions show how the separation of powers between Cities and the State really aren’t all that separate. 50-a was a state law, so there was no way for City Hall to get around it without help from the State Legislature. Chokeholds though, are covered in individual departments’ use-of-force policies, so getting them banned had seemed like a local issue until a state law superseded all local use-of-force policies. But the State doesn’t have to confine itself to passing statewide laws—as Senator May’s bill shows, it’s entirely within the Legislature’s power to pass what are effectively local Syracuse laws from Albany.
So given that the State seems more willing than City Hall to act on police reform, it’s worth asking what else Syracuse should be demanding of its representatives in the State Legislature.
The State Legislature could make the Citizens Review Board more powerful by recreating it as a State entity (like a fiscal control board) with power over local decisions about police officer discipline.
They could pass legislation banning local police departments from using and/or owning military equipment.
They could decriminalize marijuana, seriously impeding local police departments’ ability to perpetuate the racist system of mass incarceration.
They could amend parole laws, making it possible for returning citizens to move back to their old neighborhoods and associate with their old friends without automatically breaking the law just because a broken criminal justice system has criminalized entire communities.
They could repeal the civil service law that forces Syracuse’s City Hall to hire police officers from the suburbs, ending a massive annual transfer of wealth from city families to suburban ones.
There’s all that and a whole lot more that the State Legislature could do to meaningfully reform the system of law enforcement in Syracuse. They can do things that City Hall can’t, and they will do things that City Hall won’t.