By Mary Alice Miller
A contentious City Council hearing on the need for police oversight took place last week, one day after The Nation released audio of a police officer calling a teen a “f***ing mutt” during a stop-and-frisk encounter, the second the teen experienced that evening. The package of four bills called the Community Safety Act, are sponsored by Councilman Jumaane Williams, who chairs the Council Oversight and Investigations Committee.
Unknown to the public last week, security cameras recorded NYPD officers beating and pepper-spraying Ehud Halevi, an Orthodox Jewish young man who was sleeping in the Aliya Institute, a Crown Heights synagogue and outreach center for at-risk youth. Someone called the police, but Halevi told them he had permission to be there. When police attempted an arrest, Halevi balked, prompting officers to beat and pepper-spray himfor several minutes until backup officers were able to subdue Halevi on the floor and place him in handcuffs.
“This is another low for abuse of police power,” said Councilman Williams in response to a recording of the encounter. “Good policing does not require the excessive use of force Halevi endured. The NYPD is an institution to be trusted, not to be feared. Clearly, that message was not absorbed by these officers, which calls into question (once again) the standards of training that they receive from their superiors.”
Williams added that the video is a clear example of “the lack of police accountability” and noted that “historically disenfranchised communities have felt this reality for years, but this incident shows how it could impact every New Yorker. The need for reform goes beyond the misuse of stop, question and frisk; at its core, it is about an approach to public safety that fails to make our public safer. The Community Safety Act helps address some of these inequities, which is why we are so anxious to see its passage.”
CM Williams’ package of bills has attracted a wide variety of sponsors among other Council members.
Intro 799, sponsored by 26 Council members, would create the functional equivalent of a Miranda warning for searches by requiring officers to advise people of their right not to consent when there is no other legal basis for the search, and obtain proof from the person to be searched that the consent given is real voluntary, and informed.
Intro 800, sponsored by 29 Council members, would prohibit the NYPD from bias-based profiling based on age, sex, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, immigration status, housing status, language or disability, in addition to race, religion or ethnicity.
Intro 801, sponsored by 27 Council members, would require NYPD officers to provide subjects of law enforcement activity their name, rank, an explanation for the stop and a written record of the encounter, including information on how to file a complaint or compliment.
Intro 881, sponsored by 30 Council members, would create an Office of the Inspector General to examine systemic issues within the NYPD and provide effective oversight with subpoena power to protect New Yorkers from abuses and misconduct.
“New Yorkers stand in support of the Community Safety Act because it represents the first meaningful reform in a generation of the NYPD’s approach to policing historically disenfranchised communities,” said Council member Williams. “This legislation is a crucial step we must take toward achieving better policing and safer streets for all, a goal we collectively share. By tackling discrimination and instituting true accountability, we will empower ‘New York’s Finest’ to focus their energies on proven strategies that helps our city root out crime and violence in every corner.”
The proposal of an Office of the Inspector General over the NYPD has engendered pushback from Mayor Bloomberg, who believes the Council does not have authority to oversee the NYPD. In addition, Bloomberg said an Inspector General would politicize the police department and interfere with the administration’s selection of agency commissioners.
Council member Peter Vallone, Jr. has stated the bills will cost NYC by taking officers off the streets, increasing overtime, and potential lawsuits.
Nevertheless, supporters of the bills believe they will help curb zealous policing while curbing crime.
“The Community Safety Act will help keep New Yorkers safe from crime and terrorism without subjecting them to profiling based on their race, ethnicity or religion,” said Council member Brad Lander, co-prime sponsor of Intro 881. ”Right now, we have no accountability at the NYPD for patterns of discriminatory policing, such as surveillance of Muslim communities and abuses of stop-and-frisk, for the implementation of quotas or for the downgrading of crime statistics.” Lander noted an inspector general, a standard “good government practice” for other city and federal agencies, will improve accountability and efficiency, make recommendations for improvement before problems fester and diminish morale or lead to lawsuits, and protect New Yorkers’ basic civil liberties while keeping the city safe.
“The NYPD’s stop, question and frisk policy has unfairly targeted minority communities for far too long through placing an unfair focus on certain groups,” said Council member Letitia James. ”This proposed legislation would address profiling mechanisms by officers, hinder unlawful searches and establish officer self-identification. These steps would not hinder the important work of law enforcement but rather bring necessary accountability to the process.”
“My position on stop-and-frisk is clear – it should be abolished,” said City Comptroller John Liu (D-New York). ”Until that day comes, we must support those attempts like the Community Safety Act, that are designed to reduce the adverse impacts of this discriminatory tactic.”
“The power of law enforcement to stop, question, frisk and even detain citizens deserves the most careful scrutiny and the most rigorous oversight,” said state Senator Eric Adams. “A society whose judicial system is based upon the presumption of innocence must not permit its police department to infringe upon the civil and legal rights of the law-abiding public. With an increase in power, there must be an increase in oversight to create a balance. To date, that need has never been addressed. I commend the New York City Council for taking this much-needed stance.”
“The Community Safety Act will reform abusive police practices and will bring about a better NYPD – one that is more transparent and accountable to the people of New York,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “New York City cannot tolerate the effects NYPD abuses have on innocent lives, on New Yorkers who are targeted for the places they live, their religious beliefs, their gender and the color of their skin.”
There will be two public hearings on the New York Police Department’s use of stop, question and frisk. The first will be held on Tuesday, October 23rd at the Brooklyn College Student Center beginning at 6:00 PM, while the second will take place on Wednesday, October 24th at the York College Performing Arts Center beginning at 6:00 PM.