Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/340 Sat, 21 Apr 2018 23:20:16 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) City Council Progressive Caucus Calls for Crisis Intervention Reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7622:city-council-progressive-caucus-calls-for-crisis-intervention-reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7622:city-council-progressive-caucus-calls-for-crisis-intervention-reforms mayornyc james o neil

(Credit: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


The New York City Council Progressive Caucus is stepping up calls for Mayor Bill de Blasio to reconstitute a citywide task force to examine how emergency responders help people suffering from mental illness, and are insisting that the mayor consider creating a parallel response force of social workers and therapists that can answer calls rather than police officers.

In a letter sent to the mayor last Wednesday, the 21 members of the Progressive Caucus said the mayor should act by the end of the month to revive the Mayoral Task Force on Behavioral Health and Criminal Justice, which was set up, and concluded its work, in 2014, or create a similar body.

“As we’ve seen once again in the last week, the tragic costs of not acting in a sustained and focused manner are too high,” the members wrote, referring to the shooting death of Crown Heights resident Shaheed Vassell by NYPD officers who were not trained to respond to situations involving “emotionally disturbed persons.” The letter noted that since the last task force’s recommendations were put in place, in the summer of 2016, ten people in emotional crisis were killed by police.

Late last year, City Council Member Jumaane Williams, a progressive caucus member, had led an effort calling on the mayor to do the same. He was among those who reiterated that request after the death of Vassell. But though the NYPD says it is on board, the mayor continues to drag his feet. “It’s really a City Hall conversation,” NYPD Deputy Commissioner Susan Herman said at a Council hearing last month.

The Progressive Caucus members’ latest request differs slightly from what has been previously sought.

Rather than directing efforts at improving NYPD officer behavior, which they nonetheless hope the task force will do, they are calling for the mayor to support a new system that prioritizes professional mental health providers in emergency situations, where 911 operators can divert calls to social workers or therapists instead of the police and where therapists or trained peers can join police at the scene of an emergency. They also call for an expansion of mobile crisis teams and co-response teams that include mental health professionals paired with officers that have received Crisis Intervention Training. Just over 8,000 officers in the 36,000-strong police force have gone through CIT. 

"Too often, individuals with behavioral and mental health conditions are wrongly introduced to the criminal justice system. In order to improve their safety, we must consider comprehensive strategies that will prioritize preventive care and response tactics by mental health professionals,” said Council Member Diana Ayala, co-chair of the Progressive Caucus and chair of the Council’s Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction, in a statement.

The Progressive Caucus includes nearly half the 51 members of the City Council, and counts Council Speaker Corey Johnson among its ranks. Council Member Ben Kallos is co-chair with Ayala.

Although the Council members praised the administration’s efforts that resulted from the recommendation of the previous task force, they noted that many initiatives stalled and also pointed to the weaknesses in the NYPD’s approach to CIT training as evidenced by a January 2017 report by the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD.

“The deaths of Dwayne Jeune, Saheed Vassell, and too many others have shown that there are fundamental flaws in the way our city handles EDP emergencies,” said Council Member Williams, in a statement.

Steve Coe, CEO of Community Access, decried the “lack of leadership around this issue” despite the action plan put in place based on the 2014 task force’s recommendations. He commended the Progressive Caucus’ efforts, stressing that bringing stakeholders such as district attorneys, the city’s health department, NYPD officials, mental health experts and advocates was necessary “to assess what’s working, what’s not working, and develop diversion and treatment strategies that are effective and sustainable.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note- This article has been updated. 

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City Council Progressive Caucus Calls for Crisis Intervention Reforms Wed, 18 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Council Members Renew Call for Task Force on NYPD Response to Emotionally Disturbed Persons http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7603:council-members-renew-call-for-task-force-on-nypd-response-to-emotionally-disturbed-persons http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7603:council-members-renew-call-for-task-force-on-nypd-response-to-emotionally-disturbed-persons de Blasio NYPD

Mayor de Blasio & top NYPD officials (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


In August of last year, shortly after NYPD officers shot to death an emotionally disturbed man in his apartment, City Council Member Jumaane Williams led an effort calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio to set up a task force to conduct a wholesale review of the police department’s protocols in dealing with “emotionally disturbed persons,” or EDPs. Almost eight months later, with many in the city again reeling from the fatal shooting of an emotionally disturbed man at the hands of the NYPD, the mayor has continued to vacillate on the request.

“It seems to me that there’s systemic failure there,” said Williams in a phone interview. The initial request was made in a letter dated August 11 and co-signed by Council Members Ritchie Torres and Robert Cornegy representing the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, Council Members Antonio Reynoso and Ben Kallos representing the Progressive Caucus, and Council Member Andrew Cohen, who was then chair of the Council’s mental health committee.

The letter was sent shortly after the shooting death of Dwayne Jeune, a 32-year-old resident of East Flatbush, Brooklyn, in Williams’ district. Jeune was tazed and then shot by officers, who responded to a 911 call from his mother, when he advanced on them with a knife. Jeune’s mother had told a 911 caller that her son was mentally ill and was not acting violently. In January, the Jeune family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city, seeking $20 million in damages.

Since then, even though police officials have signaled support for the task force proposal, there has been little action.

The letter called for a task force to be convened and for it to complete its work within 60 days, conducting a top-to-bottom review of NYPD protocols; the department’s implementation of recommendations made last year by the NYPD Inspector General; and a look at how the administration’s much-touted Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) can be integrated with the 911 system. The Council members insisted that the task force include the chairs of the Council’s Committees on Mental Health and on Public Safety, mental health and police reform advocates, and people directly affected by officer-involved shootings.

“We keep having people who simply need help end up dead because they reached out in times of emergency,” the letter reads. “The natural consequence of this will be those New Yorkers suffering from episodes of poor mental health, as well as their loved ones, hesitating to ask for help from emergency services.”

The mayor himself showed initial reluctance to agree to the proposal. At an unrelated news conference on August 3, after Williams had first floated the idea, de Blasio said, “I don’t personally see the need for a specific task force because I think it’s an area of tremendous concern right now both at City Hall and at the NYPD to continue to improve the NYPD’s ability to address situations involving emotionally disturbed people.”

The number of 911 calls regarding EDPs, de Blasio noted, were “staggering,” about 150,000 the prior year. “[I] would say given the intense concern at City Hall related to mental health and the focus the NYPD has put on it, the right ideas are in place. We now have to just continue to deepen our implementation of those ideas,” he said, touting the ThriveNYC mental health program and the NYPD’s Crisis Intervention Training for officers to handle situations involving people with mental illness.

But the city hasn’t gone far enough, say the Council members who signed the August letter and who, in the aftermath of the shooting death of Saheed Vassell in Crown Heights, Brooklyn last week, are renewing their push for the task force. “It’s seven months later and nothing’s happened,” said Williams. “It’s concerning. The NYPD is ready and willing but now it’s on City Hall.”

“You have to look at what’s happening from a bird’s-eye view,” he added, “because we can’t just keep going along with the status quo where people in crisis, who need mental health treatment, are being killed.”

The Daily News recently reported that only about 8,200 of the NYPD's 36,000-member force have gone through the CIT training.

As far back as September, the NYPD expressed support for the task force. At a hearing of the public safety committee last month, NYPD Deputy Commissioner Susan Herman reiterated that support, for either a new working group or reconstituting the mayor’s 2014 Task Force on Behavioral Health and Criminal Justice. “[W]e have been continuing to work even as that hasn’t yet happened,” Herman said. “We did a pretty substantial review within the police department of our response to people who are mentally ill quite recently and are in the process of implementing several recommendations. So the work has continued.”

When could they expect to hear news of the task force, Williams asked.  

“It’s really a City Hall conversation,” Herman responded.  

Mayoral spokesperson Eric Phillips did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.

“Obviously the most recent tragedies kind of highlight the fact that we need that task force,” said Council Member Cornegy, at City Hall on Monday, saying he would directly reach out to the mayor’s office to see if there has been movement on the request. He did say that he had “heard through the grapevine” that the NYPD is in the process of setting up the unit but that there had been no official word of how far along it was.

Cornegy said he is proposing a bill that would create a separate crisis hotline for EDPs, similar to 911 and 311. “NYPD should not necessarily be required to come out and be the first line of defense when you have mental health situations, whether they are egregious or whether they’re mid-level,” he said, noting that Saheed Vassell had past encounters with the police because of the lack of an alternate system. “I believe and the [Vassell] family believes that if that step had been available to them early on then they may have had a better treatment plan for his success as a person living with mental illness in the community.”

Council Member Cohen, similarly, introduced a number of bills late last year (which were reintroduced this year) that would require the NYPD to provide more data regarding interactions with people suffering from mental illness.

[Read: Bills Seek to Examine NYPD Interactions with ‘Emotionally Disturbed Persons,’ Prevent Tragedies]

“I think that there’s more information needed about EDP calls,” Cohen said outside the Council chambers on Monday. “It seems to me...the people who are getting shot by the NYPD seem to be disproportionately EDPs…These tragedies are mounting so time is of the essence. I’m not sure why it’s taken so long to get a response. That’s something you’re going to have ask the other side of the building.”

