Capital News 3:52 p.m. | Jan. 1, 2015

Citing Garner, Cuomo pushes police reform at inauguration

By Laura Nahmias

AP Photo/The Buffalo News, Harry Scull Jr.
Andrew Cuomo, Jr.

Governor Andrew Cuomo took the oath of office for his second term Thursday, promising in a symbolism-laden inauguration ceremony set on the 64th floor of 1 World Trade Center to make New York the first state to tackle national problems of economic inequality and a flawed criminal justice system.

Cuomo, who has long been thought to harbor presidential ambitions for 2016 or later, said in his broad address, looking north from downtown at the city’s skyline, that the problems New York faces are the same ones facing the rest of the country. The remarks were unmistakably set in the context of recent tension over policing issues in New York City involving the Bill de Blasio administration, the police department, and the communities most affected by controversial policing policies. 

“In many ways the most severe problems we face go beyond the borders of our state,” Cuomo said, calling the challenges “profound.”

“We’ve seen the national unrest and the national discord," Cuomo said. "The American promise itself is being questioned. The offer of fairness and opportunity that was the american compact, is now in doubt.”

“The world saw an African-American man in Staten Island die,” Cuomo said, specifically referring to Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died after being placed in a chokehold while he was arrested by a white police officer.

A grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer in that case led to widespread protests throughout New York City.

Cuomo signaled he will take an active role addressing tension surrounding policing issues in New York City over many months, which came to a head late last month when two officers in Brooklyn were murdered in their patrol car, following weeks of protests after the Garner incident.

“People are confused disappointed and angry," Cuomo said. "Law enforcement officials have been wrongfully targeted and even assassinated. The situation has devolved into one in which everyone is talking but noone is listening. It must stop and it’s time for the truth."

Seated among the politicians and dignitaries in Cuomo’s audience were Mayor Bill de Blasio and his most vocal police antagonist, Patrolmens’ Benevolent Association president Pat Lynch.

The two police officers’ deaths have been splashed across the national news, taking the place of civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri in the national conversation about policing.

Lynch and some other public officials have accused de Blasio of siding with protesters who believe the New York Police Department has systematically discriminated against many of its own residents against the department, thereby creating an environment that led to the murder of the officers.

“Does the justice system now seem black and white, or black and blue, or rich and poor?” Cuomo said, staking a claim to a state government role in enacting some police reforms.

“The truth is the justice system does need review,” Cuomo continued.

“The truth is there are troubling questions that have been raised that must be answered," Cuomo said. "The truth is police officers do need more safety and more protection. The truth is law enforcement needs to respect the community as much as the community needs to respect law enforcement. The truth is it's our obligation as leaders to provide the reforms necessary to ensure safety. This is a New York City issue. It is a Buffalo issue. It is a Ferguson issue. It is a Los Angeles issue. But it is also our responsibility to solve it here in the state of New York. and that is a challenge that we are up to."

Those remarks drew praise from Lynch, who departed almost immediately after the ceremony concluded.

“During these difficult days, as we prepare to bury another New York City police officer cut down before the prime of his life, it is reassuring to hear the calm, practical and reasoning voice of Governor Andrew Cuomo and his call for respect and support of law enforcement,” Lynch said in an emailed statement.

“Those who continue to call for better relations between police and the community don’t seem to understand that, in most cases, police are the community. We live, work and rear our families in the same neighborhoods that we protect. We congratulate Governor Cuomo on his re-election and for this important, meaningful and very timely inaugural address.”

Cuomo’s remarks drew praise from Brooklyn district attorney Ken Thompson, who said there was “definitely” room for more leadership on the issue of police reform.

“I thought the governor laid it out,” he told Capital.

“I think that he showed his sensitivities to many people when he mentioned the Eric Garner case, and the fact that we do need to reform the criminal justice system," he said. "I hope that over the next couple of years and months we actually do it."

“The governor is going to provide leadership on the state level. We need to have more transparency with respect to the work that we do as prosecutors. I was very pleased to hear him talk about that,” Thompson said.

Cuomo, who is set to give the first major policy address of his second term next week, also hinted broadly at his plans on education, couching his intent to reform the public education system in the context of the issue of income inequality.

“For previous generations our education system offered hope. It was the escalator out of poverty,” Cuomo said.

“That was yesterday’s public education system. Today we have two education systems, if you want to tell the truth, one for the rich and one for the poor. And if you happen to be born in the wrong zip code and go to a failing school you will get left behind and never catch up.”

“Public education that was the great equalizer in the society has become in some communities the great discriminator,” he said.

Cuomo said the location he’d chosen for the speech, at 1 World Trade Center, symbolized the state’s ability to rise to meet its challenges.

“We know that in New York nothing comes easy,” he said.

“And to any of those who have a question about our capacity just look at where we are today: the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, the high point of New York on the same site as the low point of New York at 9/11. Why? Because that's who we are. That's what this site says, that's what this building says. You knock us down, we get up twice as tall.”

Cuomo was flanked at the inauguration by his girlfriend, two of his daughters and many of his relatives.

He said the site for the second inaugural was chosen for its practical purposes as well as symbolic ones, as he remarked on the absence of his father, former Governor Mario Cuomo.

“My father is not with us today," Cuomo said. "We had hoped that he was going to be able to come. He’s at home and he’s not well enough to come.

“But he sends his regards to all of you. He couldn’t be here physically today, my father, but my father is in this room. He’s in the heart and mind of every person who’s here. he’s here, he’s here. And his inspiration and his legacy and his experience is what has brought the state to this point.”