- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 21, 2015

NEW YORK (AP) - Gov. Andrew Cuomo outlined a multipart plan to improve police-community relations in the wake of a pair of fatal encounters that have triggered a renewed focus on policing in New York.

Cuomo’s plan, unveiled Wednesday in his annual State of the State address, aims to provide more protections for police officers but also more oversight on incidents with police that lead to a death.

“The promise of equal justice is a New York promise, and it is an American promise,” Cuomo said in Albany. “We are currently in the midst of a national problem where people are questioning our justice system.”

As tensions between police and community peaked in recent months, Cuomo broadly suggested that he would insert himself into the fray, and he outlined his plan for the first time Wednesday in yet another moment in which he seemed to step onto New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s turf.

Cuomo called for a statewide commission on police-community relations and vowed that he would support the recruitment of more minorities into law enforcement positions. He also demanded more race and ethnic data on police actions across New York.

He urged support for the police and said the state would fund replacement bulletproof vests, body cameras and bulletproof glass for patrol cars in high crime areas, fulfilling requests by police unions who have been vocal about the need to increase officer safety.

But Cuomo also outlined several measures to increase scrutiny of police. He would be allowed to appoint an independent monitor to review police cases in which a civilian dies and a grand jury doesn’t come back with an indictment. That monitor will also have access to some grand jury information.

Moreover, Cuomo would eliminate a restriction on district attorneys releasing a report on a grand jury’s findings. But the power of prosecution would remain with the district attorneys and not state attorney general Eric Schneiderman, who had angled for the oversight.

“People must have confidence in the justice system, and the governor’s proposals should help restore that confidence,” said Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson.

The proposals, some of which would need legislature approval, were cheered by the New York Civil Liberties Union, which has frequently pushed for police reform.

“Gov. Cuomo’s criminal justice reform package is an unprecedented step toward the transparency that is so essential in mending community-police relations,” said its executive director, Donna Lieberman.

De Blasio said he was heartened by the governor’s commitment to increased transparency but declined to comment in detail about the proposals.

Cuomo’s actions stem from a series of events that began with a seemingly innocuous encounter on a Staten Island street in July. After police approached Eric Garner about selling loose cigarettes, a white officer placed Garner, who is black, into a chokehold, which is banned by the New York Police Department.

Garner is captured on video yelling, “I can’t breathe!” 11 times. He died a short time later, setting off a wave of protests on police misconduct. Those protests multiplied in December after a grand jury declined to indict the officer.

The city was roiled further in December when a gunman who used the hash tag RIPEricGarner on Instagram fatally shot two police officers as they sat in their patrol car on a Brooklyn street. Police union leaders blamed de Blasio for creating an anti-NYPD atmosphere in the city by allowing the protests and said he “had blood on his hands” after the deaths.

A poll released last week showed that a majority of New Yorkers opposed the police unions’ conduct after the shooting, including officers turning their backs to de Blasio at the officers’ funerals.

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