Darlene McDay knows first hand the power lawsuits can bring to family members.
Her son, Dante Taylor, died by suicide in 2017 at the Wende Correctional Facility near Buffalo and in a lawsuit filed last year alleges his death came after he was beaten by guards. Taylor at the time was serving a life sentence following a murder conviction.
"The system should not be so difficult to navigate," she said on Wednesday in Albany. "We should have transparency and accountability. We should know what happens to someone when they die."
McDay was among the advocates and lawmakers Wednesday rallying for an end to qualified immunity for police departments in New York — a police reform bill that is under consideration in the final days of the legislative session. Lawmakers are scheduled to finish their work for the year on June 10.
"These conversations, though may seem uncomfortable for some, are necessary now to ensure all of our rights are being protected," said Assemblywoman Pamela Hunter, a Syracuse Democrat and a sponsor of the bill. "Where there's political will, there's absolutely a way to get this done."
Passage of the bill is being called for after a year of upheaval surrounding policing and racial ineuality in the United States. Lawmakers are considering a similar bill on the federal level in Congress.
State lawmakers in New York over the last several years have approved packages of criminal justice law changes. Last year, in the wake of George Floyd's killing, the Legislature approved and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law police reform bills that included making public access to disciplinary records easier.
The qualified immunity debate has also won over some former police officers as well.
Former Albany Police Chief Brendan Cox, now with the advocacy group Law Enforcement Action Partnership, says the measure is not about punishing cops, but accountability and restoring trust with the community.
"This is about making sure if there's misconduct, folks have a voice to get to the courtroom," he said.
But Republicans in the state Legislature take a very different view. Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay points to a rise in shootings this year in upstate communities.
"We're seeing it in Albany, we're seeing it in Syracuse, we're seeing it in Rochester and you can't put your head in the sand and say it's not happening," Barclay said.
Barclay is calling for tightening bail and parole laws in the state, part of an anti-crime package Republicans proposed this week.
"The anti-police narrative is also, no doubt, leading to this increase in crime we're having," Barclay said. "We have to back our policemen. I think people in minority communities, in the suburbs, in rural areas, understand the police are there for a reason."