A Right to Know Act rally
Last week, City Council Members Ritchie Torres and Antonio Reynoso sent out a joint statement in which they addressed the ramifications of the impending retirement of NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton. “With the departure of William Bratton,” the statement reads, “we are reminded that administrative agreements are every bit as short-lived as commissioners themselves, coming and going in the moments we least expect.”
The Council members were referring to an agreement between Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Bratton on the police department internally implementing certain provisions of the Right to Know Act, a proposed package of bills regulating police officer conduct during street stops of civilians. The bills, sponsored by Torres and Reynoso, have majority support in the Council but the speaker chose not to give them a vote and instead struck a compromise with Bratton - one that his replacement, now Chief of Department Jimmy O’Neill has pledged to uphold. That deal didn’t sit well with Torres and Reynoso (or other reform advocates, both in and outside the Council) and the two vowed to move forward without the speaker’s blessing.
“As the sole legislature in New York City, the City Council exists to hold agencies accountable through oversight and legislation,” the statement says. “Passing the Right to Know Act to advance accountability and transparency in policing, is an extension of what we were elected to do. Let us honor the legislative role to which the public, through their votes, has assigned us – it’s beyond time for the Council to pass the Right to Know Act and we will seek to do just that without any further delay.”
For the two Right to Know Act bills to get a vote before the full Council, they would typically have to first be voted through the Committee on Public Safety, chaired by Council Member Vanessa Gibson, who is a co-sponsor on Torres’ bill. But committee hearings are scheduled by the Speaker’s Office, which can deny a hearing, and in this case is clearly opposed to these bills receiving a vote.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Torres and Reynoso have no options to push the bills through. Under the Council rules, a bill sponsor can get seven other members to co-sign a motion to discharge the bill from committee. That motion would have to be submitted to the Speaker and the relevant committee chair at least a week before a Stated Meeting of the full Council. The motion then gets voted on by the Council, and if passed with a simple majority, the bill then gets a vote at the next Stated.
Council Member Gibson said it was too soon to consider that tactic. "The conversation on the Right to Know Act is not over, so I think it's premature to talk about a vote without the Speaker's support that might fracture good working relationships in the Council,” she told Gotham Gazette in an email. “I respect the Speaker's decision and I look forward to continuing to work with her, the rest of my colleagues, and incoming Police Commissioner Chief O'Neill as we see these administrative changes come to fruition."
A spokesperson for Council Member Torres said that a discharge motion had not been filed as of Wednesday afternoon. Torres declined to provide any comment for this story. The Council’s next stated meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, August 16. After that, the next Stated is set for September 14.
Torres’ bill, Intro. 182, would require police officers to identify themselves by name, rank and command when a street stop does not end in an arrest. The bill has 33 sponsors. Reynoso’s bill, Intro. 541, requires officers to obtain consent when searching a person, vehicle or home and also to inform a person of their right to refuse consent. That bill has 28 sponsors.
The compromise between Mark-Viverito and Bratton incorporates certain aspects of the two bills, but not all. Under the agreement, the NYPD will make changes to its patrol guide, requiring officers to obtain a clear "yes" or "no" response after asking to conduct a consent search - meaning a search where there is no probable cause. Officers will also be required to give out business cards when they search a person, property, vehicle or home or at checkpoint stops and the search does not result in a punitive action.
Council Member Jumaane Williams, an ally on both Right to Know bills and an outspoken critic of the deal between the speaker and commissioner, said he was glad Torres and Reynoso had decided to forge ahead with the bills. “I’ll follow their leadership,” he told Gotham Gazette in a phone interview. Williams agrees that the provisions of the bills need to be codified in law to be effective.
“The Speaker has said the legislative door isn’t closed,” he added, referring to Mark-Viverito’s pledge to re-evaluate as they see implementation of the administrative changes, which will include adjustments to the NYPD patrol guide and new training of officers. “Hopefully there’s some common ground that we can reach to move [the Right to Know Act] forward,” Williams said, adding that Bratton’s retirement provides an opportunity “to take a new look at where we are with this act.”
On Thursday, a number of prominent advocacy organizations that have been pushing the Right to Know Act and criticizing Mark-Viverito over her compromise with Bratton held a Twitter rally calling for passage of the two bills with the hashtag #RightToKnowAct. Leading the call was Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition group of dozens of nonprofits. Organizations that lent their voices to the effort on Twitter include the Legal Defense Fund, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the New York Working Families Party, Justice League NYC, and Color of Change, among others.
So far, the speaker has not responded to the indications that Torres and Reynoso would seek a vote without her express approval. She has time and again reiterated that the agreement with Bratton is an effective reform measure and one that goes into effect faster than legislation could. “This is yet another set of critical police reforms that will continue to keep New Yorkers safe while also ensuring better interactions with the communities they serve,” the speaker said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “This agreement is about more than talk, it is about action. These reforms serve as a model for how we can work collaboratively to achieve lasting change.”