Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/491 Tue, 17 Oct 2017 05:54:53 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) City Council Examines Effectiveness of Domestic Violence Courts http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7204:city-council-examines-effectiveness-of-domestic-violence-courts http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7204:city-council-examines-effectiveness-of-domestic-violence-courts lancman rally council

Council Member Lancman (photo: @NYCCouncil)


The City Council’s Courts and Legal Services Committee held an oversight hearing on Monday dedicated to New York’s Integrated Domestic Violence Courts, a program designed to increase accountability and responsiveness to domestic violence victims in the legal system by combining the different courts one might interact with in a domestic violence dispute into a single court, with a single judge handling a couple’s or family’s multiple cases, including criminal, custody, and visitation cases.

Integrated domestic violence courts, or IDVs, aim to lessen the burden of the legal system on victims of domestic violence, as well as their families. IDVs were introduced into the New York criminal justice system in 2003; the New York City Criminal Justice Agency, a nonprofit service provider, found that, between 2007 and 2009, domestic violence convictions in IDV courts were considerably higher than in criminal courts. Domestic violence cases in regular criminal courts usually do not end in convictions, leaving victims without at least some semblance of justice.

These courts are a piece of the larger picture of efforts to fight, prevent, and punish domestic violence in New York City.

As noted at the hearing, even as crime has fallen substantially in New York City, reports of incidences of domestic violence have risen, “both in total number and as a percentage of total crime,” according to a briefing paper for the hearing prepared by the City Council. The Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence reports that the NYPD responded to 91,600 domestic violence calls involving intimate partners in 2016, a 22.6% increase over 2015.

Some attribute increases in reports to encouragement of such reporting and steps taken to educate people, especially women, about their opportunities to report abuse and resources available to victims. While it is still a challenge, the stigma around reporting domestic violence has been reduced.

City Council Member Rory Lancman, the chair of the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, led the hearing and was at several points the only elected official in the room.

“Every act of domestic violence ripples out to affect our city -- it leads to homelessness, health problems and hospital visits, police interventions, lost jobs or missed time, not to mention its effect on children’s wellbeing and education,” Lancman said. “How our City manages the legal proceedings associated with domestic violence cases plays a major role in determining the services victims receive and how we are able to hold perpetrators accountable.

Lancman also specifically noted the importance of the IDV courts in his remarks.

“For the better part of two decades now, New York’s Court system has been on the forefront of the movement to provide specialty courts to handle domestic violence cases. It is our responsibility to ensure the operations of DV and IDV courts, and the services they provide, are excellent no matter what the charge or court families end up in.”

In November 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a task force on domestic violence, co-chaired by his wife, Chirlane McCray, and Police Commissioner James O’Neill, to develop recommendations for how to comprehensively deal with domestic violence in the city. The Task Force submitted its initial report to the mayor in May, with a host of recommendations encompassed within four main areas: expand child and youth prevention and intervention; enhance criminal justice responses; strengthen New York City communities; and improve citywide coordination to maximize results.

The de Blasio administration had two officials testify Monday, discussing IDVs in the larger context of the city’s efforts to fight domestic violence.

At the hearing, the ways in which IDVs benefit the system were discussed several times, but much of the focus was on reforms that could be made to the IDV system. For instance, despite increased attention upon individual cases across multiple legal disciplines, a 2010 Harvard study, cited by the committee, found that “protective orders took longer to process and issue in IDV courts, and were not significantly more likely to be granted compared to those filed in Criminal Domestic Violence Courts.”

Further, IDVs suffer from a chronic lack of resources, according to experts who testified to the committee. Lindsey Wallace, of Sanctuary for Families, testified regarding the poor resource allocation negatively impacting IDVs, despite casting Brooklyn’s IDV system as a “national model.”

“Many of the critical services IDVC judges wish to order for these families are not available, or there are lengthy waiting lists,” Wallace said. “Of the most critical importance is the need for institutional providers of supervised visitation.”

Supervised visitation refers to allowing parents involved in a domestic violence dispute the opportunity to see their children, who may have been taken away from them, under close supervision. This is one of the most sensitive areas in domestic violence policy, as parents will often be desperate to see their children, but a lack of services to facilitate these visits can cause a backlog in supervisors.