Police reform advocates have long criticized the mayor and his administration for not acting urgently enough, particularly at a time when a national conversation is happening around the killing of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers and the lack of accountability by police departments. “I think absolutely the mayor has show he’s not giving real credit to these calls from the Council members for a task force,” said Yul-san Liem, a representative of Communities United for Police Reform and co-director of the Justice Committee. “At the same time, people in distress, people who are mentally ill, are still being brutalized and killed...We need a complete overhaul of how we treat people in emotional distress or with psychological disabilities.

Liem noted that after each incident in the recent past involving use of force against mentally ill people, the administration has fallen back on the argument that they are continually training and retraining officers to handle such situations. “But that’s really rhetoric to shield the police force from accountability and making substantial changes.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Council Members Renew Call for Task Force on NYPD Response to Emotionally Disturbed Persons Mon, 09 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
As Hochul Pushes Cuomo Agenda, Williams Takes on Both in Primary Challenge http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7493:as-hochul-pushes-cuomo-agenda-williams-takes-on-both-in-primary-challenge http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7493:as-hochul-pushes-cuomo-agenda-williams-takes-on-both-in-primary-challenge Kathy Hochul

Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul (photo: The Governor's Office)


“That’s what we do in New York -- that’s what we need in our nation!” declared Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul from a church lectern Sunday, sounding not unlike her boss, Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Hochul, whose remarks were at times drowned out by applause, was highlighting Cuomo’s progressive accomplishments -- paid family leave, equal pay provisions, and criminal justice reform -- before a congregation of elected officials, aides, and others attending the New York State Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators’ annual gathering in Albany. And, as she has done across the state in recent weeks, Hochul outlined signature planks of Cuomo’s 2018 agenda, like bail and speedy trial reforms.

At Wilborn Temple First Church, Hochul agily made scriptural references, and like Cuomo during his 2018 State of the State address, invoked the heartbreaking story of Kalief Browder, a young man who committed suicide after being held for three years in Rikers Island jails without ever being given a trial date.

“A young man accused of stealing a backpack, and spends three years of his life, languishing in a jail, and finally he couldn’t take it anymore. They crushed his spirit and he took his life,” said Hochul. “If only he had had enough money for the bail, he could have been out there, perhaps on his way to a good job or career or family.”

Despite Hochul’s warm reception, a number of black and Latino elected officials attending the conference -- including New York City Council Members Antonio Reynoso and Daneek Miller, Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte, and State Senator Kevin Parker -- had already declared their intentions to back her Democratic primary challenger, Brooklyn Council Member Jumaane Williams, who officially announced his bid for Lieutenant Governor at New York City Hall on Friday, February 16.

“He is a man of integrity and he is a man who brings with him the voice of the people. I am so excited and I hope that you are as well,” said Miller, at Williams’ announcement, where Williams also announced support from other elected officials, like Council Member Brad Lander, and several community groups.

Like Hochul, Williams also attended “Caucus Weekend” events, participating in two panels, one on criminal justice reform and another on gun violence, before traveling around the state Monday to promote his message.

On one stop, Williams sat with a gaggle of SUNY New Paltz students and New Paltz town officials at Cafeteria, a low-key coffee shop with mural-coated walls and mismatched upholstery. Striking a decidedly different tone than Hochul, Williams lead a discussion that ranged from the flaws with the governor’s Excelsior Scholarship to the arbitrariness of how grants are awarded by New York’s Regional Economic Development Councils, a Cuomo creation that Hochul chairs.

Aside from presiding over the state Senate and acting as gubernatorial successor, the Lieutenant Governor position is largely undefined by statute, and the 41-year-old Williams said he aspires to be “the people’s” lieutenant governor, using the position as a “megaphone” to pressure the governor to deliver on his promises to progressives.

“I hope to use the bully pulpit,” said Williams, adding that he is willing to support and work with the governor on things they are aligned on. “I don’t want to be opposition for its own sake.”

Of Cuomo’s 2018 agenda, WillIams said, “A lot of it sounds good, but a lot of it is mirrors. You talk about ‘Raise the Age,’ which is awesome, but you don’t actually have the funding for the city to get it accomplished,” he said, referring to the criminal justice reform measure passed last year and the lack of funding for implementation in the governor’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year.

"I haven't seen sincere leadership on a whole host of issues,” Williams said on a recent episode of the Max & Murphy Podcast from Gotham Gazette and City Limits, discussing the rationale for his campaign and why he is taking on Hochul and Cuomo. “Somebody needs to say 'the emperor has no clothes,'" he explained of his plans for the position and what’s lacking now.

A child of Brooklyn public schools, Williams overcame ADHD and Tourette's Syndrome to become a rising star in the City Council. In the city, he has made a name for himself as as both an effective councilman and activist, leading protests and passing legislation on criminal justice reform and becoming a fierce advocate for housing affordability. Now the councilman must flesh out his platform to appeal to voters around the state.

“The learning curve is not as steep as I thought I would be,” Williams said in New Paltz of his exploration of upstate concerns. “The reason we did listening tours is to make sure that we were on the right trajectory, and we learned quickly that we are, so now it’s about being fine-tuned, making sure we are covering all of the local issues.”

He has noted that upstate farmers, many of whom employ undocumented immigrants, are concerned about the federal immigration crackdown, and that housing issues, similarly, transcend regional divides.

While Williams has spoken to three potential Democratic gubernatorial contenders -- actress and advocate Cynthia Nixon, former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, and former state Senator Terry Gipson -- he says he is running independently and would stay independent from the governor, whomever it is. Gibson is the only Democrat currently campaigning against Cuomo for the nomination.

New Yorkers vote for lieutenant governor as a standalone position during the party primaries, but for the general, the lieutenant governor nominee shares a ticket with the gubernatorial nominee of the same party. The position does come with more than $600,000 in budget funds, typically spent on causes assigned by the governor -- an allowance that could potentially get cut during the following budget cycle for a lieutenant governor that does not fall in line with the executive’s agenda.

Hochul, who has not officially launched her reelection campaign, was Cuomo’s lieutenant governor running mate in 2014, when he was seeking a second term but his first-term running mate, Robert Duffy, decided against running again. Hochul also has a compelling life story, having lived in a trailer home as a child, becoming Erie County’s longtime county clerk, and eventually rising to serve a brief stint in Congress. Despite being a Democrat, Hochul won a 2011 special election for the 26th Congressional District, one of the most Republican districts in the state. Her loss in the general election a year later was chalked up to her vote in favor of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, a progressive stance she touted in her remarks Sunday.

In 2014, still largely unknown to most of the state, she ran a tight race against Tim Wu, a progressive Columbia Law School professor who made a name for himself coining “net neutrality,” running with Zephyr Teachout, Cuomo’s gubernatorial challenger in the primary. Though Hochul beat Wu, 60 percent to 40 percent, Wu performed better than his running mate on a miniscule budget for a statewide race.

But after four years of diligently representing the governor at events across the state, Hochul is going to be tough to unseat, in part given the female-heavy electorate in New York State, according to Bruce Gyory, a political consultant.

“Hochul was out there defending Planned Parenthood day and night during the assault. She has a strong profile on Planned Parenthood and on gay rights,” said Gyory, noting that Williams’ previous statements on marriage equality and abortion are likely to haunt him as he tries to scoop up the more progressive Democratic base. "Given how female the electorate is -- you have to wonder if an electorate which is just shy of 60 percent is going to dump their female lieutenant governor."

At the New Paltz cafe, Williams tried to preempt the criticisms, which may have hurt him during his two bids for City Council speaker, which he most recently lost to Council Member Corey Johnson, who is openly gay.

The son of Grenadian immigrants, Williams has referred to his religious upbringing and spirituality for the confusion about his positions on the hot-button issues.

“There are two issues that they are going to try to attack me with that are just plain wrong,” he said. “I'm very proud of my religious and spiritual background, it’s what guides the justice work that I do. But they always confuse my position on marriage equality and [access] to legal abortion.”

Previous attempts to demure on the topics, urging people to look at his legislative record which includes votes to protect women’s health access, have backfired, and past comments have proven hard to shake.

Now Williams is trying to get ahead of the narrative. "I want to see that Roe vs. Wade is codified. Unlike the governor, I don't just talk about it, I want to see it happen, in case the ‘orange man’ does his thing," he told his New Paltz audience, referring to Cuomo’s failed efforts to push abortion protections through the Republican-controlled state Senate and to President Donald Trump. In his short lieutenant governor campaign thus far, which included a month-long exploratory phase, Williams has repeatedly faced questions on the two issues, as well as slightly couched criticism from Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo’s top governmental aide. DeRosa and Hochul have been out front promoting the Cuomo administration's "2018 Women's Agenda for New York," released in January.

Williams has recently demonstrated his commitment to women’s health by introducing legislation barring employment discrimination based on reproductive decisions. Other issues he hopes to bring attention to through his candidacy, and potential platform, are education funding, transportation, and gun control.

Hochul, too, will have to answer for previous positions she has taken on immigration and gun control, which again, due to recent tragedies, has become the focus of media attention. As county clerk, she opposed the issuing of driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants and in Congress voted in favor of National Rifle Association-backed legislation.

Jeff Lewis, Hochul’s chief of staff, said the lieutenant governor’s views have evolved on both issues, noting that the climate surrounding the debate has changed considerably in recent years. He pointed out that fellow Upstate Democrats, like former Senator Hillary Clinton and current Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, at one time took similarly conservative stances.

