Gotham Gazette Sun, 22 Oct 2017 20:47:40 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Key to Affordable Housing Development, Vacant Lots Remain Source of Controversy vacant lot

On 43rd Street in Far Rockaway, Queens, sit five adjacent, vacant lots. Cordoned off by a chained-link, gray metal fence, the lots—owned by the city’s Department of Housing and Preservation (HPD)—are covered in weeds and garbage. They are “eyesores for the community,” said Alexis Smallwood, a local community organizer, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “Vacant lots should be used for community spaces or real affordable housing.”

These five lots are examples of the hundreds the Department of Housing and Preservation (HPD) could utilize for affordable housing. Since issuing an audit and fuller report in early 2016, Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office has claimed that HPD has let more than 1,000 of these lots stand idle. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has contended, however, that Stringer’s conclusions were “false and misleading.

The latest iteration of the decades-old debate over the quantity, quality, and status of New York’s city-owned vacant lots has been raging, with ebbs and flows, for the past year-and-a-half, even making its way into this year’s mayoral election.

Sal Albanese, who challenged de Blasio in the Democratic mayoral primary and is now running in the general election on the Reform Party line, cited the Comptroller, writing in The Daily News that he “will remove the stranglehold that big developers have on City Hall by taking the vacant properties city government owns - there are more than 1,000 of them - and building truly affordable housing.” Albanese referenced the use of vacant lots during debates as well.

Other politicians have taken up the cause, calling for better use of the city’s vacant lots in battling the affordable housing crisis. Public Advocate Letitia James and City Council Members Jumanee Williams and Ydanis Rodriguez—arguing for legislation that includes a yearly, HPD-led census of publicly-owned, vacant lots—cited Stringer in an August op-ed in City and State.

Meanwhile, HPD and City Hall insist that the de Blasio administration is progressing in its development of lots for new affordable housing and call critics uninformed. “The sites that are available we’ve had a near maniacal focus on making sure that we know where they are and that we are putting them to good use,” said HPD Commissioner Torres-Spring in an interview on What’s the [Data] Point?, a podcast from Gotham Gazette and Citizens Budget Commission.

The comptroller’s office remains dubious. In response to the commissioner’s comments, Tyrone Stevens, press secretary for Comptroller Stringer, said, “Unfortunately, since our audit, we have not seen any specific plans from HPD about how they are developing vacant city-owned land or how many units they’ve created and where they’re located.”

As of now, the facts remain fuzzy. In early 2017, HPD denied several FOIL requests by Paula Segal, attorney with the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center, for lists of vacant lots under its jurisdiction. No lists were provided to the comptroller’s office in rebutting its report, and the department did not provide that information to Gotham Gazette when approached recently, after Torres-Springer’s latest comments on the discrepancy.

As the debate continues, momentum has been building for pending City Council legislation that would require HPD to perform an annual, citywide census of all publicly-owned, vacant land. However, the de Blasio administration has not yet signaled support for the legislation, which is under negotiation, according to Torres-Springer.

Why Vacant Lots?
When he announced his intention to run for mayor, de Blasio made affordable housing a centerpiece of his campaign, promising to create and preserve 200,000 affordable housing units over the next ten years. “We need a stronger hand to make sure development will create and preserve places for a diverse range of families to live and raise their kids,” said de Blasio in a late 2013 campaign speech.

Shortly after he assumed office, he released Housing New York, a plan to flesh out a path to these 200,000 affordable units. At a total cost of $41 billion, not all of which would be city money, it promotes an array of strategies, like expanding housing for seniors and mandating rezonings to require a set portion of affordable units. The plan also includes a call to spur citywide development of small, vacant sites.

For privately-owned, vacant sites, Housing New York includes the intention to not only institute taxes to incentivize housing development, but to reach out to real estate owners to foster potential partnerships. For those that are publicly-owned, the plan calls for the clustering of small, city-owned sites through newly-created programs like the Neighborhood Construction Program (NCP) and New Infill Homeownership Opportunities Program (NIHOP).

Most notably, Housing New York includes a plan to conduct a citywide survey of all publicly and privately-owned vacant land. The administration has given no public indication that this survey has been performed, though it insists it has a detailed grasp of all its vacant lots.

Nonprofits have estimated the total number of vacant sites to be in the thousands. In a 2011 report, Picture the Homeless, a nonprofit advocacy group, reported the existence of 3,551 vacant buildings and 2,489 publicly and privately-owned vacant lots citywide. The group projected that these properties could house close to 200,000 people, more than three times the estimated number of homeless people in New York City, which now hovers around 62,000.

How Many Public Lots?
While the city can incentivize the development of private lots (through vacancy taxes, rezoning density bonuses, and more), it can more quickly turn city-owned lots into affordable housing, as it directly administers these properties, often by working with nonprofit developers.

However, the exact number of vacant lots the city owns remains unclear. "It seems like there's no number to start with, even if it's wrong," said City Council Member Jumaane Williams, during a hearing on vacant properties in 2014.

Nonprofits like Picture the Homeless and city agencies have tried to fill the gap, with varying results. In a report released in 2016, The Municipal Arts Society of New York used data from the Department of City Planning and found 2,726 city-owned, vacant sites. Nonetheless, MAS noticed inaccuracies.

“There seems to be deficiencies in existing city datasets,” said Marcel Negret, project manager at The Municipal Arts Society, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

596 Acres, a nonprofit that pushes for community access to vacant lots, tried to correct for these errors. It combed through city datasets, removing sites that are gutterspaces, parks, and those that have already been sold to developers. Publishing this data as an interactive map, 596 Acres then crowdsourced information from residents and organizers. Its estimate for publicly-owned, vacant land amounts to 1,801 lots as of October 13th.

Finally, the comptroller’s office waded into the fray with its 2016 audit of the Department of Housing and Preservation. Auditors used agency records as well as tax lien sales to identify 1,459 city-owned, vacant properties, of which 1,131 are under the jurisdiction of HPD, it said. In a subsequent report, Stringer claimed that these existing properties could produce approximately 53,000 units of affordable housing. Stringer did not assess the usability of the lots.

Debate Kicks Up a Notch
After the audit’s public release, Comptroller Stringer, a Democrat then considering a possible entrance into the 2017 mayoral race, blasted the administration, HPD, and their predecessors, for an inability to effectively deploy vacant sites under their control.

“This is generations of inaction,” he said.

Housing officials responded in kind. “Your assertion that HPD allows vacant City-owned properties to languish in the face of the affordable housing crisis is simply wrong,” said Vicki Been, then HPD Commissioner, in a statement included in the original audit, in the section typically reserved for such a response.  

HPD claimed that the majority of lots cited in Stringer’s audit were accounted for: it said 310 have “major development challenges” (e.g. were in floodplains or near hurricane danger zones); 150 of the properties were better suited for “non-residential projects” (e.g. community gardens); and 670 were suited for residential use, of which 400 were already set aside for development within the next two years.

De Blasio himself pushed back when asked about the audit during an interview. “I think it’s breathtaking how little the comptroller understands about this issue,” he said on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show in September 2016.

The comptroller had his own response. “But what the city has said to me is ‘no, no, no, all of these properties are already accounted for.’ Can you believe that? So if they’ve already made deals on the properties, who did they ever consult? They didn’t consult the community boards, they didn’t consult anybody,” Stringer said in an interview with the Observer.

The ‘Housing Not Warehousing Act’
This back-and-forth took place amid City Council discussions on legislation designed to take stock of and push the development of private and city-owned vacant land. Comprised of three bills, the “Housing Not Warehousing Act” aims to create a registry of all landlords holding vacant property; hold an annual, citywide census of all vacant land; and compile a list of publicly-owned vacant sites.

Introduced to the Council in December of 2015 by Public Advocate Letitia James and Council Members Jumaane Williams and Ydanis Rodriguez, the act was the focus of a public hearing in September 2016. Despite widespread support from Council members, HPD opposed Intro. 1039, the bill that would require the department to “conduct annual surveys of all city-owned properties to identify vacant buildings or lots that may be suitable for affordable housing.”

HPD Deputy Commissioner Daniel Hernandez testified that publicly releasing this list would have unintended consequences. It would reveal vacant lots that host key environmental infrastructure, information potentially dangerous in the wrong hands, he said. It would prompt real estate speculation, as companies buy up surrounding lots in hopes of grants by the city, he argued, and it would be costly and unnecessary, as HPD already has much of this information at its fingertips.

