On August 12, a federal judge ruled the New York Police Department’s policy of “stop, question and frisk” unconstitutional and racially discriminatory. In her decision in the case of Floyd v. City of New York, Judge Shira A. Scheindlin validated many of the complaints coming from civil rights organizations, grassroots groups and politicians who have rallied against the policy and its destructive effects on low-income communities of color.
But more than a year before opening arguments began in the Floyd lawsuit, New York City Council members and community advocates were discussing their own policy ideas to address years of corruption in the department.
The result was two pieces of legislation, collectively known as the Community Safety Act, that the City Council began debating last year seeking to curb a range of abuses and address other NYPD policy problems before they escalate to the point of federal intervention.
The first piece would establish an independent inspector general to investigate and review police policy and practice and make non-binding recommendations to the mayor and police commissioner. The second would expand the categories of individuals protected from profiling and make enforceable an anti-profiling law that is already on the books.
Though the federal monitor imposed by Judge Scheindlin’s decision will seek to fix how the NYPD currently employs stop-and-frisk, it is these bills, councilmembers believe, that could have more impact on the long-term health of the department, and make it more accountable to the public.
The City Council voted on the two bills in June. And despite receiving the full endorsement of only one of the top New York City mayoral candidates (Bill de Blasio), and being denounced by Mayor Michael Bloomberg as “dangerous and irresponsible,” the council passed the bills by wide margins.
Their passage into law, however, is by no means assured. Mayor Bloomberg vetoed the legislation in July. And he, along with the city’s largest police union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, has announced his determination to sway the outcome of a veto override vote scheduled in the City Council this Thursday.
“This is a fight to defend your life and your kids’ lives. You can rest assured that I will not give up for one minute,” Bloomberg said at a June press conference.
Though the margin of the council’s June vote on the bills was wide enough to beat a veto, they could go down to defeat if the anti-profiling bill loses just one vote, or if the inspector-general bill loses eight. But if the current majorities hold, the bills will be signed into law, and it would be the second rebuke in as many weeks of the policing tactics of an administration that prides itself on its crime-fighting prowess.
Despite the life-and-death rhetoric from the mayor, it is these personal stakes that the bills’ backers see as the main reason for the mayor’s increasingly acerbic public comments and outright misinformation on the subject in recent weeks.
“He’s afraid of someone saying ‘not everything you did in policing worked,’” says Councilmember Jumaane Williams, a co-sponsor of the legislation. “A real leader can say, ‘Look, we tried a couple things. They didn’t all work out. And the ones that didn’t work out we tried to fix and work with the community on how to fix it.’ But he just didn’t do that, which caused us to be where we are now.”
Indeed, at a post-verdict press conference last week, the mayor became angry and agitated when asked about the pending legislation. The mayor’s message is clear: any extra departmental oversight will prohibit officers from doing their jobs and innocent civilians and officers will die.
“It’s disappointing the amount of fear-mongering that I’ve seen among the mayor and [Police Commissioner Ray Kelly],” says Williams. “ ’The sky is going to fall. Everything bad is going to happen.’ What they’re saying is that we have to profile in order to continue to do police work, and that’s just not acceptable. Otherwise, why are you worried about a profiling bill that just says you can’t profile?”
Though the anti-profiling bill is most vulnerable to the veto, it’s the one seen as most important by many lawyers because of the allowance that civilians can bring claims of profiling before a state court, and a judge can order binding remedies. It is also the one being most misrepresented by opponents.
A PBA delegate reached by The Nation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the union, said that though he is against profiling, he’s also against the anti-profiling bill because he believes it would penalize individual officers.
Yet according to the bill’s language, officers will not be liable for monetary damages or subject to punishment by the judge.
For his part, Mayor Bloomberg has erroneously stated that the bill would bar officers from using descriptions of age or race when identifying a suspect.
“His staff had to tell him to stop saying that, because it isn’t true,” says Councilmember Brad Lander, a co-sponsor of the legislation. “It’s one thing for the New York Post, or the PBA to be saying this, but the mayor?”
The profiling bill is also one that gives hope to people who’ve been stopped and frisked wrongfully and regularly, like Keeshan Harley, an 18-year-old from Brooklyn who says he’s been stopped by the NYPD nearly 150 times.
“If they stop me without proper cause or without fair reasoning, if it’s just because I’m a young black male in Brooklyn, that’s the reason they stop me, then I have the right to bring them to court,” says the teen.
The fact that the mayor and the commissioner are not even open to a dialogue on the subject or attentive to citizens like Harley has frustrated Lander, who says the two have shown contempt for the City Council for merely doing its job of representing constituents’ concerns.
“And not only has the mayor been dismissive of the council, he’s shown a disregard for common sense,” exemplified, Lander said, when he made comments on a recent radio talk show that whites (not blacks and Latinos) are the ones who are stopped too much.
Mayor Bloomberg also recently argued that the addition of an inspector general would result in too many layers of oversight. But according to Lander, “Inspectors general are present in every other major police department around the country and every federal law enforcement and intelligence agency. There is no example of an officer being confused about whose orders to follow.” The monitor will be focusing narrowly on stop-and-frisk, Lander said, while the inspector general would be “looking at the full array of programs and policies on the NYPD, including Muslim surveillance, quotas, statistics fixing, etc.”
“The history of law enforcement shows that a longer term legal framework for strong oversight and civil rights protection are what’s needed for effective and constitutional policing,” and that’s what these bills are intended to achieve, he says.
The big vote that will determine many upcoming issues revolving around the NYPD will come next month during the primaries for the next mayor—he or she will choose the next police commissioner, and decide whether to pursue Mayor Bloomberg’s appeal of the federal court’s decision in the Floyd case. And positions on public safety appear to be a priority for prospective voters, as the candidate who has distanced himself most from Mayor Bloomberg’s policies is now a serious contender to be the mayor’s successor: Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.
But in the meantime, this Thursday’s City Council vote on whether to override Bloomberg’s veto of the Community Safety Act bills is the one to watch, because the new mayor, whoever they may be, would be bound by this new legislation.