Hochul did support the New York SAFE Act, gun control legislation championed and signed by Cuomo, and according to Lewis, regrets voting for the 2011 National Right to Carry Reciprocity Act, federal legislation that would allow people with concealed carry permits to carry their guns into other states that don’t allow concealed weapons. “Her exposure to gun violence was very different than when she became a statewide elected official,” said Lewis, noting the increase in large-scale massacres in the United States in recent years.

While she was speaking in her elected, not campaign, capacity, Hochul touched on the shootings during her remarks in Albany on Sunday.

“In today’s day we still bury children in high school because nobody else has the courage to do what we have done here in the state of New York and that is to ban those weapons of lethal destruction,” she said. “Please God let our leaders in Washington here those cries.”

Williams, a leading figure in New York City on gun violence prevention, says he gives the governor’s administration credit for passage of the SAFE Act, which may have contributed to an 18 percent decline in shootings in the state, but said it doesn’t go far enough.

“Resting on the laurels of the SAFE Act in the face of a full-on assault, is not a good idea. Every time it’s brought up, you deserve some credit, but what have you done since then?” Williams said on the Max & Murphy Podcast. “I always want to make sure we parse out, when it comes to gun violence, supply and demand...I don’t think what is coming out of the governor’s mansion goes nearly as far on the demand side across the state."

To reduce “demand” for guns, Williams, who co-chairs the Council’s Task Force to Combat Gun Violence, has taken a holistic approach to gun violence prevention, utilizing government, law enforcement, and community leaders on the ground. He has even looked national with his launch of the National Network to Combat Gun Violence, local elected officials from around the country dedicated to ending gun violence in their communities.

Williams says that if elected, he will model the role after that of New York City’s public advocate, which also acts as the mayor’s successor and fill-in, but is expected to hold the mayor accountable. Historically, lieutenant governors have acted as compliant surrogates for the governor, championing the executive’s agenda, and focusing their energies on causes selected by the governor.

However, there have been cases where the second-in-command crafted his or her own messaging or operated counter to the administration in other ways.

Mary Anne Krupsak, who was lieutenant governor under Governor Hugh Carey, was frustrated that she was not given enough to do in her role. When Carey ran for his second term in 1978, she withdrew from the ticket, ran for governor herself against Carey, and lost.

In 1982, New York City Mayor Ed Koch lost the Democratic gubernatorial primary to Mario Cuomo, but Koch’s running mate, Alfred DelBello, won the lieutenant governor seat, resulting in an awkward match that lasted just one term.

Betsy McCaughey Ross, a conservative policy wonk and New York Post columnist who went on to work for President Donald Trump, flouted expectations with her outspokenness during her short tenure as lieutenant governor to former Republican Governor George Pataki, between 1995 and 1998. Pataki announced he would not select her as his running mate the following year with a stern rebuke.

''Unfortunately, you have demonstrated through your decisions that you do not share my vision for the state,'' he wrote. Recounting his record on various issues, Pataki added, ''Your unwillingness and, in fact, outright refusal to work as part of our united team to build on these historic achievements has been disappointing.''

Lewis, Hochul’s chief of staff, continues to dismiss Williams' run as a "political stunt." While he acknowledges that Hochul is running, Lewis said she is currently focused her elected duties, such as delivering an on-time state budget.

When asked if Hochul has ever spoken or acted independently of Cuomo, Lewis said, "I don't think she's had to take any actions thus far, because the governor's been on the right side of every issue."

If Williams is able to win the nomination he would likely do so on the strength of a New York City voting base and despite whatever funds Cuomo is willing to spend from his $30-plus million war chest to help popularize Hochul, not to mention whatever amount Hochul can raise and spend on her own. It’s unclear how much Williams will be able to raise for his lieutenant governor campaign. The Council member did pick up another endorsement this week, from People for Bernie, a grassroots group of Bernie Sanders supporters. Williams endorsed Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, while Cuomo and Hochul were strong backers of Hillary Clinton. The Brooklyn Council member told Max & Murphy that he is actively pursuing the backing of the liberal Working Families Party, which will hold its nominating convention this spring and has a contentious relationship with Cuomo after a dramatic 2014 endorsement that did not pan out as the party hoped or Cuomo promised.

Williams said at his kickoff press conference that if he and Cuomo were a joint ticket for the general election, he would campaign with and for the governor, stating that he cannot see any Republican being a better option than Cuomo, even if he has reservations about Cuomo’s politics.

According to SUNY New Paltz professor Gerald Benjamin, the governor’s lieutenant should ideally be treated as an appointed position and their ideological compatibility is necessary for government to function.

“The gentleman is an ambitious person who wants to increase his visibility,” Benjamin said of Williams. “Ambition is the engine of politics, so it’s not a bad thing, but for politics to work effectively, the governor and lieutenant governor have to be aligned.”

[Listen to Jumaane Williams on the Max & Murphy Podcast]

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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As Hochul Pushes Cuomo Agenda, Williams Takes on Both in Primary Challenge Sun, 25 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Lieutenant Governor Candidate Jumaane Williams http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7490:max-murphy-podcast-lieutenant-governor-candidate-jumaane-williams http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7490:max-murphy-podcast-lieutenant-governor-candidate-jumaane-williams

Jarrett Murphy, left, of City Limits, and Ben Max, right, of Gotham Gazette


February 22, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Lieutenant Governor Candidate Jumaane Williams

jumanne williams pod 277

City Council Member Jumaane Williams recently announced his candidacy for Lieutenant Governor, opening a Democratic primary challenge to incumbent Kathy Hochul, Governor Andrew Cuomo's chosen second-in-command and running mate. Cuomo and Hochul are expected to run for reelection this year, but the two positions are elected separately in the party primaries. So, Williams is trying to take Hochul's place alongside Cuomo, assuming the governor makes it through his own primary.

Williams says he's running to become "the people's" lieutenant governor and to push a more progressive agenda than Cuomo and Hochul have. He joined the podcast to explain his motivation for the run and the campaign ahead.

Listen to the full conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy, with guest @JumaaneWilliams. You can listen to the episode through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Lieutenant Governor Candidate Jumaane Williams Thu, 22 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Oversight Hearing on Policing Protests Dominated by Disputes http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7466:city-council-oversight-hearing-on-policing-protests-dominated-by-disputes http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7466:city-council-oversight-hearing-on-policing-protests-dominated-by-disputes Ydanis NYPD

City Council Member Rodriguez (photo: William Alatriste)


The City Council Committee on Public Safety held an oversight hearing on Wednesday to examine the NYPD’s tactics and procedures regarding protests and crowd control. The perpetually controversial issue has come to the fore once again in the wake of immigrant activist Ravi Ragbir’s detention by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the NYPD’s subsequent aggressive handling of protesters, culminating in the arrests of two City Council members and 16 others on January 11.

Both Council members who were arrested, Ydanis Rodriguez and Jumaane Williams, Democrats of Manhattan and Brooklyn, respectively, sit on the public safety committee and questioned NYPD officials at Wednesday’s hearing, which was led by committee Chair Donovan Richards, a Queens Democrat.

Williams was released by the NYPD with a desk appearance ticket but Rodriguez was arraigned in court on charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, reckless endangerment, and obstructing emergency medical services. Rodriguez, on the day of the protest, tweeted a picture of what he claimed to be an NYPD officer holding him in a chokehold.

Despite this, the hearing focused less on the allegedly brutal tactics employed by the NYPD in protests and focused more on the department’s alleged coordination with ICE. There was some discussion of the department’s approach to crowd control, though, part of a history that includes the NYPD having been accused of inappropriate suppression or brutal tactics against protesters involved with Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, antiwar demonstrations, and opposition outside the 2004 Republican National Convention.

But the hearing largely devolved into exasperated quibbles between Council members and NYPD representatives over the basic facts of what happened on January 11, including whether the department was coordinating with ICE it its detainment efforts.

The hearing is the first public safety hearing to be chaired by Richards, who was named to the post by new Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who was part of the January 11 demonstrations but was not arrested. Johnson did have a tense exchange with one officer, who he pursued and reported to NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill for aggressive conduct. Johnson and O’Neill discussed the totality of the day, Johnson said soon after, and the NYPD is continuing its internal investigation of officer conduct.

From the moment it began, the hearing was heated, as Council members and the NYPD officials testifying engaged in several disputes of the facts related to January 11 and to policy areas where Council members deemed the NYPD to be inadequately performing their duties.

It was noted that the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group, a unit of nearly 700 officers that is deployed to maintain crowd control at demonstrations, has under its purview counterterrorism, a combination that worried Council members who feared that empowering officers trained in combating terrorism with monitoring protests would result in overly aggressive policing of the latter.

The department noted that the unit was created, under the direction of former Commissioner Bill Bratton, in response to large-scale terror incidents in places such as Paris and Mumbai. Bratton’s pitch at the time: “Safe from crime, safe from terrorists, safe from disorder.

When Richards asked if the NYPD views peaceful protesters and terrorists as posing similar threats to public safety and order, the NYPD representatives were evasive, saying that the department required a reserve of officers able to respond to terror incidents, trained in disparate areas of policing like making mass arrests and handling hazardous substances.