“Monitoring and collection required by the census would require extensive staff time and a commitment of financial resources without providing the data we really believe is desired,” explained Hernandez, according to City Limits.

In order to prove HPD was already making use of vacant lots under its control, Hernandez cited the same statistics released in response to Stringer’s audit, saying the city has identified 670 vacant lots suitable for the construction of affordable housing. HPD did not provide a detailed itemization.

The committee balked at the lack of specificity. “How could you come to this hearing and not know the status of each and every one of these sites?” asked Council Member Barry Grodenchik, a Democrat from Queens, according to Crain’s New York.

Trying for Clarity
More than a year since the committee hearing on the Housing Not Warehousing Act, HPD has yet to publicly provide a detailed accounting of its vacant sites. Yet, the department reiterates that it is doing everything in its power to manage and deploy lots under its control.

“There’s a lot of misconception about this, so I’m happy to clear the air,” Torres-Springer said, when asked about the vacant lots controversy on What’s The [Data] Point?. “To the extent that they are vacant sites, hundreds of those have either already been designated or in the pipeline or will be soon. There’s a good portion of those that are very small lots that have significant issues where you can’t really build. And—to be honest—even for those, we’re looking at ways to cluster so there's an affordable housing project that can be built.”

Asked to respond to Torres-Springer’s recent comments, Stringer’s office again demanded details. “Which sites are currently being developed and how many remain undeveloped? In what neighborhoods?,” said Stevens, the press secretary. “Who are the developers and how much total subsidy have they received from the city so far for their work?”

Others, too, have lamented that HPD has failed to substantiate its claim that all vacant lots under its control are accounted for. Segal, of the Urban Justice Center, explained in an interview that she filed three Freedom of Information Law requests to HPD on behalf of Picture the Homeless. Asking for lists of the 310 lots that have development challenges, the 150 better suited for non-housing purposes, and the 670 best suited for housing, Segal said that HPD denied one request based on “interference of contracts,” while not replying to the other two.

“HPD failed to respond as they are required by state law,” she explained. “There’s no accountability.”

Gotham Gazette asked HPD for the same lists Segal requested. Housing officials neither provided the data nor responded to Segal’s allegations. They did, however, push back against Stringer’s criticisms. “The comptroller’s assertion that HPD can create 50,000 units on all vacant city-owned land is simply untrue,” said housing officials. “It is not practical to develop all available sites at one time considering resource demands, and oddly shaped lots, infrastructure and resiliency needs on HPD’s remaining land makes development all the more challenging.”

Asked for examples of city-owned vacant lots where housing is currently under construction, HPD provided two. One is "Flushing Municipal Lot 3," which was bid on in 2014 and awarded in 2015. "HPD announced the selection of a joint venture between Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE), HANAC Inc., and Monadnock Development to develop a transit-oriented, mixed-use, and mixed-income development in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens. The team's plan, called One Flushing, will result in the creation of 208 units of very low-income senior housing and multifamily housing that will be affordable to low- and moderate-income families."

The second example is "Livonia Avenue Initiative Phase II," which was bid on and awarded in 2014. "HPD announced the selection of BRP Companies, HELP USA, and the Local Development Corporation of East New York (LDC ENY) for Phase II of the Livonia Avenue Initiative in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn. The development team's plan includes four new mixed-use buildings with a total of 288 affordable apartments, a commercial kitchen that will provide culinary training, and a Career Exploration center (CEC) that will provide vocational training to students of the New Visions Charter High School."

There are various other lots in different stages of development, including some that were put out for bid last year that will be moving forward with selected partners in the near future.

Going Forward
Perhaps the best hope for a reliable account of city-owned vacant lots remains one bill, Intro. 1039, of the Housing Not Warehousing Act. While the legislation has remained dormant since the 2016 hearing, City Limits recently reported that momentum for the package of bills is increasing. Two have over 30 sponsors in the 51-seat Council, and Intro. 1039 has more than the “veto-proof” majority, with 34 sponsors, as of October 10.

In comments given to City Limits, Council Member Williams, the prime sponsor of 1039, said, “I do believe it’s time to get moving.” He explained he might even attempt to push the legislation through without HPD sign-off. The Council virtually never moves legislation that has not reached an amicable compromise point with the de Blasio administration.

Williams is hopeful that parlays with the administration will be successful and, according to a spokesperson in a statement to Gotham Gazette, “believes that the administration recognizes the degree of the affordable housing crisis here in the city, and hopes to work with them to address the problem and find meaningful solutions.”

Torres-Springer echoed this desire to cooperate, saying on the podcast, “We continue to work with the Council on those bills, because we share the goal of using every square foot of real estate that we possibly can to build affordable housing, but we have to do it, of course, in the most strategic way.”

by Ben Weiss, Gotham Gazette

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Key to Affordable Housing Development, Vacant Lots Remain Source of Controversy Mon, 16 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
As Deaths Mount, Scrutiny of NYPD Response to ‘Emotionally Disturbed Persons’ NYPD de Blasio

Mayor de Blasio & law enforcement officials (photo: Edwin J. Torres/ Mayor’s Office)

At a recent hearing, New York City Council members discussed the effectiveness of NYPD responses to “emotionally disturbed person” (EDP) calls, the slow pace of implementation for new NYPD crisis intervention training, and the tragic outcomes of several recent interactions between NYPD officers and emotionally disturbed individuals.

At the hearing, held Sept. 6 jointly by the Council’s Committee on Public Safety and Committee on Mental Health, Developmental Disability, Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Disability Services, members called for clarity on recent interactions ending in lethal force and stressed their support for the proposed mayoral working group to assess the city’s overall response to individuals in crisis.

The hearing, which received little attention at the time given the city’s primary elections were occurring just six days later, on September 12, occurred in the wake of the deaths of six mentally ill individuals killed by NYPD officers responding to EDP calls over the past 11 months, and just before another such incident would unfold.

The introduction of crisis intervention training at the NYPD in the summer of 2015, a program designed to help officers respond to individuals in the midst of such crises, was intended to better equip officers to handle such circumstances without use of force, but has been rolled out slowly due to class size requirements and competing training demands. Of the department’s approximately 34,000 officers, fewer than 6,400 had been trained at the time of the hearing, according to NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Collaborative Policing Susan Herman.

While there is increased scrutiny of how the NYPD handles EDP calls and its deadly encounters with individuals in crisis, some also believe that reforms must be put into place whereby NYPD officers are not the first ones at such scenes; that unarmed counselors, social workers, and mental health professionals are better suited to diffuse EDP situations.

In the July shooting of Dwayne Jeune, an emotionally disturbed Brooklyn man, Jeune charged cops with a bread knife and was shot after a Taser shock appeared to have little effect. Three of the four patrol officers on the scene had participated in CIT while the fourth, the only one lacking a CIT background, was the one to fire, according to the department.  In instances of EDP calls, supervisors must make the decision to call the Emergency Service Unit (ESU), whose members complete Emergency Psychological Technician’s training and are equipped to identify and interact with those suffering from mental illnesses. Jeune’s situation was characterized as nonviolent and ESU was not brought in.

Council members and a family member of Jeune questioned whether CIT officers should be given control when responding to EDP calls.

Herman pointed to a department preference for an officer who develops rapport with an individual to take control of the response. “It’s great to have a CIT trained officer and we want to train everyone, but we’re not at the point where we’re saying whoever is CIT trained commands the situation,” she said.

Council members also stressed a desire to see officers trained at a faster clip. The NYPD is presently training 90 officers a week; dividing training into classes of lieutenants, supervisors, and patrol officers. Based loosely on a model developed by the Memphis Police Department and in conjunction with the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the program requires a class maximum of 30, which plays a primary role in the department’s delayed implementation. The department expects to train all supervisors and lieutenants by 2018, at which point it will return to training recruits.

Herman also noted the Memphis model’s stipulation that training 25 to 30 percent of the force will allow other patrol officers to learn through experience and observation. Council Member Vanessa Gibson, chair of the public safety committee, interjected, reiterating the city’s desire to move beyond the Memphis baseline. “In a city of such great diversity and challenge, that’s a bare minimum for us,” Gibson said.

The officer who shot and killed Jeune was involved in a similar shooting in October of last year, when a bipolar man lunged at officers with a knife, according to the NYPD. Council members grilled Herman on the department’s policy for re-evaluating the training needs of officers with a history of force used during EDP calls. “It seems to me if there is an officer who was involved in an EDP that ended in deadly force, that might be a prompt to get them CIT training so that won’t happen again,” said Council Member Jumaane Williams.

