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New York Legislators Pledge to Reject Campaign Donations From Law Enforcement

State Assembly members, senators, and city council members have said they will decline and donate funds from police and corrections officers as New Yorkers fill the streets to protest recent violence by law enforcement.

Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by tillsonburg/Getty Images.

As protests against police brutality continue in the U.S., some Democratic New York lawmakers have said they will no longer accept campaign donations from law enforcement officials, and have pledged to donate the money they have received to bail funds and other community organizations. 

Their pledges come in response to a document created and shared on social media by Aaron Fernando, a student at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who also works as a field coordinator for Manhattan district attorney candidate Janos Marton. The document, posted on Saturday, details how much money every New York lawmaker has received in the current campaign cycle from groups representing police officers, state troopers, corrections officers, and court officers. 

NYPD officers have acted violently in recent days toward those protesting the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer in Minnesota, but the violence is not limited to police. The use of force by city corrections officers against people in jails and juvenile detention centers reached an all-time high in 2019, according to a recent federal monitor report. Fernando also noted that court officers have been fighting the state’s landmark bail reform legislation, which was partially rolled back in April. 

“By taking their money, I’m assuming that you’re acknowledging they have a vested interest in continuing the incarceration of Black and brown people,” he said. 

Assembly member Aravella Simotas, who represents parts of Queens, was the first to say publicly that she would donate $5,350 in campaign contributions from law enforcement to bail funds and other organizations. She has received the money from corrections officers’ union PACs, state troopers, police investigators, and the state Police Benevolent Association PAC for her 2020 campaign, although is donating money from past cycles as well.

“I returned the money to make a statement to the police that until they make massive systemic and cultural changes, they don’t even get a seat at the table,” Simotas told The Appeal. 

Shortly after Simotas’s pledge on Saturday, Assembly members Catalina Cruz, Nathalia Fernandez, and Carmen De La Rosa also agreed to donate money their campaigns had received from police and corrections officers. New York City Councilmembers Francisco Moya and Mark Levine have also pledged to donate the money they have received from law enforcement; Moya will not be taking it in the future, he said on Twitter.

“It just became clearer and clearer that the folks who gave us that money and our vision are not aligned in a lot of places,” Cruz explained. She received $1,000 from the Police Benevolent Association PAC, which she said she will donate to a bail fund. “This has heightened that sentiment.”

De La Rosa said she already had a strict rule not to accept donations from law enforcement, so she was surprised when she saw herself on Fernando’s list. But she had received $2,000 this campaign cycle from the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, which she will give to Black Lives Matter. 

“For me it was kind of a no-brainer, if we had accepted it for some reason or another, to donate it forward,” she said. “As a woman of color married to a Black man, I felt the need to take responsibility.”

State Senator Mike Gianaris joined in the pledge as well, tweeting on Sunday, “I am donating all contributions received from police PACs for my re-election to bail funds and mutual aid organizations, and I will not accept them going forward.”

Of the people who have said they will return their contributions, Gianaris, who is facing at least two challengers in the June 23 primary, has accepted the most money by far—$16,650 from 2019 to 2020, according to Fernando—from corrections officers, court officers, state troopers, and police unions.

“We’ve seen overly aggressive reactions [by police] to people exercising their constitutional rights to be heard … whether driving a car into a crowd of people, or clipping someone with a door, or knocking a woman over, or macing someone in the face, or even pepper spraying and handcuffing my own colleague,” Gianaris said, referring to State Senator Zellnor Myrie. “It’s clear to me that the problem is actually systemic.”

Other lawmakers have made more narrow pledges. State Senator Brian Benjamin said he will donate the $1,000 he’s received from state troopers, but not the $3,000 he’s received from corrections officers or $500 from a state police union. 

“I think there’s definitely been a shift that’s been coming,” De La Rosa said. “Where people have seen the pain inflicted in the community and have chosen not to take [the money].”

Fernando told The Appeal that other elected New York officials have contacted him to say they’re contemplating donating their money. 

“You have people on their mailers who say, ‘I don’t take real estate money and my opponent does,’” he noted. “I’d love to see the new trend be, ‘My opponent takes cop money and I don’t.’” 

The shift away from law enforcement donations could pave the way for policy reform, Fernando said. “How can we trust you to pass [reform] legislation if you’re taking this money?” he said. 

Democratic lawmakers in the state Senate and Assembly are working on a repeal of a state law known as Section 50-a that shields police disciplinary records; all of the lawmakers with whom The Appeal spoke named repeal of it as a current priority. But the NYPD police union has spent heavily to lobby against repeal in the past and is vowing to block it again. Marton, the Manhattan DA candidate for whom Fernando works, is also gathering city council support for reducing the NYPD’s budget by $1 billion over the next four years. 

“We’ve seen enough to know that police will never respond to heartfelt calls for change on their own,” Simotas said. “We really have to use this moment as a time when we draw a line in the sand. We’re at a crossroads. There’s no turning back.”