Stephen Hughes, Commanding Officer of Patrol Borough Manhattan South, stated that in 2017, SRG had made 322 arrests at 109 demonstrations. The NYPD’s legislative director, Oleg Chernyavsky, stated that those are just arrests made by SRG, and that other patrol units can make arrests that are not counted toward that total.

Several Council members all but accused the NYPD representatives of lying under oath in saying they had not been coordinating with ICE during the January 11 incident. The officers repeatedly asserted that they had not been deputized as immigration officers and were not coordinating in any way with ICE, as per department policy. Williams attempted to refute this narrative by showing a picture of NYPD and federal Department of Homeland Security officers appearing in the immediate vicinity of each other.

“I’m hoping that what happened wasn’t intentional,” Williams said. “And I want to prevent it from happening again.”

Chernyavsky rebutted the notion that being in the same vicinity meant the two agencies were coordinating.

“I think the fact that we were physically present standing next to a federal officer who was outside of, I would assume, his or her place of employment, was an unintentional consequence,” Chernyavsky said. He also asserted that NYPD had become more active in crowd control and making arrests when its task became escorting an ambulance, with Ragbir in it, out of the crowded streets near the downtown federal building where he had had a check-in with immigration officials (there is some dispute about whether Ragbir was actually suffering from any ill feelings and in need of an ambulance). Chernyavsky said NYPD officers were unaware initially that the person in the ambulance was in ICE detention, and claimed that they even went to the wrong hospital at first, a point he thought would bolster the notion that the NYPD was not coordinating with ICE.

“What happened that day was some kind of coordination, period,” Williams said, growing increasingly frustrated with the NYPD reps as Chernyavsky asserted that it’s “irresponsible to allege that we coordinated with immigration enforcement.” They instead repeatedly asserted that they were simply enforcing existing local laws related to protest and crowd control management. They said that the events had unfolded quickly and in chaotic fashion.

The Council members signaled that they had hoped to have a more constructive dialogue about the NYPD’s policies and rules of engagement but were instead having a debate over what the facts were.

Council Member Brad Lander, a Democrat from Brooklyn, also grew increasingly frustrated with the NYPD officials as his line of questioning went on. Lander was incredulous towards the NYPD claim that it was not coordinating with immigration enforcement despite having provided ICE, which was transporting Ragbir, with a police escort from Bellevue Hospital to the Holland Tunnel, which occurred after Ragbir had briefly been at the hospital.

“Up to that point, you guys were responding to a protest,” Lander said, referring to the NYPD’s insistence that they were enforcing local laws. “But at Bellevue, there was no protest.” He also noted that there was no health risk for Ragbir at that point, a justification for Ragbir’s transport by ambulance with ICE on scene. The officers contended that they were not escorting ICE, but rather were simply “present at transport” due to the potential presence of protesters, who ended up not following the ambulance Bellevue or federal officials to the Holland Tunnel. Lander contended that there was no difference between the two.

“Really?” he asked, growing impatient with NYPD testimony.

“I’m more concerned walking out of this hearing than I was walking into it,” Lander said before being interrupted several times. Lander chastised the department for failing to own up to its role in Ragbir’s detention, and for not being apologetic and acknowledging the mishaps.

Local Law 228, which forbids city law enforcement officials from cooperating with ICE by being deputized as federal immigration officers, and requires the NYPD to report the number of federal detainer requests it receives, recently went into effect. An NYPD rep noted that the department did not comply with a single detainer request from ICE out of the 1,526 it received in 2017, as President Donald Trump ramped up immigration enforcement. In 2016, Barack Obama’s last full year as president, the NYPD received 80 detainer requests and complied with two.

Law 228 was passed in November but went into effect on January 30, 19 days after the Ragbir detention and subsequent protests. Williams called this “quite a coincidence,” but the NYPD reps assured the Council members that their prior internal department policy was to not coordinate or comply with ICE. They reiterated several times that they had not complied with a single detainer request of the 1,526 that were submitted by federal authorities to the NYPD, and that the only instances where the NYPD actively works with ICE are on task forces that are related to a different policy area that both NYPD and ICE agents happen to work on, such as human trafficking or the opioid epidemic.

The arrest and detention of Ragbir, who has had a detainer against him since 2006 as a result of a fraud conviction, at a routine check-in with immigration authorities has been extremely controversial among New York’s activist and political community. Ragbir, after a stint in ICE detention in Miami, is back in New York but faces another check-in on Saturday during which he could face deportation. With the Trump administration’s significant uptick in immigration enforcement, particularly against undocumented immigrants who have not committed felonies, ICE has been making sweeps in immigrant neighborhoods and at courthouses with or without the NYPD’s cooperation.

On Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio sent a letter to Thomas Decker, the Field Office Director for New York’s ICE office, extolling Ragbir and pleading that he not be deported back to Trinidad, while also making the case that aggressive immigration enforcement in immigrant communities and courthouses is deteriorating trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement. De Blasio did not mention Ragbir’s prior conviction.

“These activities not only create fear in immigrant communities, but undermine public safety,” the letter read. “New York City is the safest big city in America because of the trust between law enforcement and communities, including immigrant New Yorkers. When ICE takes aggressive action against leaders in immigrant communities, it casts a chilling effect on immigrants’ willingness to engage with government and law enforcement generally, undercutting that trust.”

“The safety and interest of New Yorkers should be central to any determination concerning Mr. Ragbir, or other individuals arrested by ICE,” the letter continued. “Therefore, I request that ICE exercise its discretion to permit Mr. Ragbir to remain with his family in New York.”

***
by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Oversight Hearing on Policing Protests Dominated by Disputes Wed, 07 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Member Jumaane Williams to Explore Run for Lieutenant Governor http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7422:city-council-member-jumaane-williams-to-explore-run-for-lieutenant-governor http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7422:city-council-member-jumaane-williams-to-explore-run-for-lieutenant-governor Jumaane Williams city council

City Council Member Jumaane Williams (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


At the end of stirring and emotional remarks on Martin Luther King Day, City Council Member Jumaane Williams announced that he is exploring a run for Lieutenant Governor. Williams, who was just re-elected to a third Council term and was unsuccessful in his pursuit of the speakership of the city’s legislative body, gave the keynote address at Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Brooklyn on Monday, passionately discussing the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and explaining how it informs his activism, legislating, and possible pursuit of the state-wide position that is on the ballot this fall.

In order to become Lieutenant Governor, Williams would likely first have to prevail in the Democratic primary over incumbent Kathy Hochul, who ran on the 2014 ticket with Governor Andrew Cuomo. While Hochul is expected to again be Cuomo’s running mate, the positions of Lieutenant Governor and Governor are elected separately by statewide popular vote in the primary. If victorious in the primary, Williams and Cuomo, assuming he wins any Democratic primary he faces, would run as a connected ticket in the general election.

During his Monday remarks, Williams spoke broadly about civil rights, injustice, protest, and making government respond to the people, and made some mention of the apparent reasons he is exploring a run for the statewide post that comes with minimal statutory power and a relatively small budget. The campaign for Lieutenant Governor and holding the position if victorious would give Williams a bully pulpit to shape statewide public discourse and have some effect on policy. Most immediately, he could create significant headaches for Hochul and Cuomo, whom Williams has been critical of over the past several years on issues like affordable housing, transportation, and criminal justice.

Williams said when reflecting on King’s legacy, he often thinks about the saying, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” He discussed the importance of agitating for what is morally right, no matter the political ramifications, and how public protest moves government to act.

It takes a great deal of “energy,” more than people realize, to “move the needle,” Williams explained. “You move the needle with moral disruption to a status quo that is unjust.”

“Government does not move unless we make it move. They respond to protest,” Williams said. “I understand that because I’m in those halls seeing how my colleagues respond.”

Before announcing that he was forming “an exploratory committee” to possibly run for Lieutenant Governor, Williams pointed to some of the problems around the state that appear to be motivating his exploration. He said “we need people in government who will continue to push forward on progress” and cited “homelessness in New York City, housing in Rochester, gun violence in Brooklyn, gun violence in Syracuse, the relief of opioid crisis in Staten Island,” and more, adding, “these issues are not unique to one area.”

Williams said his job on the inside of government is to make sure his colleagues are moving on what people are bringing to their attention and what is “morally correct.”

“We need leaders will forcefully advocate for progress no matter the political winds,” Williams said, in one of several references to doing what is right over what is politically expedient.

Williams also discussed the “need for diversity in government,” echoing an argument he made during the City Council speaker race, when he insisted a person of color should be elected to the role. Williams is black. Corey Johnson, a white man, prevailed.

On Monday, Williams listed the many city, state, and federal offices in New York that are held by white people, a list that includes Cuomo and Hochul.

A challenge to Hochul by Williams would be from the left, as he would almost certainly offer a more progressive platform on the whole, and he would likely aim much of his fire at Cuomo. It is unclear who might challenge the governor from the left, but there is a good deal of unrest among progressives who see Cuomo as too centrist and enabling of a Republican-led state Senate. Williams endorsed Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.

Former state Senator Terry Gibson appears to be the only Democrat currently actively exploring a gubernatorial bid. Like Williams, Gibson has a state-level campaign account open. Now a professor at SUNY New Paltz, Gibson has been traveling the state meeting with progressive groups, spending a lot of time in the five boroughs, and trying to gauge how much initial support he can garner for a full-fledged run.