Herman pointed to the overall low number of use of force instances, citing a 1 percent rate for use of any level of force during the 150,000 EDP calls the NYPD receives each year. This total of 15,000 instances includes use of force cases ranging from wrestling the individual to the ground to the use of a Taser, as well as shootings. The deputy commissioner cited the NYPD’s general policy for reviewing use of force, but did not specifically reference department policy in cases specific to EDP calls. “After any use of lethal force or shooting, there’s a very comprehensive review,” said Herman. “When an officer needs instruction on tactics, they get that.”

The New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), the union representing more than 20,000 patrol officers, declined to comment on the hearing when Gotham Gazette inquired. The Lieutenant’s Benevolent Association and Sergeant’s Benevolent Association did not respond to requests for comment. None of the unions sent representatives to testify at the hearing.

For some advocates, the discussion of how to improve NYPD responses to mental health crises has ignored the larger issue at hand. “I don’t want to try to fine tune a police response, I want to end it,” said Alex Vitale, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and senior adviser to the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP), in an interview. “The city has to be willing to pay for mental health services instead of police services.”

To this end, City Council members sought answers on how to assist individuals displaying escalating levels of violence before reaching a situation in which an EDP call is necessary.

One such answer are the co-response teams established under the mayor’s “NYC Safe” program, intended to reach mentally ill individuals and those with substance abuse issues before they enter a mental health crisis. The program provides ongoing treatment and support to individuals identified as displaying increasing levels of violence by a number of sources including government agencies, community-based health care providers, and precinct commanding officers.

“This is somebody who’s on someone’s radar because their actions were calling out to us. It’s not just somebody who’s off their meds, it’s somebody who’s maybe in a shelter, who one week has loudly cursed at someone and another week has thrown a chair,” said Deputy Commissioner Herman.

Critics have pointed out that there are still far too many individuals on the streets of the city in mental health or substance abuse crises who are not getting the help they need or being moved into care facilities, which often necessitates the use of Kendra’s Law, legislation that provides court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment for those whose mental illnesses.

A critical component of the city’s ongoing partnership between law enforcement officers and health care providers are two diversion centers, offering stabilizing services for those with mental illnesses and substance abuse issues that otherwise would have been arrested on low-level charges. Two such centers will likely be operating by the end of 2018 and will house 2,500 individuals per year, according to Dr. Gary Belkin, executive deputy commissioner of mental hygiene at the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), who testified at the Council hearing.

For advocates, however, this timeline falls short of addressing the city’s needs. “When we hear that the drop-in centers are not going to be available until the end of 2018, that’s not an acceptable response for the City of New York,” said Joshua Goldfein, an attorney for The Legal Aid Society, which often represents individuals unable to afford attorneys, at the hearing.

Hours after the City Council Hearing concluded on September 6, officers fatally shot a mentally ill Bronx man when responding to a call for a “wellness check” from the landlord. The man, Miguel Richards, ignored orders to drop a knife and gun, later found to be a toy gun. The ESU unit had arrived by the time of the shooting, but had not yet entered the apartment.

In the eyes of Carla Rabinowitz, advocacy coordinator for Community Access, the officers’ repeated shouts of “Put that knife down” and “What’s in your other hand?” pointed to a failure to engage on the part of officers not trained in CIT. “The incident is just calling out for more CIT officers,” said Rabinowitz. “You can’t shout commands at a person in emotional distress, you need other solutions.”

by Grace Dixon for Gotham Gazette

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As Deaths Mount, Scrutiny of NYPD Response to ‘Emotionally Disturbed Persons’ Tue, 26 Sep 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Oversight Bill Moves Ahead, with Police Union Opposition But De Blasio Support de Blasio Jumaane Williams NYPD

Mayor de Blasio & Council Member Williams (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

A police oversight bill sponsored by City Council Member Jumaane Williams unanimously sailed through the Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations on Tuesday, and is all but certain to be voted through the full City Council on Thursday. The legislation, which increases reporting requirements about and efforts to mitigate police misconduct, has the support of the de Blasio administration, but is being opposed and criticized by the city’s largest police union.

The bill requires aggregation of public data regarding litigation in state and federal courts against the NYPD and individual officers into a report to the Comptroller, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the NYPD, and the Commission to Combat Police Corruption, after which the NYPD Inspector General must use the data to make recommendations regarding training and disciplining of officers and the department.

Police misconduct has cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements. According to a report from the Comptroller’s Office, the city paid out $100.6 million in Fiscal Year 2016 in settlements related to police misconduct.

“The legislative process has been very valuable and very long,” said Williams in his opening statement at Tuesday’s committee vote, which was 4-0 (the other three members of the committee were absent). “But we received a lot of information. We got information about transparency issues. This is not about making police officers look bad. We are trying to find ways to make the department better.”

Vincent Gentile, the committee chair, echoed Williams’ sentiments, stating that there was “no negative intent” to the bill despite what opponents might say. After passing committee, the bill is set for a vote of the full 51-seat City Council on Thursday.

The legislation is seeing last minute opposition from the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), the main union representing uniformed police officers in the city. In written testimony submitted to the committee in advance of Tuesday’s vote, the PBA questioned the intention of the bill and stated that the increased transparency would prove harmful to the department, individual officers, and the city overall.

“The “evaluation” contemplated by this legislation is apparently designed to reach a foregone conclusion — that New York City police officers engage in widespread, willful violations New Yorkers’ rights, and that the NYPD’s leadership is incapable of performing the disciplinary and governance duties assigned to it by the City Charter — that is not supported by any available evidence,” reads the testimony. “In this effort, the legislation would do significant harm to police officers’ reputations and due process rights by substituting mere allegations of misconduct for proof of the same. Moreover, by highlighting and publicizing those allegations for the benefit of entities that profit from the harassment and denigration of police officers, this legislation would undermine the NYPD’s governance and operations and diminish public safety for the City as a whole.”

The union also alleges that the legislation is explicitly designed to hurt police officers, and to serve an ideological agenda rather than to increase accountability, which it claims is already up to par.

“Far from seeking correcting the injustices in the existing system, this legislation amounts to an indictment of the NYPD’s leadership and its disciplinary policies for failing to produce a desired or expected outcome: the punishment of as many police officers possible, as harshly as possible, regardless of the merits of the allegations they face.”

The union also argues that the aggregation of public data into a single report “serves no purpose other than as a tool of convenience for the lucrative plaintiffs’ bar that profits from the filing of specious claims of police misconduct.”

The PBA provided only written testimony; no one spoke gave oral testimony to the Council committee.

Williams, who in an interview with Gotham Gazette for a previous article stated that the department has a woeful record on transparency and accountability, had choice words for the union at the hearing.

“There have been two hearings on this bill, the PBA hasn’t come to either one,” said Williams. “They haven’t provided any testimony, except for right now. And I know many of my colleagues have received some calls from the PBA telling them to oppose this.”

“I have never seen one piece of legislation that deals with policing that the PBA has supported,” he continued. “And they very rarely, if ever, engage in any discussion around these bills. They simply say no.”

“I’ve never denied the PBA the opportunity to discuss issues with me,” he said. “I’ve never tried to deny them the opportunity to come talk before us.”

Williams has bluntly criticized the PBA before. In 2014, he accused the union of lying to the public in order to foment “mass hysteria.” He has accused the PBA of failing to engage in “productive discussion” with the Council and reform advocates regarding Williams most controversial policing-related legislation, the 2013 Community Safety Act that created the NYPD IG and new prohibitions around racial profiling. The legislation, in part a response to the NYPD’s excessive use of stop-and-frisk policing, was passed by the Council over a veto by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

PBA sources told Gotham Gazette that Williams wasn’t telling the whole story about the bill currently at hand. “This is a policing bill without the input of the police. They had a hearing 17 months ago and made no effort to contact us or get our feedback ever since that hearing.”

Meanwhile, the legislation has moved ahead with the support from the de Blasio administration, which indicated it helped shape the final product of a bill that has been around for several years, since Williams first introduced it.

"We're proud to have worked on this legislation with our partners in the Council as part of the Administration's broader effort to bring greater transparency to how our City is policed and continue to build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve and protect,” said Austin Finan, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio. Changes to the bill indicate that the administration reduced some of the reporting requirements in negotiations with the Council.