There are other potential challengers from Cuomo’s left, including former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner and actor and education activist Cynthia Nixon.

In 2014, Cuomo sought a second term and had to fend off a surprising challenge from Zephyr Teachout, a little-known, underfunded professor who embarrassed Cuomo by winning 34 percent of the primary vote. Teachout’s running mate, Lieutenant Governor candidate Tim Wu, did even better against Hochul, who was running for the post for the first time, winning 40 percent to Hochul’s 60.

Williams is likely to be at a significant financial disadvantage to Hochul, depending on how much money he can raise and how much Cuomo and his political apparatus come to Hochul’s aid. Williams’ ability to win votes in New York City could pose a major challenge to Hochul, who is from western New York. Williams’ potential candidacy is quickly going to put other Democrats like new City Council Speaker Johnson and Mayor Bill de Blasio in tricky positions. De Blasio recently declined to give an opinion when Gotham Gazette asked him if Cuomo deserved to be challenged from the left.

On Monday, Williams did not get into any details of a potential campaign, though he will have to decide relatively soon if he is going to make a full run for the position. The Council member explained that he sees his role as “a molder of consensus” like King and part of ruckus upsetting the status quo. Williams credited King for being a “disruptive, righteous agitator” and discussed the need to put in the work of activism to make the change you believe must occur in the world.

“If you don’t understand the protests of today, I suggest you keep ‘Martin Luther King’ from out of your lips,” Williams said at one point.

He cited King’s “fierce urgency of now,” and asked the church crowd to think about why society is still struggling in 2018 with the same major problems of King’s era, the 1950s and ‘60s, such as jobs, police abuses, and justice. He cited some progress, noting that there are not segregated water fountains and there are fewer lynchings.

Williams explained that he has tried to do what he can as a member of the City Council, and now believes that he may be able to take on new challenges and “do more” through the potential run for Lieutenant Governor.

Notably, the Council member clearly stated his support for LGBTQ individuals, which has been a point of contention for him as he has personally held views against marriage equality. Williams has also held a personal view against abortion, citing personal experience. But, he has repeatedly tried to argue that he does not legislate or vote to advance those personal beliefs and taken steps to show that he supports the LGBT community and women’s reproductive rights. The issues could be at the center of attacks from Hochul and Cuomo toward Williams, given that Cuomo has prided himself on passing marriage equality in New York and touts himself as a champion of women’s rights.

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: this article has been corrected to clarify that the Governor and Lieutenant Governor run as a Democratic ticket in the general election, but are elected separately in the party primary.

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City Council Member Jumaane Williams to Explore Run for Lieutenant Governor Mon, 15 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Now Pursuing Diversity, New City Council Speaker Has Employed Mostly White Men http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7416:now-pursuing-diversity-new-city-council-speaker-has-employed-mostly-white-men http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7416:now-pursuing-diversity-new-city-council-speaker-has-employed-mostly-white-men Speaker Corey Johnson

Speaker Corey Johnson (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


Corey Johnson’s ascension to speaker of the New York City Council came amid concerns by elected officials and activists that yet another white man would be in a seat of leadership in a majority-minority city where the mayor and comptroller, two of three citywide elected officials, are also white men. During his pursuit of the position against several men of color and amid citywide outcry over the gender imbalance in the City Council, Johnson promised to ensure a diverse senior leadership team and central staff, and early indications are that he is following through on that pledge.

However, before rising to speaker, on his Council staff and his reelection campaign, Johnson has seemingly surrounded himself with almost exclusively other white men, in positions from communications to chief of staff.

Before Council Member Inez Barron made an eleventh hour bid, Johnson was one of eight men running for the speakership, raising a red flag for a City Council that had female speakers for 12 years -- Christine Quinn, who led the body for two terms, followed by Melissa Mark-Viverito for one. The new speaker would also be taking the reins of a 51-member legislative body with only 11 women, down from 18 a few years ago.

As speaker, Johnson will be overseeing about 300 central Council staffers, a big leap from a rank-and-file Council office with fewer than 10 employees. In the last four years, under Mark-Viverito, the entire Council staff, including members’ aides, has seen increasing representation for women and people of color. It has been clear that people expect Johnson to build on that progress.

In the lead up to the Council speaker election, Gotham Gazette sought staff member names, titles, and salaries for each of the speaker candidates -- including frontrunners Johnson, Mark Levine, and Robert Cornegy, Jr. -- but the freedom of information law request was not returned before Johnson was chosen, and has still not been fulfilled by the Council.

Of the seven people on Johnson’s Council staff identified by Gotham Gazette, five are white and male. These include his chief of staff Erik Bottcher, deputy chief of staff for legislation, planning and budget Louis Cholden-Brown, deputy chief of staff and district director Matt Green, director of communications David Moss, and community liaison and scheduler Sean Coughlin. (Johnson’s former chief of staff, Jeffrey LeFrancois, who served him for almost all of 2014, is also a white man.)

A sixth is legislative aide Pat Comerford, who is a woman; and the seventh Johnson aide known to Gotham Gazette is CeCe Scott, an African-American woman who has been chief of district operations for the Chelsea and West Village Council district Johnson represents. A Council spokesperson did not provide full details of Johnson’s government staff composition when repeatedly requested independent of the FOIL submission, which was also reiterated several times.

According to campaign finance records, Johnson’s 2017 reelection campaign paid five individuals, all white men, including campaign manager Kevin Groh, organizing director Wyatt Frank, treasurer Matthew Bergman and campaign workers Ryan O’Neill and Jake Kern. (Johnson’s 2013 campaign was managed by R.J. Jordan, who is also white and male.)

The Manhattan district Johnson represents was home to about 174,000 people in 2010, according to the demographic data from the Census. Of those, 67.2 percent were white non-hispanic, 12.8 percent were of Hispanic origin, 12.4 percent were Asian and Pacific Islanders, and 4.7 percent were black. Gender and race are not the only measures of diversity, of course. The district is known for its rich LGBTQ history. Johnson, who is gay and HIV-positive, was preceded in the Council by former Speaker Christine Quinn, the first openly gay person to lead the Council.

It is unclear how many of Johnson's governmnet or campaign aides identify as LGBTQ. Johnson made history being elected speaker while openly HIV-positive, and while he has also said that while he knows he has experienced privilege being white, he is also from difficult socioeconomic circumstances, having grown up in public housing in Massachusetts in a family that was led by a single mother.

It’s early in Johnson’s transition into the speakership and he has already announced that he will retain some of the top aides at the Council, including people of color, who served under Mark-Viverito.

At a news conference shortly after being elected speaker, when asked about his efforts to ensure diversity, Johnson said he would bring Scott, “an incredible African-American woman,” to City Hall. He will also be keeping Ramon Martinez, the powerful chief of staff to the Council speaker, who is Latino, in his current role. The Council’s finance division director Latonia McKinney, who is African-American, and land use division director Raju Mann, who is of South Asian descent, may also be staying on -- Johnson mentioned and praised each but did not discuss their continued employment in the same definitive terms. The Council's communications director Robin Levine, a white woman, informed Gotham Gazette that she will continue on in her role.

“So I think many of the top jobs are already represented by people of color and women,” Johnson said, while conceding that “we have to do a better job at all levels of government and we have to do a better job here in the Council.”

Over the course of running for speaker, Johnson has promised that he will commit to diversity in staff and leadership positions. At a speaker forum, he pledged that at least 50 percent of his senior team and central staff would be women, transgender and non-conforming individuals. The Council’s Women’s Caucus also extracted numerous promises from all the speaker candidates and intends on holding Johnson to account for his commitments, which include funding a full-time staff person for the caucus. Johnson appears set to name Council Member Laurie Cumbo, an African-American woman, as Majority Leader, and a diverse group of members to top committee chair posts, including Rafael Salamanca to lead the land use committee.

[Related: Women's Caucus Secures Commitments from City Council Speaker Candidates]

A spokesperson for the speaker emphasized that it was too soon to tell what the entire staff composition would look like. Johnson has yet to make any new hires and has just begun the process of meeting and interviewing candidates, the spokesperson said.  

“I think we need to look at our own staff,” Johnson said at the news conference. “It needs to be better, but I actually think that compared to other agencies and bodies in the city of New York, we’re actually more diverse, when it comes to staff positions, than other agencies in the city.”

The Department of Citywide Administrative Services’ latest city workforce report, through Fiscal Year 2016 which ended July 2017, showed promise as far as diversity is concerned. Of the 721 employees of the Council -- 318 full-time and 403 part-time -- 49 percent were female and 57 percent people of color. Members of the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus praised that progress in December, crediting Mark-Viverito for putting in practices that prioritized diverse hiring.

“In order to build a democracy that accurately reflects our City’s diverse communities, we need reflective representation at all levels of government and all forms of public service,” said Council Member Margaret Chin, co-vice chair of the caucus, in a statement issued December 13. “While our work for a more inclusive democracy continues, especially in the efforts to increase language access for immigrant communities, we are more than ready to continue this legacy.”

The BLA Caucus also called in December for the next speaker to be a person of color, insisting that the city should “continue to be served by leaders who reflect our city's values, vision, and demographics.” But, the caucus did not rally around one candidate.