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Oversight Bill Moves Ahead, with Police Union Opposition But De Blasio Support Tue, 22 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Police Misconduct Bill Set to Move Through City Council jumaane williams pthny

Council Member Jumaane Williams (photo: @pthny)

After a lengthy legislative process, a bill regarding police misconduct is likely to move through the City Council this week, beginning with a Tuesday committee vote.

The legislation (Intro. 119), introduced in 2014 by City Council Member Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn Democrat, would require the city’s Law Department to post online, and to notify the Comptroller, the NYPD, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, and the Commission to Combat Police Corruption of, reports covering wide-ranging information on civil actions in state and federal court regarding police misconduct, and for the NYPD Inspector General to use this information to make recommendations regarding “disciplining, training, and monitoring of police officers.” The NYPD would also be required to “study determinations by judges that an officer’s testimony is not credible.”

The information required of the Law Department includes a comprehensive list of civil actions against the NYPD or individual police officers, the type of misconduct alleged in each instance, the names of the law firms representing the plaintiff and the defendant, whether or not the matter has been resolved, and whether the city paid out a settlement to the plaintiff.

“The theme of the bill is to see if we can recognize any patterns that are emerging,” Williams said in an interview with Gotham Gazette, “just in general or with particular officers, that intervention might be beneficial before something bad happens.”

Of the long legislative process for the measure, having been stuck in committee for over three years, Williams said that issues surrounding policing require sensitivity.

“There’s always issues of transparency and how much information is too much. Are we putting too much out there in a way that makes officers look bad? That’s usually what a lot of pushback is about,” Williams said. “And we always push back, ‘No, we’re trying to make policing and officers better.’”

Beyond the aim of increasing transparency about NYPD misconduct and having more data to inform decision-making, Williams also hopes that the bill itself could reduce police misconduct and “bad policing.” The NYPD has faced significant criticism for police misconduct that has led to deaths of civilians, excessive street stops (and frisks), hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements, and other negative outcomes. Officers involved in misconduct are often not held accountable to standards that many, like Williams, believe to be just.

Although the data in question is public, it is not aggregated into a report, and therefore has not been analyzed by the NYPD, City Hall, or watchdogs in order to draw conclusions for improving the department, both in terms of departmental and officer accountability, and the performance of NYPD programs and initiatives.

The legislation has been the subject of two hearings since its introduction: the first in May 2014, and the second in June 2016. Both times, it was laid over in committee without a vote. The New York City Bar Association and the Legal Aid Society have voiced support for the legislation, and its current iteration, Intro 119-D, has nine cosponsors in addition to Williams. When the bill was put on the calendar for a committee hearing this week, Gotham Gazette reached Williams for comment about the status of the bill and its apparent imminent passage.

Assuming it passes through the Committee on Oversight and Investigations, the bill will likely be voted through the full City Council on Thursday. Unlike many others, it may not be approved unanimously by the 51-seat Council that currently includes 47 Democrats, three Republicans, and vacancy.

Big settlements paid by the city often make waves. In January, a settlement was reached for the city to pay $75 million to those who were improperly issued summonses for minor offenses in order to fulfill alleged arrest quotas. The city was unable to prove probable cause in these issuances. The NYPD has consistently denied that it utilizes arrest quotas, though numerous former police officers have gone on the record to state that the department has indeed used quotas.

Smaller settlements, however, also drain the city’s finances and clog the court system. Further, a lack of transparency in terms of civil action and litigation against the department and individual officers can prevent the introduction of necessary reforms.

“Since individual damage claims are in some measure a reflection of the NYPD’s relationship to the community, the report could provide one measure of the effectiveness of NYPD’s management in achieving its goal of improving its relationship with communities across our City,” said William Gibney, director of the Legal Aid Society's Criminal Practice Special Litigation Unit, in 2014 testimony to the Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations. “It could help managers evaluate risk as to whether a new program or an existing practice, e.g., police vehicle pursuit, is working well or whether it is unnecessarily costing the City in terms of money paid in damages claims and relationships with the impacted communities. It could help determine whether certain precincts or certain officers need closer supervision or retraining.”

According to a report from the office of city Comptroller Scott Stringer, the city paid out $100.6 million in Fiscal Year 2016 related to tort litigation against police misconduct, about equal to the amount paid out for medical malpractice claims ($101.1 million). Civil rights claims made up $158 million in city settlements.

Over the past several years, the City Council and the NYPD have oftne disagreed over proposed legislation, though there have been numerous compromises reached, and the Council spearheaded the addition of what wound up being 1,300 officers to the force through a budget deal with Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Williams has been a noted critic of the de Blasio administration on police accountability, stating at a Thursday press conference at City Hall that the current administration was “worse than the Bloomberg administration” and that he had not decided on whether he would endorse de Blasio, a fellow Democrat, for reelection.

Williams told Gotham Gazette that policing reform and police accountability and transparency are two separate things, and that the de Blasio administration has had some significant victories in the realm of police reform, but that accountability and transparency were severely lacking.

“I think the NYPD has done more on reform than they get credit for,” he said. “And that’s because on police accountability and transparency, that’s just not the case. Just isn’t true.”

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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Police Misconduct Bill Set to Move Through City Council Sun, 20 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Council Speaker Contenders Spread the Wealth to Colleagues 15418071831 7ded33d9b6 z

Speaker Mark-Viverito (center) and Council Member Johnson (r) (photo: William Alatriste/New York City Council)

A number of City Council Members who are jockeying to replace Melissa Mark-Viverito as the next Speaker of the City Council seem to be stepping up efforts to curry favor with their colleagues and other elected officials through strategic campaign donations.

The latest campaign finance disclosures filed on Monday show that Council Members Corey Johnson, Mark Levine, Ydanis Rodriguez and Jumaane Williams -- all contenders for Speaker of the 51-member legislative body -- have made significant contributions to fellow Council members and candidates running for open City Council seats. Other Speaker candidates -- Council Members Donovan Richards, Jimmy Van Bramer and Robert Cornegy -- also made similar, but smaller contributions.

The speaker, perhaps the second most powerful elected official in the city, is chosen through an internal vote of the Council every four years after an election. Current Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will be term-limited out of office at the end of the year. She won the post with the help of a coalition of progressive Council members and the active involvement of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who swayed Brooklyn Democrats to support her and in the process undercut the Bronx and Queens County machinery that had decided the speaker’s race in the past.

Council Member Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat and a prolific campaigner who is seen as one of the leading Speaker candidates, has so far contributed over $50,000 to other elected officials’ campaigns, far outpacing other speaker hopefuls.

According to Campaign Finance Board (CFB) filings, Johnson’s campaign has disbursed the maximum contribution of $2,750 to 15 Council members who are running for reelection and also to two Council candidates, for a total of $46,750. Those incumbents and potential future members of the Council could determine whether Johnson holds the Speaker’s gavel next year. Johnson also made three other donations collectively worth the mayoral contribution limit of $4,950 to Mayor Bill de Blasio, and contributed $2,500 to Comptroller Scott Stringer, for a total of 19 candidates who received donations from him. All are Democrats.

Johnson, who is not a participant in the city’s public matching funds program, has raised over $462,000 and spent about $271,000 this election cycle, making candidate contributions almost a fifth of his entire spending. He retains about $191,000 on hand. His Council donations were heavily weighted to outer-borough incumbents, with just two going to members from Manhattan. Five of Johnson’s donations went to Brooklyn members, four each to members in Queens and the Bronx, and one to a Staten Island member. Johnson has spent the last few months aggressively courting his colleagues, campaigning on their behalf in their districts. In one weekend in June, he made appearances with several Council Members across four boroughs.

[Related: Corey Johnson’s Very Busy Campaign Weekend]

Johnson also donated to State Assemblymember Francisco Moya, who is seeking to fill the Queens seat of Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who will step down at the end of the year. Ferreras-Copeland chairs the Council’s powerful finance committee and was considered one of the leading Speaker candidates before she announced she would not be running for reelection for personal reasons. Johnson’s other donation went to Carlina Rivera, a candidate for Council District 2 in Manhattan, which is currently occupied by term-limited member Rosie Mendez. Additionally, Johnson bundled almost $13,000 in donations for Rivera’s campaign. Johnson’s campaign did not respond to calls seeking comment.