Council Member Jumaane Williams, a member of the BLAC who ran for speaker, did not want to prejudge Johnson’s dedication to diversity but is encouraged by conversations he’s had with the speaker about “equity in government” in the last week. “I’m assuming they’re gonna produce some good results, I have no reason to expect it won’t happen,” he said in a phone interview.

[Related: City Council Speaker Candidates, All Men, Promise Gender Equity if Victorious]

Williams was one of two speaker candidates, the other being Council Member Robert Cornegy, Jr., who initially refused to concede to Johnson when it became apparent that Johnson had the vote locked up. The two protested the county choice of a Council member who was not a person of color. Cornegy went on to concede days before the speaker vote, while Williams did so only the morning of. In the meantime, Council Member Barron jumped into the race, also arguing that it was time the Council had its first black speaker.

“If the City Council wants to be a beacon for progressive government, we obviously have to start here,” Williams said on Tuesday. “Any place there’s diversity, everybody benefits...Without diversity, resources don’t flow equitably to communities.”

Williams seemed reassured by Johnson’s promises to empower members and the body as a whole. “It’s easier to do that when everybody feels represented,” he said. And he had a simple word of caution should the speaker not follow through. “There are a lot of people watching,” he said.

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been corrected to reflect that Pat Comerford is a woman, not a man as originally stated. 

Note: this article has been updated to note that Robin Levine will continue to serve as the Council communications director. 

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Now Pursuing Diversity, New City Council Speaker Has Employed Mostly White Men Wed, 10 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Why Does Crime Keep Falling in New York City? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7410:why-does-crime-keep-falling-in-new-york-city http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7410:why-does-crime-keep-falling-in-new-york-city de Blasio Bratton O'Neill NYPD

James O'Neill, Bill Bratton, Bill de Blasio (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York Police Department have much cause for celebration. Last year was undoubtedly the safest year on record in decades, setting new benchmarks for crime reduction across most major categories, according to the latest crime data released by the NYPD on Friday.

The total number of major felony crimes fell below 100,000 for the first time ever, no small feat for a city now home to more than 8.5 million residents. The city also set a record for fewest murders in the modern data-tracking era, and fewest since the early 1950s, when the city had far fewer residents, and fewest shooting incidents.

The mayor and police commissioner, James O’Neill, are proudly touting the success of the department’s practices, especially reforms of the last few years, with numerous initiatives that they say have shown immense success. The neighborhood policing program is rebuilding trust with communities, targeted policing of gangs in trouble spots across the city is nipping crime in the bud, and preventative programs are reducing gun violence, they say. Officers are being re-trained in new policing tactics, especially de-escalation, while also being equipped with improved technology and safety gear. Complaints about police officers are also at new lows, while the number of arrests has plummeted, and a body camera program is being rolled out.

Meanwhile, the mayor and police officials still believe that broken windows policing, with its acute attention to keeping social order and enforcing low-level crimes in an effort to prevent larger ones, and its use, however evolved, is still seen as essential.

Though it may be easy, and tempting, to draw the simple conclusion that crime is at historic lows because of the work of the NYPD and this mayor’s administration, experts say that would be a mistake. Crime has been falling for decades across the nation and even the entire world, and New York City, the “safest big city in America,” is not unique.

“None of this happened by accident,” said Commissioner O’Neill, at a news conference on Friday with other top NYPD brass, Mayor de Blasio, the newly elected City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. “I’d call it incredible were it not for the very credible reasons why it’s all happening,” O’Neill said as de Blasio nodded in agreement.

Neighborhood policing, now in 56 of 77 precincts and in nine Housing Bureau areas, is a “game changer,” O’Neill insisted, creating a greater sense of shared responsibility towards public safety between police and communities. Coordination with state and federal law enforcement in “precision policing” is helping build stronger cases against the “real drivers of crime,” he said, and community partners are playing a strong role. “As far as violence being reduced in society, that’s a little bit above my pay grade,” he conceded, when asked about broader trends. “But I know what’s happening in the NYPD, I know what’s happening in the city, and I know it’s happening with the way we are working with communities around the city and it’s all playing a big part in reducing crime.”

“This is a new day in New York City, a different reality, and it’s working,” said de Blasio subsequently, also crediting the Cure Violence program, which is led by local leaders, including former gang members, and seeks to prevent and diffuse conflicts at the community level, preempting crime before it is carried out. De Blasio insisted that stop-and-frisk policing had been “holding us back” and that it’s reduction had made the city safer.

“I think when you see this kind of intensive, fast reduction, I think it does come back to neighborhood policing, precision policing, stronger ties to the community, community allies making a big impact, and different strategies right down to the example of taking something as difficult and painful as domestic violence and treating it as a moment for intensified engagement,” the mayor said. “Not just answer the call and that’s it, but constantly coming back. That’s a very hands-on, proactive approach that is newer to the NYPD. I think that makes a big impact.”

Two areas of serious crime that the city has not seen significant reductions in of late are domestic violence and rape reports, which NYPD officials attribute to more reporting, not more actual incidences, the willingness of victims to come forward, a changing culture, and victims’ belief that they will be heard and helped by the police department. Domestic violence reports were down about 6 percent in 2017 compared to 2016; the number of rape reports were nearly the same.

There were 290 murders in 2017, down from 335 in 2013, the year before de Blasio took office (the prior record low was 333 in 2014). In that same time, the number of “index” crimes -- seven major felony offenses -- fell to 96,517 from 111,335. It’s part of a larger trend that has continued for decades, said Alex Vitale, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. “The drop can’t possibly correlate with any policy changes in New York City. It began in the Dinkins administration,” Vitale said. “Our best minds have tried to figure out what’s causing this long-term international phenomenon and we just don’t understand.”

The overall body of research on crime reduction is inconclusive and often rife with partisan interpretations, which is why Vitale cautioned against broadly crediting the NYPD for the drop in crime, which runs the risk that, when issues arise, the city will simply throw more officers at the problem. “When all you have is hammers, everything looks like a nail,” he said, of the assumption that policing is the only solution to public safety. Rather, the city should be guided by considerations of “justice, racial politics and democracy,” said Vitale, who is a liberal.

“What I would say to the mayor is that he needs to continue to aggressively pursue ways of improving quality of life that don’t rely on the criminal justice system,” Vitale said. He did acknowledge the steps the city has taken -- reducing stop-and-frisk policing, targeted enforcement and anti-violence prevention programs -- but, at the same time, he said the city must also better address issues such as gentrification, homelessness, and lack of access to healthcare for low-income New Yorkers.

Among the major steps the city has taken was the addition of 1,300 more officers to the force in 2015, at the behest of the City Council under former Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Corey Johnson’s predecessor. In recent days, Johnson has also floated the idea of adding more police officers to bolster community policing and give officers more time on the beat than responding to radio calls. It’s what Vitale warns against. “We start with the premise that because it’s a community problem, we need the police to figure it out,” he said. “But where’s their expertise?”

Vitale has long advocated for more city investment in social services to deal with community issues, rather than the overuse of policing, which he believes should be focused on the most serious crimes.

The neighborhood policing program that the administration swears by has slowly evolved from other paradigms of broken windows policing. This philosophy and practice have the mayor’s support and broken windows is the mantra of former police commissioner Bill Bratton, who continues to defend the practice as the key driver of crime reduction even as police reform advocates criticize its adverse impact on communities of color.

“Beginning in 1990, the New York City police department returned to a mission that was focused on not only dealing with serious crime, but also began to focus on disorder, which had not been addressed at all in the '70s and '80s,” Bratton said in a recent interview with National Public Radio, on the causes for dropping crime, “and disorder is described as broken windows, quality of life, minor offenses. The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.”

As Bratton explains it, broken windows policing has taken different forms in different eras, responding to conditions at the time. For example, intense law enforcement in the subway system in the 1990s, a decade that saw Bratton's first stint as NYPD commissioner and the implementation of strict, proactive policing by Mayor Rudy Giuliani's police department. The more recent iteration was in the overuse of stop-and-frisk policing, which increased significantly under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly as they sought to take guns off the streets, triggering massive protests and a federal lawsuit.

But there’s no clear evidence that broken window policing has caused the drop in crime. The relatively new Office of Inspector General of the NYPD concluded in 2016 that there was “no empirical evidence demonstrating a clear and direct link between an increase in summons and misdemeanor arrest activity and a related drop in felony crime.” The administration and NYPD top brass, including de Blasio and Bratton themselves, pushed back against the report, claiming it was “deeply flawed,” but largely using corollary and experiential takeaways to justify their claims. Meanwhile, crime numbers continue to trend down even as the NYPD has arrested tens of thousands fewer people. Bratton and others would argue that the city has only tweaked the formula, not abandoned broken windows in any discernible way.

A November 2017 report on proactive policing initiatives by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine also found that broken windows has little impact on crime while stop-and-frisk has mixed results. Hot spots policing and problem-oriented tactics lead to short-term reductions, the report found, while focused deterrence has both short- and long-term impacts on crime control.