The closest competitor in contributions is Council Member Mark Levine, whose campaign has given $31,000 to other candidates and colleagues. The contributions include 11 of the same incumbents and both Moya and Rivera. He also gave to Bronx Council Member Fernando Cabrera and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., for a total of 15 candidates. Levine has raised just over $376,000 in the campaign so far and has spent about $191,000, leaving him with about $185,000 on hand. He has also been actively campaigning for Speaker and is considered one of the top candidates for the position. Levine’s campaign did not respond to calls from Gotham Gazette.

Manhattan Council member Ydanis Rodriguez comes in third for his donations. His campaign has given $24,000 in 12 separate contributions of $2,000 to 11 Council incumbents and District 2 candidate Rivera. Rodriguez contributed to eight of the same Council candidates as Johnson and seven of the same candidates as Levine. His own campaign account holds about $94,000, after raising $247,000 and spending about $153,000.

Jumaane Williams personally gave $12,000 in 11 contributions, 8 of them to incumbent Council members and three to candidates, including Rivera. Williams’ contribution list differed somewhat, including four Council members that none of the other three top-contributing speaker candidates had given to.

All four gave to Council members Margaret Chin of Manhattan; Antonio Reynoso, of Brooklyn; and Rafael Salamanca, Jr., of the Bronx.

Among other speaker candidates, Donovan Richards personally gave $2,000 to two incumbents, $2,750 each to two Council candidates, including Rivera, and $500 to de Blasio, for a total of $8,000. Robert Cornegy gave $2,750 each to Moya and Queens Council member Elizabeth Crowley, plus $500 to District 41 candidate Henry Butler, for a total of $6,000. Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer gave $1,500 between two incumbents and $175 to Diana Ayala, who is running for Mark-Viverito’s seat in District 8.

The amounts involved appear to already dwarf the direct candidate contributions that current Speaker Mark-Viverito and her campaign made during the 2013 election cycle, after which she was elected speaker. According to CFB data, Mark-Viverito spent only $3,000 in candidate contributions that cycle.

by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette

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Council Speaker Contenders Spread the Wealth to Colleagues Fri, 21 Jul 2017 23:06:45 +0000
Illegal Conversions Crackdown Could Worsen City’s Housing Crisis  hum listings

(photo: Tarry Hum)

The New York City Council recently passed an “Aggravated Illegal Conversions” bill by a 49-0 vote. The legislation -- sponsored by City Council Members Gentile, Williams, and Grodenchik, and Brooklyn Borough President Adams, and signed into law by Mayor de Blasio -- significantly increases the civil penalties for owners who illegally subdivide their residential property to create three or more dwelling units (typically single rooms) above the number legally permitted by the property’s certificate of occupancy. Unpaid penalties become a tax lien that the city can recoup through a forced property sale.  

Representing the South Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bath Beach, and Bensonhurst, Council Member Gentile has long argued the high risks and costs of illegal conversions in terms of tenant and emergency responder safety and overburdened public infrastructure. Media coverage of several incidences of illegal conversions in summer 2016 added momentum and renewed urgency to the bill’s passage.

Illegal conversions provide a housing source of last resort and their prevalence in working-class, immigrant enclaves and neighboring areas underscore New York City’s acute housing crisis. The outstanding demand for affordable housing augmented by rising real estate values are the driving forces behind predatory landlord practices. Investor-owners subdivide their property in order to maximize rental profits; homeowners may similarly seek to capture untapped profits, or they may depend on rental income to support a huge mortgage debt.

In either scenario, modest one- to three-family properties have become “modern-day tenements” where working-class New Yorkers are only able to afford a substandard, single room. A common sight in Sunset Park and Flushing are bulletin boards with numerous notices publicizing single rooms for rent. Long discarded as a viable source of housing for low-income tenants, SROs were recently touted as a niche alternative for affluent millennials.

In addition to identifying and punishing predatory landlords who profit by subjecting tenants to substandard housing, Council Member Williams noted, “It is also our responsibility to offer a realistic, affordable housing alternative to the residents.”

There is no question that illegal conversions pose a present danger to the thousands of New Yorkers who rely on this form of shelter. However, this legislation offers no alternatives or protections for tenants whose only source of “affordable” rental housing typically entails risk to personal safety, arbitrary eviction, and hazardous conditions.

The law -- which increases fines, requires the DOB to seek an access warrant and vacate illegal conversions, and potentially, dispossess offending property owners -- has tremendous appeal for middle-class homeowners and civic associations who are, foremost, concerned about a diminished neighborhood quality of life and aesthetic as measured by overcrowdedness, lack of street parking, and front yards converted to parking spaces. Bob Cassara of the Brooklyn Housing Preservation Alliance worries that illegal conversions will tip the balance of a neighborhood’s demography: “Once a home is sold and illegally converted, people refuse to live next to a home with triple the legal occupancy.”  

During an October 2016 City Council hearing, Council Member Williams expressed concern that the aggravated illegal conversions bill may appear to be targeting particular tenant populations such as immigrants and people of color. “I know there were some questions of what this bill was and if we were trying to hurt specific demographics and whether it was Haitians in my district and Chinese in Council Member Gentile’s district,” Williams said.

There is good reason for his concerns. Since Trump’s election, New Yorkers — including community board members representing the city’s celebrated hyper-diverse neighborhoods —feel emboldened to express anti-immigrant sentiments. A longtime member was recently removed from Community Board 4 in Queens for her comment that bicycle lanes will no longer be needed once Trump “removes all the illegals.” According to a DNAinfo map of the November 2016 elections, a large part of Council Member Gentile’s district voted for Trump. Less than a month after the presidential election, a Muslim off-duty NYPD officer and her son were the targets of a racist verbal assault in her Bay Ridge neighborhood. News accounts of escalating fears of detainment and deportation has prompted Congressional Rep. Nydia Velazquez to introduce legislation that prohibits Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents from identifying themselves as local police officers.

Mayor de Blasio has declared our city a sanctuary for immigrants. In this climate, we need to actively ensure that all New Yorkers have safe haven. While this illegal conversions law rightly seeks to punish predatory landlords and their exploitative practices, without the provision of alternative, safe and affordable long-term housing, this law deepens the crisis facing our most vulnerable tenant populations including immigrants, seniors, and the working-poor.

Tarry Hum is a professor at The City University of New York (CUNY) and author of Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood. On Twitter @TarryHum.

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Illegal Conversions Crackdown Could Worsen City’s Housing Crisis Wed, 14 Jun 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo’s ‘Progressive’ Budget Misses the Mark Jumaane Williams City Council

Council Member Jumaane Williams, the author (photo: William Alatriste)

Governor’s budget epitomizes the need to define what "progressive" means

The new state budget, like almost all budgets, has some beneficial things that should be celebrated. However, to call this budget “progressive” clearly means that in this era of Trump, the term is being stretched to the point of possibly having no meaning at all. And frankly, we should also examine what it means to be part of the "resistance."

The main example being touted is “Raise the Age,” which of course we should take time to celebrate and give credit where it’s due. It should also be put in perspective. This state was the second to last state to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility from 16 -- meaning 48 other states have been progressive on this years before us. So if this makes New York progressive, what were they? Additionally, what was just passed is a watered down version of what most advocates say would be most helpful.

Let’s also look at tuition-free college. Again, it sounds good when Governor Cuomo talks about it, and it is better than what we had -- but how many people does it impact? If you don’t finish your degree in four years, you’re not eligible, or you have to repay any scholarship money. This is unacceptable. For example, only 10.4 percent of first-time/full-time students from CUNY City College graduate on time.

The Excelsior Scholarship also doesn’t help the poorest students, who need the help the most. As we celebrate this win with pictures of Bernie Sanders, we must ask if this is really what he had in mind when he brought the issue to prominence last year.

Then there is 421-a, which has been euphemistically re-branded as the “Affordable New York” housing program. This is perhaps the single worst item in the state budget. The governor missed the mark completely and aligned himself more with Donald Trump, who helped create 421-a in the first place, than the New Yorkers in need of affordable housing.

First, the new program is completely unlinked with the renewal of rent regulations -- the only real leverage tenants had in extending rent stabilization laws along with the real estate tax break that is 421-a. Next, the revival of the 421-a tax abatement gives away billions to real estate developers without spurring true affordable housing. The new program is worse than the old one, which expired two years ago.

This tax break gives away a lot for very little. In essence, it takes away valuable resources from effective affordable housing strategies to instead line the pockets of wealthy developers, like the current president, who is one of the biggest recipients taking advantage of city taxpayers.

Over 10 years, this tax abatement will cost the city nearly a billion additional dollars in unrealized tax revenue, causing similar pain to the cuts we are facing from the president.

Adding insult to injury, the governor aligned with Senate Republicans and took away the city’s ability to do anything to shape the program -- an ability that existed in the previous version.

What’s worse still is that even after 421-a expired, new construction permits continued without pause, proving this tax abatement is an inexplicable, unnecessary billion-dollar gift to developers.

Let’s be clear, those touting this as a “progressive” state budget had the power to do all of this before the Trump Era, but chose not to. And even these measures are overly compromised, half-loafs of what they could and should be.

On a separate note, it’s unclear what benefit, if any, the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) played through aligning with Senate Republicans. Their existence doesn’t seem to have been necessary in getting a weaker than requested Raise the Age in exchange for a thorough tax giveaway to developers. The Assembly and Senate Democrats could have done that deal on their own.

Credit is deserved to the Senate Democrats and particularly to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie for any progress we do now have. With that said, they also must immediately begin work on strengthening Raise the Age, and go back to the drawing board with the failed new 421-a.

I don’t write any of this to say that there is nothing good in the state budget. But, my constituents and I expect more. New York City and New York State deserve better.

As an experienced community organizer, I am trained to celebrate the small victories along the way to the final goal. And yes, people who are pushed to do things they otherwise wouldn’t should be rewarded as well. That is part of the political game. But, it should be put in context.

We should see and acknowledge the differences between someone who has conviction to fight at all costs for progressive values and someone who wears whatever cloak is politically expedient.

The new state budget includes some good, even some historic things. But to tout it loudly as a “progressive” budget seems more on the expediency side than any true conviction. These false proclamations should make us question what the word “progressive” even means today. Are we allowing mediocrity in the name of the people, more for self-gain than public service?

I remember just a few years ago New York residents were too proud to let Rudy Giuliani get away with using New York to tout a vastly inflated record as a passport to the presidency. At this point, I hope that aligning with “progressive” actually ends up delivering what advocates truly want and residents desperately need. If not, I hope that people of conscience in New York, who kept Rudy in check, will have the same pride in 2020.

Jumaane Williams is a City Council member representing parts of Brooklyn. On Twitter @JumaaneWilliams.

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Cuomo’s ‘Progressive’ Budget Misses the Mark Thu, 13 Apr 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Little Progress on Utica Avenue Subway Expansion Subway stop

The new Second Avenue Subway (photo: Patrick Cashin/MTA)

Two years ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio released a comprehensive plan for the city that included funding to study the expansion of a subway line on Utica Avenue, Brooklyn, one of the most crowded transit corridors in the city. The plan roused speculation among transit advocates and elected officials that funding for the much-needed subway line might eventually be in the pipeline, but with little movement on the study, some are beginning to doubt whether officials are truly committed to the project.

The Utica Avenue subway line would extend the 3 and 4 train from Eastern Parkway southward down Utica Avenue, a stretch of Brooklyn that includes East Flatbush, Flatlands, and Marine Park, and is home to about 168,000 residents. The extension has been a topic of discussion for more than a century, first proposed in 1910 when residents of Brooklyn cited “business and residential needs” as a key factor motivating their desire for a dedicated subway line. In 2015, Mayor de Blasio’s One NYC plan designated $5 million towards studying the feasibility of the subway line, a result of the capital funding agreement between the city and state.

But elected officials and residents have heard little about the planned study -- which was scheduled to be conducted in the current fiscal year ending June 30 -- and are beginning to voice their complaints about a lack of communication from the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the New York City Department of Transportation.

“I definitely wasn't consulted, I do know about the study, but I wasn't told about it.” said Council Member Jumaane Williams, who represents the East Flatbush district where the line would be built. Williams said he had to contact the DOT directly after he learned about the study in 2015, and ask for an update himself. “My hope is that maybe with this new study, they're trying to get us more involved...but the reality is I don't think many of us are aware,” he said.

A spokesperson for the DOT said in an email, “The DOT and MTA launched the study process last year.” The spokesperson did not respond to multiple emails requesting details on the timeline, but stressed, “An extension along Utica would bring great opportunities to more communities and was a priority of the City during MTA capital plan negotiations.”

MTA spokesperson Kevin Ortiz said that the agency was coordinating with the DOT, but that much of the onus fell on the city. As Ortiz explained it, the study had yet to begin. In an email, he said, “This is a city allocated project, so we need a better idea of what the city wants out of the study. So we are working with them to refine the scope to meet their needs and envision hiring a consultant to conduct the study later this year.” In a followup email, he referred questions to the DOT.

State Assemblymember N. Nick Perry, whose district includes Williams’ constituency, said he has been given scant information on the proposed study. “I know there’s been a little noise about this, but I haven't heard anything more,” Perry said. “So far it's still something in the pipeline and it may be quite a long pipeline.”

The Crown Heights-Utica Avenue subway station, from which the potential Utica line would extend, has almost 9 million riders a year, making it the 37th most popular station out of 472. The extension would run down Utica Avenue to Kings Plaza, cutting across a district that has few trains in the area. “People complained about having to walk a couple of blocks on Second Avenue,” Council Member Williams said. “There are no trains in many parts of my district within many blocks.”

Recognizing the dire transit needs on Utica Avenue, the DOT last year launched the B46 Select Bus Service, which runs along the Utica corridor and carries 44,000 people every day. The route was identified as a priority in 2009, and realized in 2016 after several meetings with Brooklyn community boards. The route extends six miles from DeKalb Avenue to Kings Plaza, covering a similar region to the prospective Utica Avenue subway.

But the buses, according to Council Member Williams and Assemblymember Perry, present their own problems. People in vehicles get penalized for violating the restricted bus lanes, which are closed to cars and trucks from 7am to 4pm. “It's obviously not good for working people's pockets to get $115 tickets, so I'm trying to figure out how they're measuring the success of the bus lanes,” Williams said.

Perry believes the ticketing may be taking a toll on commerce in the district as well; truck drivers attempting to make deliveries along the street get fined too. “Right now they get tickets...and some of them can't afford the cost of doing business,” Perry said. “Folks are looking to move off Utica Avenue, and that's an economic hub of this community.”

Even with the implementation of the B46, Perry pointed out a similar issue with the DOT, a lack of communication with the affected commuters and residents. “It seems to me that they snuck it through really, because they spoke to a select group of people and by the time the information got down to the folks who were really going to be impacted they were already in their implementation mode,” Perry said.

De Blasio’s decision to devote $5 million to the plan in 2015 may have mollified politicians and residents at the time, but some transportation insiders have a different take on the matter. Jon Orcutt, the director of communications and advocacy at TransitCenter, and the director of policy for the DOT from 2007 to 2014, said that the Utica Extension study was one of a number of studies that get funding, but rarely make it beyond the desk of the MTA.

“If you go back through MTA capital programs, there are lots and lots of studies like some ways the MTA sort of buys peace with elected officials by studying things that they say they want to look at,” Orcutt said. “They may be studying them for even longer than they need to be studied.”

To go from talk to action, said Mitchell Moss, director of the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, there needs to be a concerted effort by the community, the city and the state. “The important thing is to have advocacy from all levels,” he said.

Moss pointed out that the state’s priorities have been elsewhere on larger projects. For the last few years, the MTA had been scrambling to complete construction on the Second Avenue subway line, which was a priority for Governor Andrew Cuomo. After perennial delays, which drew constant complaints from residents of the East Side who bemoaned the lack of mass transit facilities, the line finally opened on deadline to the public on January 1.

Political will for the Utica line, in comparison, has been relatively muted. Council Member Williams said he was “not sure why this has stalled.” He continued, “I think many times there are parts of this city that are not paid attention to as much as others, and I think we've fallen into that bucket for quite some time. Obviously it's time to change that.”

TransitCenter’s Orcutt thinks the mayor hasn’t prioritized or advocated for the Utica Extension, which he believes is necessary to push it forward. “Bloomberg got the 7 Extension... but they went and made a case with the Governor and went all in for it and it happened,” he said. “I don't think there's anywhere near that kind of push or pressure to get the Utica project going.”

by Elena Burger, Gotham Gazette

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Little Progress on Utica Avenue Subway Expansion Tue, 21 Feb 2017 01:56:54 +0000
Bill de Blasio’s Police Accountability Problem de blasio nypd headquarters

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign account recently posted a Twitter message touting the NYPD’s neighborhood policing initiative. “New York City is proving to the rest of the country that respectful, compassionate neighborhood policing drives down crime & makes us safer,” the tweet from @BilldeBlasio read.