De Blasio’s NYPD has combined most, if not all, of those measures. Ames Grawert, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, cited the report to illustrate how tough it is to draw concrete conclusions about the city’s crime numbers. “I think [de Blasio’s] right to credit community policing, but that’s a very broad term...any initiative that’s targeted at repairing trust between police and communities fits under that umbrella,” Grawert said, “so it kicks down the road the question of which types are community policing and which aren’t. But I think those are broadly successful anti-crime measures.”

Yet, crime was trending down over decades before de Blasio implemented his neighborhood policing program, which is still in its infancy. Grawert had a simple prescription for the NYPD. “Keep following the data to figure out where police resources are needed and how to apply them, and keep engaging the community to keep and increase their trust in the police,” he said.

The city’s approach goes beyond just responding to crime, seeking to prevent it in the first place. This work has taken different forms over decades. Now, New York City is the largest Cure Violence site in the country, with 18 communities where “violence interrupters,” as they are called, operate to work with high-risk individuals and diffuse conflict. It’s a health-based approach, said Charles Ransford, director of science and policy at Cure Violence, looking at crime as a “problem of contagion.” “When you recognize that, you take those most exposed to violence...and work with them,” he said. “Police can only do so much. Policing matters but it’s something that should be a last resort.”

Ransford said New York City is doing far more than other cities to prevent violence at the front end, and studies bear out the effectiveness of the approach. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice Research and Evaluation Center found that between 2014 and 2016, there was a 50 percent decrease in gun injuries in East New York, Brooklyn and a 37 percent reduction in the South Bronx, two communities where Cure Violence has been implemented. “We have to make sure that we look at the whole picture,” Ransford said. “This was a very deliberate decision and effort by Mayor de Blasio and the City Council together to take a chance on Cure Violence and fund it to such a level. They deserve a lot of credit for that.”

The administration and the Council together put $22.5 million towards the Cure Violence program in fiscal year 2017 through the newly created Mayor’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence, up from $12.7 million in fiscal year 2015.

City Council Member Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn said it was one of the things that New York City was doing differently in reducing crime, and credited the mayor for his support. “I think there are a variety of factors and I think there’s not one answer to this...I think there’s a better understanding that public safety is not just for the police and they can’t be the only people responsible for all of the issues that lead to some of these crimes,” he said. In particular, he praised “how we’re dealing with gun violence and the community approach that we’ve found to work, and actually putting money behind it, real money, that has always been missing...there was a real belief and real resources put behind it.”  

Noting that numerous metrics were trending downwards -- murders, shootings, instances of officers firing their weapons, arrests, complaints against officers -- Williams said, “We need to continue in that direction. We need to make sure that we’re continuing not to see summonses and arrests as the only way to deal with issues in communities.”

Williams did have some criticism for the administration and the police department, arguing that with regards to accountability and transparency, the city has stood still and even fallen behind. He noted, in particular, statute 50-a of the state civil rights code that protects officers’ disciplinary records from public disclosure. The mayor has called for a repeal of the statute and he reiterated, when asked by Gotham Gazette on Friday, that it’s one of his legislative priorities in Albany this year.

There are larger forces at work as well. Shifting demographics and gentrification have changed the face of neighborhoods across the city. The economy is riding a wave of unprecedented prosperity and unemployment is at an all-time low. “The number one thing that cuts violent crime arrests in half is a job,” said Williams, noting that the city has expanded the Summer Youth Employment Program in the past three years from roughly 25,000-30,000 slots to 70,000 slots. “I think [President] Donald Trump and [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions should look at what’s happening in New York City and pay attention to what’s happening here as opposed to pushing cockamamie ideas that take us backwards,” he added.

That crime has decreased as the administration moves towards full implementation of neighborhood policing is correlation without causation, as there is no measurable data on the program. De Blasio himself admits that his proof lies in anecdotal evidence. At a December 29 news conference, when asked how he quantified success, he said, “Because I’ve talked to so many neighborhood policing officers and community leaders who have given me numerous examples of information they’ve gotten that has helped them to fight crime and have made clear this was information they often didn’t get in the past.” He acknowledged that his administration would have to release objective analyses of the program “to help people understand just how big an impact there has been.”

Police reform advocate Mark Winston Griffith, executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, believes it’s a dubious claim. “Crime was going down before quote-unquote neighborhood policing,” he said. “I don’t see how [de Blasio] starts drawing this direct line between that and the reduction of crime. I don’t believe it passes the smell test.”

Advocates like Griffith were vindicated when the city curtailed the unconstitutional and unchecked use of stop-and-frisk policing, proliferated under Bloomberg and Kelly, and crime continued to fall. De Blasio has also claimed validation, as he ran for mayor on a pledge to scale back stop-and-frisk and repair police-community relationships.

To Griffith and others, the continued drops in crime has been proof that aggressive policing does not work and that more police officers on the street is not the solution. “The police can no longer use this narrative of our neighborhoods being unruly and undisciplined and prone to violence as an excuse to use abusive policing,” Griffith said. “I think this is now the moment to see how we can have both worlds. We can have low crime and we can have an accountable police force that is not abusive, not discriminatory and is not aggressive.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Why Does Crime Keep Falling in New York City? Sun, 07 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
City Council to Pass Bills Mandating Assessment of Vacant Lots http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7373:city-council-to-pass-bills-mandating-assessment-of-vacant-lots http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7373:city-council-to-pass-bills-mandating-assessment-of-vacant-lots vacant bldg via hpd

(photo via @NYCHousing)


Two years ago, Public Advocate Letitia James and City Council Members Jumaane Williams and Ydanis Rodriguez each introduced a bill under a set called the Housing Not Warehousing Act, a package aimed at reducing homelessness and increasing the city’s affordable housing stock. The bills seek to mandate an annual tally of the number of vacant lots and buildings in the city, determining which of those under city jurisdiction could be developed for affordable housing, while also requiring landlords with vacant properties to register them with the city.

Two of those bills, sponsored by the Council members, are set to be voted on by the Committee on Housing and Buildings, chaired by Williams, at a hearing on Monday. Following that, the bills are expected to head to the Council floor for a vote and approval on Tuesday at the last full meeting of the body in the current four-year session. They would then head to the desk of Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose administration has not supported the legislation.

The bills have strong support from housing advocates who have decried rising homelessness in the city as buildings remain unoccupied and lots remain undeveloped. The de Blasio administration continues to insist the city is doing everything in its power to utilize city-owned vacant lots for affordable housing, and have pushed back against a February 2016 report by City Comptroller Scott Stringer that indicated more than 1,100 lots that the city owns but were vacant.

[Related: Key to Affordable Housing Development, Vacant Lots Remain Source of Controversy]

Rodriguez’s bill would require the city to conduct an annual census and compile a list of vacant properties in the city, coordinating with numerous city agencies and departments, while Williams’ bill would mandate reporting by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) on the vacant lots and buildings under its jurisdiction, along with the potential for those properties to be used for creating affordable housing.

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Williams said he was “proud” of his tenure as committee chair, “and what better way to end this term than by passing this legislation which puts in place additional tools we need to combat the urgent affordable housing and homelessness crisis we face in this city.” Williams also thanked James, Rodriguez, and “all of the activists who helped get us to this pivotal moment of progress.”

Rodriguez, in a statement, called the act an "important step" in tackling the city's affordable housing crisis. "By identifying vacant properties, we can turn them into permanent affordable housing units for our working families and our neediest New Yorkers, and prevent homelessness." he said.

James’ bill, which is not on the schedule for Monday’s hearing, takes aim at private landlords and the property they keep empty. The bill would have required landlords to register with the city buildings that have been vacant longer than a year. It mandates fines - between $100 and $500 every week - for those landlords that fail to renew those registrations every year.

Williams did not address the exclusion of the public advocate’s bill from the package, but Kevin Fagan, a spokesperson for the Council member, said it was a “pretty common situation” for a bill to be left out of a legislative package when it goes to a vote. All three of the bills have at least 30 sponsors in the 51-seat Council. Fagan pointed to the recent Construction Safety Act, also sponsored by Williams, as an instance where bills in the final approved package did not all pass at the same time.

“While we're disappointed the entire Housing Not Warehousing Act will not be voted upon, it is promising that two bills that seek to address our affordable crisis are coming to the floor for a vote,” said James, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “We must leave no stone unturned when it comes to building affordable housing, and that includes utilizing our vacant lots and properties. We are hopeful that Int. 1034 will pass quickly in the next session.”

Charmel Lucas, a member of Picture the Homeless, an advocacy group that has pushed for these bills, said in a statement that the group was glad the two bills will be voted on and that the group would continue to work with the public advocate to help pass her bill in 2018. “We're grateful to all the council members who had our back on bringing this important issue to a vote, including the current speaker candidates,” Lucas said. “These bills will help homeless people get the housing they need. By identifying vacant property that landlords are sitting on for decades, we can take steps to develop them into extremely-low-income housing."

There was some good news for the public advocate, however. A separate bill she sponsors -- requiring HPD to provide more information on owners of buildings and the violations and complaints they face -- will be approved at the same Monday committee hearing. “Transparency is critical for New Yorkers seeking to hold unscrupulous landlords accountable,” James said, touting the Worst Landlords Watchlist published by her office every year. “This bill will create an easy-to-use database that allows tenants to identify patterns of abuse and harassment by landlords across buildings, further empowering and protecting tenants.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to include comment from Council Member Rodriguez and to clarify Fagan's comments on the Construction Safety bill. 