In a response symbolic of a problem de Blasio is facing as he heads into his re-election year, Lumumba Bandele tweeted his response to de Blasio: “You & #NYPD are in no position to talk about respect & compassion.” Bandele then cited the fact that the police officers who killed Ramarley Graham, an unarmed black teenager shot to death in 2012, and “others,” likely a reference including Eric Garner, are still employed by the city.

Bandele identifies himself on Twitter as an organizer, writer, producer, and professor from Bedford-Stuyvesant. His mention of Ramarley Graham came as there has been increased attention from police reform activists to pressure de Blasio to proceed with an NYPD trial for Officer Richard Haste and the others involved in Graham’s death. NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill recently announced that such a trial was likely to begin in early 2017.

The new year, de Blasio’s fourth as mayor, is also expected to see movement regarding accountability for Officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose chokehold led to Garner’s 2014 death during an attempted arrest. A Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo in 2014, and the federal Department of Justice has been investigating his actions, which, according to de Blasio and the NYPD, has kept the city from moving ahead with any of its own disciplinary procedure.

As the mayor kicks off his re-election campaign, police reform activists, including some elected officials, are frustrated with de Blasio for what they see as a failure to live up to his 2013 promise as a police reformer, especially with regard to increasing accountability at the NYPD. While these two high-profile cases may soon see developments, advocates say that punishment for officers takes far too long and is far too soft, and that on holding officers accountable for inappropriate or illegal behavior, the mayor has done nothing systemic to change NYPD culture.

For his part, de Blasio argues that he has been the reformer he said he would be, that he has overseen major changes to policing in New York City while both crime and arrests have declined. De Blasio, a Democrat, has been battling perceptions that he is "anti-cop" and would be soft on crime since his 2013 campaign. While he has mostly assuaged the latter, the former persists in some corners, perhaps contibuting to a lack of action in addressing accountabiity, even as, on the other side of the equation, reformers believe he has not been tough enough on badly-behaving officers.

Some reform advocates do give de Blasio credit for following through on elements of his campaign rhetoric, which had a significant focus on policing as part of his larger call for greater equity. But, they are quick to note that de Blasio’s efforts have not extended into essential areas of transparency and accountability.

City Council Member Jumaane Williams and members of Communities United for Police Reform, for example, acknowledge that de Blasio has overseen certain tactical changes at the NYPD, like instituting a new training regime focused on de-escalation, continuing to reduce street stops, and a more lenient approach to marijuana arrests. But, they believe that it amounts to little if it is not accompanied by major changes to how police officers are dealt with when they abuse their power, especially around excessive use of force.

Real culture change, they say, requires both front- and back-end reform -- new training, strategies, and directives, as well as beefed up oversight and increased transparency and accountability. At the same time de Blasio has been criticized for doing little on officer accountability, after decades of doing so the NYPD stopped making public a weekly update on officer disciplinary actions, citing their realization that they had been violating a state law.

When de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill held an early December press conference to announce low crime in the city, Communities United put out a press release saying, “As Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner O’Neill gave briefing on crime data from November, they continued to ignore alleged abuses and misconduct during month.” The release linked to more than two dozen news articles about alleged police abuses or a lack of transparency into the NYPD.

“There’s a lot of talk about building relationships and building trust between communities and police,” but “our position is, hold up, in order for us to have trust, we need greater accountability,” said Monifa Bandele, a vice president at Moms Rising, a national organization that in New York is part of Communities United for Police Reform. Bandele spoke with Gotham Gazette after CPR held a mid-December press conference calling for new measures to improve transparency and accountability in the NYPD. Police officers regularly violate people’s rights, she said, but “nothing seems to come of it.”

CPR and a majority of City Council members want to see the Right to Know Act passed. The legislation would require police officers to provide more information to people they are stopping on the street, including identification. Despite majority support, the Right to Know Act has stalled in the City Council because de Blasio does not support it, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has not allowed it to come to a vote, and other Council members have been unwilling to move it to a vote without the speaker’s blessing. Mark-Viverito did announce a compromise with the NYPD to institute elements of the legislation through NYPD training and the patrol guide.

Council Member Williams is one sponsor of the Right to Know Act, and while he wants to see more from de Blasio and the NYPD, he also says that there has been progress. In an interview, Williams said that there probably hasn’t been enough credit given to de Blasio for some of the change, but that that is a result of other failings.

“It’s very real that when it comes to transparency and accountability we’re no better than any other city in this nation and that’s a problem, we should be leading this effort,” Williams said.

“One of the best ways to change behaviors is to make sure people feel there’s accountability for that behavior,” said Williams, a Brooklyn Democrat. “So those are the type of things that I think people have yet to see and they’re very concerned about it and it’s what he campaigned on so I think people have an expectation to see it.”

Williams said he’s pleased about neighborhood policing, street stops continuing to decrease, and marijuana arrests being down, but that the city still needs to look at the racial breakdown, the percentages by demographic group, of some of the stops and arrest data. It is a sentiment echoed by leaders from Communities United for Police Reform, an umbrella group, as well as PROP, the Police Reform Organizing Project, which monitors arrest data and court proceedings. These activists say that it is good that a number of metrics are trending downward overall, but that disproportionate racial disparities persist on everything from street stops to summonses and arrests for all types of low-level crimes.

“I would love to hear a coherent answer on that,” Williams said when asked why he thinks de Blasio hasn’t been more aggressive on the transparency and accountability aspects of police reform.

Asked recently about the issue, de Blasio told WNYC radio host Brian Lehrer that he believes he’s lived up to his promises on policing and that disciplinary matters are done on a case-by-case basis.

“What did I say we were going to do? We were going to greatly decrease the use of stop-and-frisk. We did that. We were going to institute neighborhood policing. We’re doing that. We were going to stop the things that were causing a rift between police and community. For example, we stopped the arrest for low-level marijuana possession. You know, we are now doing an entirely different training regimen for our cops including de-escalation when there are encounters with civilians. We’re starting implicit bias training at the NYPD – a huge step forward for the largest police department in the country,” de Blasio said December 7 on WNYC.

The mayor continued: “I think folks who want reform should look at all that – all the things that they had said they wanted are actually happening. In terms of the disciplinary cases, each and every one of those is going to be seen through. As you know, the Garner case, right now, is in the hands of the U.S. Justice Department. When they finish their process, if they do not bring charges, there will be disciplinary action determined through the NYPD’s due process.”

“So, I don’t put those pieces together the same way that some critics do,” de Blasio said. “I think we have made steady progress on police reform.”

To support his point, de Blasio said that the city has “reinvigorated” the Civilian Complaint Review Board, a nominally independent agency that hears civilian complaints about the NYPD, holds hearings, and recommends punishments. Under de Blasio, complaints against police officers to the CCRB have dropped, something the mayor regularly cites. He mentioned it on WNYC earlier this month, while also bringing up the NYPD Inspector General, a position created through City Council legislation co-sponsored by Council Members Williams and Brad Lander, de Blasio’s successor in the City Council from Park Slope, and passed over the veto of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg (de Blasio was supportive of the legislation as public advocate at the time).

“We have so many elements of reform that some of these same advocates said, for years, would change everything,” de Blasio said on WNYC. “We’re doing it. And body cameras – in the course of this year, you’re going to see body cameras starting to be introduced on a large level in New York City. They will be expanded greatly from there.”

One problem that reformers point to in de Blasio’s argument is that the NYPD commissioner continues to possess discretion as to what extent he or she follows CCRB recommendations on officer punishment and that discretion almost always leads to a lesser penalty, often significantly so. Officers who use excessive force, for example, may be docked a few vacation days as opposed to being suspended without pay or worse. Advocates want “zero tolerance” for officers who violate the rights of civilians.

Citizens Union, a government reform organization, recently published a new set of recommendations for streamlining and improving police accountability, including changes to the process by which officers are disciplined. This was a follow up to a 2012 Citizens Union report that analyzed more than ten years of CCRB and NYPD data, raising significant questions about officer discipline -- it found that “The NYPD almost always did not follow CCRB recommendations to administer the most severe penalty despite the fact that the CCRB shows great discretion in accepting and investigating complaints against police officers.”

De Blasio, who has had a contentious relationship with the main union representing rank-and-file NYPD officers, has repeatedly deflected discussion of police accountability by focusing on the new training that officers are getting, arguing that it and other reforms are preventing bad actions by officers, and reducing negative interactions between officers and members of the public.

Along with tougher sanctions on officers who use excessive force or otherwise break protocol, Williams, CPR, and others want to see movement on the Right to Know Act and another bill, sponsored by Council Member Rory Lancman, to make police chokeholds illegal -- they are currently banned by NYPD policy, but critics say this has not deterred officers from using them, as seen in Garner’s death. (Even if made illegal, chokeholds, like any other use of force, would be allowable under law when an officer’s life is in danger.)

According to Monifa Bandele of Moms Rising, the Right to Know Act would build on the progress of the Community Safety Act. She said that children come home having had an interaction with police that they felt was unjustified or abusive, but can’t tell their parents who the officer was. “It’s hard to have accountability when you don’t know who you’ve interacted with,” she said, noting that adults often have the same issue. “Transparency, which is what the Right to Know Act is rooted in, is very key to get to accountability,” Bandele said, adding that officers seem to know that “there won’t be any consequences to violating the rights of New Yorkers.”

A spokesperson for de Blasio argued that “The mayor has delivered the farthest reaching criminal justice reforms of any mayor in the city’s history," but did not address questions around officer accountability and punishment for officers who violate rules and laws.

The de Blasio administration is currently being sued by Legal Aid Society and others over its refusal to release the discipline records of Officer Pantaleo, whose chokehold led to Eric Garner’s death. This, in combination with the change in policy around what had been a weekly posting of officer promotions and disciplinary action at NYPD headquarters has led to claims of backsliding on transparency and accountability.

“Without transparency about past disciplinary records when the CCRB finds an officer has committed misconduct, how can there be any real accountability?” asked Council Member Lander in a statement. “[I]f the NYPD can dismiss or downgrade the CCRB's charges secretly, and the public never knows about patterns of repeat offenders, how can communities be asked to trust the system? That’s why we are deeply distressed by the NYPD’s recent decision to suddenly reverse course on a decades-old practice of transparency, and why we’re joining the call today to release records pertaining to complaints against Officer Daniel Pantaleo.”

Pantaleo has been on modified duty since Garner’s death, but he continues to draw his NYPD salary, and was even found to be collecting significant overtime pay -- something that the NYPD quickly moved to address when Politico New York reported it. Overtime limits or not, modified duty is not enough for Pantaleo or other officers accused of wrongdoing, advocates for reform say.

Monifa Bandele said her teenage children are told the rules at school, but if they violate them, there are consequences. “Accountability is what we want from Bill de Blasio,” she said. “He’s done great things,” she added, noting universal pre-kindergarten and paid sick leave, “but what about policing -- this is an issue that Bill de Blasio ran’s what separated him from the rest of the pack.”

It’s unclear at this point what “the pack” will look like as the mayor seeks re-election in 2017, but Bandele said “I don’t know” when asked if de Blasio has done enough good to warrant her support this time around. She indicated there’s still time for him to show real commitment to police reform by focusing on the transparency and accountability elements.

Congressional Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Brooklyn Democrat, has been an outspoken critic of de Blasio and is talked about as a potential mayoral candidate, though he has said he is not planning to run. At a September press conference outside NYPD headquarters, Jeffries said, “The administration said to us that they would be transparent as it relates to the issue of the police and the tension with the community. Instead, they’ve retreated, and declined to provide information on rogue officers who don’t deserve to wear the blue uniform any further. The de Blasio administration promised the people of the City of New York that we would receive meaningful police reform and instead we’ve gotten more of the same. That is shameful. And we will no longer tolerate it.”

Public opinion polls consistently show de Blasio with strong support among African-Americans, especially relative to white New Yorkers. Asked about this and whether people of color should support de Blasio, Council Member Williams said, “Well I think none of our support should be taken for granted so I would tell my constituents ‘don’t give anybody your support without asking hard questions and having them respond.’”

As for whether he plans to back de Blasio (seven of Williams’ colleagues recently announced their endorsements of the mayor for re-election), Williams said, “He’s the person I supported before, I think I am inclined to still support him, but not without hearing a lot of answers on police reform issues and housing issues, these are really affecting my constituents because I think there are glaring problems in what we want to accomplish in this city and what’s been done.”

“There has been movement,” Williams added, making sure to acknowledge progress. “We said we were going to push wholesale, systematic differences and changes and I don’t think that’s come about and people have a right to hear, well, ‘why hasn’t it and what’s going to be different in the next campaign?’ So all i’m going to tell my constituents: let’s wait and hear what those answers are.”

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: Monifa and Lumumba Bandele are married. Separately, this reporter noticed the Lumumba Bandele tweet mentioned in the beginning of the story and came across Monifa Bandele at the press conference mentioned, later confirming the relationship.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
Bill de Blasio’s Police Accountability Problem Wed, 28 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000
Council Member Williams Forecasts End of Pledge Protest williams seated peace

Council Member Williams (photo: William Alatriste)

City Council Member Jumaane Williams, whose sit-down protest during the pledge of allegiance at the Council’s stated meetings has created waves and elicited both support and criticism, said on Wednesday that he plans to again stand once Mayor de Blasio commits to an agenda for jobs for city youth.

On the sidelines of a rally by police reform advocates outside City Hall, Williams said he intends to continue sitting out the pledge of allegiance at the biweekly meetings of the full Council. “I do intend to continue,” he told Gotham Gazette, thanking his colleagues for the support they have shown him. At last week’s stated meeting on Thursday, most of the City Council, including Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, continued to stand after the pledge and then sang a verse of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black National Anthem. The song was meant as a display of unity, organized by the co-chairs of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, Council Members Ritchie Torres and Robert Cornegy.

Williams sat through the pledge and then rose to sing with his colleagues.

Williams’ demonstration began in September as a show of solidarity with professional football player Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers, who knelt through the pre-game pledge of allegiance to protest racial injustice in policing. But the Council member’s message goes beyond that, he said, to larger issues that affect communities of color, including gun violence, education, and employment.

“When I initially did it, it was just out of frustration and I think the conversation is moving,” he said. “I think that’s what you want with these types of symbolic gestures,” Williams said. “I think that’s happened but I do want to make sure it is not just about policing. It’s about the disparate impact on all levels of life and resources that are lacking in these communities.”

Williams now wants to connect his protest to an issue he has been advocating for as a solution to injustice and inequity in communities of color: youth employment. In that vein, he wants to increase awareness about the city’s Youth Employment Task Force, a collaborative initiative between the City Council and the Mayor’s Office that was announced at the end of September. 

The creation of the task force, chaired by Deputy Mayor Richard Buery and Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who chairs the Council finance committee, followed a successful campaign earlier this year by Council members to push for increased funding for the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program.

As a result of Council pressure, the administration agreed to fund 60,000 summer jobs for city youth. “Many of us have been pushing for universal youth jobs as a way to push back on the violence that’s going on that’s too heavily relied on the police to fix,” said Williams, “and I want to make sure that people know that task force is meeting.”

The entire task force has already met twice, with the most recent meeting on Tuesday, and is set to meet at least twice more. They have also had several smaller working group meetings, according to a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, as well as focus group discussions to develop recommendations on expanding the SYEP program as well as the Work, Learn, Grow program, which provides career training and paid employment to youth during the school year. The spokesperson said the task force’s preliminary recommendations would be presented to the mayor and City Council by the end of the year.

Williams said he expected that the task force will release its report sometime in January or February, before the mayor’s preliminary budget for the next fiscal year. After that he will look to end his protest. “I definitely plan on standing when that report comes out and the mayor fulfils his commitment,” he said.

At an unrelated September 28 news conference, when Mayor de Blasio was asked to weigh in on Williams’ protest and if he would consider participating in such a demonstration, he said he respected the motivations behind it but takes “a different view with absolute respect for others who disagree.”

“I absolutely respect everyone's First Amendment rights. And I very much respect what's motivating this protest because this issue has to be addressed,” de Blasio said. “There's a fundamental inequality in this country – it has to be addressed...I take the view that the Pledge of Allegiance and saluting the flag during the national anthem are about an affirmation of our democracy that is still evolving that needs to get better, that needs to be truer to who we are and what we're supposed to be. And, I think that is a message unto itself that we believe we can fix things. But I also respect others who have a different choice and that is an American value that people get to make that choice.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Council Member Williams Forecasts End of Pledge Protest Wed, 02 Nov 2016 04:00:00 +0000