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City Council to Pass Bills Mandating Assessment of Vacant Lots Fri, 15 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Council Speaker Candidates Hesitant to Criticize or Reform Party-Controlled Board of Elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7368:council-speaker-candidates-hesitant-to-criticize-or-reform-board-of-elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7368:council-speaker-candidates-hesitant-to-criticize-or-reform-board-of-elections City Council chambers with members

photo by William Alatriste/City Council


The New York City Board of Elections has widely been acknowledged as a dysfunctional agency in need of urgent and sweeping reform, yet the political will for modernizing and professionalizing the board has not existed, at least in part because its current structure benefits those in power.

Its system of appointments based on political patronage has long been a source of criticism and its mismanagement of election operations has frustrated voters and been the subject of City Council oversight hearings. But, when asked, the eight men vying to become the next Speaker of the City Council recently said concerns about the BOE are misguided. To varying degrees, they indicated that the board is effective and efficient, that its failings are isolated rather than systematic, and that its current structure should be preserved.

At a November 20 speaker candidate forum hosted by Citizens Union, other government reform groups, and New York Law School, seven speaker candidates -- Corey Johnson, Mark Levine, and Ydanis Rodriguez of Manhattan; Donovan Richards and Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens; and Robert Cornegy and Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn -- were present and they mostly took the middle of the road when asked about the steps the City Council, which approves appointments to the BOE, could take to improve the board. The ten BOE commissioners include two -- one Republican and one Democrat -- from each borough.

The Council members hedged their bets and praised the BOE, recognizing that any criticism could potentially be read as directed toward the county party organizations that nominate BOE commissioners and place other employees at the board -- the same county organizations whose support each candidate is seeking in order to become speaker. The eighth candidate, Ritchie Torres from the Bronx, would later give Gotham Gazette a similar response.

None of the members were in favor of a non-partisan restructuring of the board. “That’s a tough question to ask of speaker candidates,” Williams said, to laughter from his colleagues in acknowledgement of the role of the county party machines in both picking BOE commissioners and picking the Council speaker. Williams defended the board but did acknowledge that patronage has played a role in appointments and that the Council could do more to improve it.

“We know that we do have some issues and if we can just do some more thinking through that process and make sure that it’s not as patronage as some folks may think, we can move a lot further,” Williams said, taking the most bold position of the group. “I’m not sure if we push as hard as we can when things go wrong.”

Other candidates spoke generally about reforming election and voting laws, a tangential subject that is mostly the prerogative of the state Legislature, and some staunchly argued in favor of the current partisan composition of the board, which they insisted maintains a balance and prevents one-party hegemony in elections.

“I do not support non-partisan appointments to the Board of Elections,” said Johnson, one of the three perceived frontrunners in the race, along with Levine and Cornegy. “I believe that the parties play a particular role in ensuring that we make sure that any party that’s dominant at a given time cannot run roughshod over another party. If someone came up with a perfect system of a non-partisan way to handle it, maybe I’d entertain it. I’ve never heard of that system, I don’t know how you take political influence out of politics.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Van Bramer said in response.

The city BOE falls under state jurisdiction, like all local boards of election, although the city gets to decide the board’s budget and not much else. The ten board commissioners are nominated by the county party machinery and appointed by the City Council. Representatives from the board testify at City Council hearings, usually during budget season, and receive recommendations and often admonitions from Council members, but are not bound to follow any Council mandates.

The board is often seen as favoring the Democratic Party establishment, given that the vast majority of candidates for city offices are Democrats. Candidates not backed by the party machinery are often challenged in board proceedings and kicked off the ballot, though they are often first-time candidates with fewer resources and without experienced election lawyers.

On Monday, Torres reiterated what his colleagues had said weeks ago. “I suspect you’re misdiagnosing the problem, the problem is a lack of resources,” he told Gotham Gazette at City Hall. “I suspect it’s a lack of resources more than the manner in which the appointments are made.”

He continued, “Does the BOE have inefficiencies? Yes. It’s true of every agency in city government. There’s not a single agency in city government that’s free of inefficiency. So the notion that you would cite inefficiency as an excuse for fundamentally changing the structure of an institution is dubious.” Torres said he would oppose any measures that could weaken the party organizations’ role but conceded that the Council should “study the problem comprehensively” to determine the needs and inefficiencies of the BOE.

There have been studies in the past, and each has found persistent issues.

A 2013 report by the city’s Department of Investigations found a raft of problems in elections management as well as internal board administration. In 2016, the BOE was responsible for a massive voter purge in Brooklyn during the presidential primaries, resulting in legal action by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. In November, Schneiderman announced a consent decree with the BOE that requires added oversight of the board’s voter list maintenance.

Less than a week before this year’s general election on November 7, city Comptroller Scott Stringer also released an audit that excoriated the BOE’s dysfunctional election operations. At each step, the BOE has pushed back and has been resistant to change. Even when Mayor Bill de Blasio offered a $20 million incentive for the board to enact major reforms -- recommending the empaneling of a Blue Ribbon Commission to analyze the BOE, more transparency in hiring and improved poll worker training, among other measures -- its commissioners refused.

“The Mayor believes that it is critical that we reform the Board of Elections,” said Seth Stein, a mayoral spokesperson, in a statement on Tuesday. “They have demonstrated time and again that they are unable to perform the basic functions of their office, like keeping eligible voters on the rolls. The Mayor looks forward to working with whoever the next Speaker is to encourage the Board to accept the $20 million we have offered in exchange for necessary reforms.”

State-level BOE reforms have not progressed in Albany.

Those who could take steps or apply pressure to improve the BOE’s abysmal record are the very people invested in the status quo, however, and the City Council, particularly its speaker, falls squarely within that dynamic. Election experts also tend to agree that the Council can pass little meaningful reform, absent legislative action at the state level, and that the bi-partisan BOE composition is appropriate.  

“There’s very little the City Council can do regarding the structural functioning of the agency,” said Sarah Steiner, an election lawyer. “They could maybe fund the board at a higher level so it could function better.”

“In terms of patronage, it’s a bi-partisan agency, not a civil service agency. Unless that’s changed, the county organizations is where the commissioners and employees will come from,” she added. She insisted that most of the board’s employees are, in her experience, qualified and hard-working professionals. “As in any organization, some employees are better than others,” she said. And she warned that a civil service agency running elections could be open to political interference, while the current structure is designed to prevent just that.

Steiner praised, in particular, the speed and accuracy with which the BOE provides election night results. But, she said, “they are less good at some of the work regarding candidates. I think the rules structure for candidates needs substantial revision.” Unlike the state BOE, the city agency doesn’t provide a public comment period for rules changes, she said, which often leaves the candidates and their campaigns unaware and unprepared. “The administrative rules are not as easy as the board thinks they are, and they’re largely a minefield,” she added.

J.C. Polanco, a Republican who unsuccessfully ran for public advocate this year, has served as  president of the city BOE and saw the problems first hand and attempted to fix them. He campaigned this year on a platform that included BOE reform. He’s blunt about the Council speaker candidates and why they wouldn’t speak up against the agency. “Each candidate has to try not to offend the county organizations,” he said.  

Though Polanco also agrees that the BOE’s partisan structure may be necessary, he believes it can be better. “One of the things to do is to professionalize the board,” he said, “by forcing every candidate to go through the crucible of the [Council’s] investigations process required of commissioners.” He favors merit-based hiring and called for it when he worked at the board.

“There are professionals at the board that get a bad rap for the failures of the board to modernize,” he insisted, echoing Steiner. “You can definitely have a professionalized partisan agency.” The board should post positions with qualifications online, he said, and more publicly seek employees. “It would require an enlightenment of the citizenry and the board,” Polanco said. He also speculated about giving third parties representation on the board, proportionate to their vote shares in prior elections.

Although the Council members poised to be the next speaker may not agree, the official they are hoping to succeed believes that the BOE needs improvement. Melissa Mark-Viverito, who, in the waning days of her speakership, has waded into conflict with the Manhattan Democratic County Committee over a BOE commissioner appointment, said the Council has discussed reforming the BOE for years. Responding to a question from Gotham Gazette, she said, “There’s obviously a lot more work that has to be done. We’ve seen the reports issued by DOI and others with the dysfunction at the Board of Elections and there definitely has to be a lot more professionalizing of the Board of Elections and being able to implement reforms.”

While much of the conversation around elections and voting in New York tends to revolve around the state’s antiquated laws, there have been local attempts at such reform. Council Member Ben Kallos has been a particularly vocal critic of the board and, as chair of the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, has pushed legislation that can improve elections and voting access. He has time and again urged representatives of the board to move towards merit-based hiring --  “I favor the civil service over the patronage appointment process,” he told Gotham Gazette on Monday. Kallos’ bill allowing online voter registration recently passed the Council. The mayor is expected to sign it into law, and it is considered valid under guidance from A.G. Schneiderman.

We can “find meaningful alternatives that can help fix the BOE at the city level,” Kallos said. “As we learned with online voter registration, with a little bit of creativity and good attorneys, I think a lot can be possible at the local level.”

[Read: City Council Speaker Candidates Address Power, Reform and Transparency]

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Council Speaker Candidates Hesitant to Criticize or Reform Party-Controlled Board of Elections Wed, 13 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000