Supervised visitation emerged as possibly the most prominent of the resource problems according to those testifying before the Council committee on Monday. Esther Morgenstern, a Kings County Supreme Court judge who presides over Brooklyn’s IDV court, gave a similar diagnosis to Wallace’s.

“When it comes to supervised visitation, there’s a real lacking of services,” Morgenstern said. “And when you’re at the end of the case, two years have gone by, the criminal cases have resolved, and matrimonial has resolved, the children, we still want them to reconnect with the noncustodial parent. And very often I sign 722c orders, which allows the court to use city and state funds to have those visitations occur. But there’s a real need for additional funds for supervised visitation.” She went on to request a grant for supervised visitation services from the City Council.

Other areas of potential IDV reform were also touched upon. Kathleen Daniel, a domestic violence survivor and advocate, noted that there is a “lack of integration for DV families outside of criminal court,” referring to the degree to which relevant information is shared between entities like courts and legal services. IDV is, according to Daniel, the only integrated step in the court process for domestic violence.

Daniel further recommended that renewing restraining orders should be made easier and pressed for a “mandated mediation program” of one to two years “to ensure co-parenting and the best interests of children are the priority.”

Representing the de Blasio administration Monday were Elizabeth Dank of the Office to Combat Domestic Violence and Nicole Torres of the Office of Criminal Justice. Dank and Torres discussed IDV courts in the context of the administration’s larger push for domestic violence policy reform, such as the large number of families involved in disputes who utilize family justice centers during the legal process, a count of 62,000 in 2016.

Lancman, the chair of the committee, asked Dank about the apparent problems with enough resources for supervised visitations. Dank discussed a program through Safe Horizons, a victim assistance organization, in partnership with the federal government, to provide a grant for supervised visitation in Queens, as well as other programs that she did not specify.

“We agree that this is something that needs additional resources, and so we are looking at that matter through the task force currently,” said Dank. The de Blasio administration is expected to make a series of announcements in October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, as it did last year.

Lancman also asked Dank about why some more serious offenses, in most cases felonies, do not end up in front of IDVs where these cases could receive more individualized attention. In other words, the more serious the case, the more likely it is to have to go through even more judicial bureaucracy, as opposed to non-felony offenses, which more often land in an IDV.

Dank shifted back to resources, stating that the administration’s aim is, regardless of the seriousness of the offense, to ensure that resources are available to families going through the process.

While many areas in need of reform or improvement were noted, the positives of IDVs were not lost on those testifying Monday. A large benefit of IDVs is the streamlining of the legal process for domestic violence victims and their families.

“If you go into family court just to file for custody or for an order of protection,” said Judge Morgenstern, “your return date on proof of service could be three months. In my [court], when there’s an arrest, and a match is made, within two weeks you’ll be before the IDV court. So, IDV, the fact that we’re looking at all of the cases brings the issues before the court much quicker.”

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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City Council Examines Effectiveness of Domestic Violence Courts Mon, 18 Sep 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Broken Windows Policing Will Fuel the Trump Deportation Machine http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6774:broken-windows-policing-will-fuel-the-trump-deportation-machine http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6774:broken-windows-policing-will-fuel-the-trump-deportation-machine  rory lancman presser city hall

City Council Member Rory Lancman, the author (photo: @RoryLancman)


We’re now more than 30 days into Donald Trump’s presidency, and it is already crystal clear that the hostile and offensive rhetoric he used toward immigrants on the campaign trail will be put into practice by his administration.

It was just this week that Trump’s Department of Homeland Security issued new rules that make clear Trump’s plan to deport millions of immigrants from our country, while tearing apart families and communities in the process.

With thousands, if not tens of thousands, of immigrant New Yorkers now at risk of deportation, it is urgent that Mayor Bill de Blasio take real action to protect immigrant New Yorkers from possible deportation under Trump.

The mayor has had no problem in recent weeks talking about opposing Trump and his policies, but when it comes down to it, talk is cheap. Real leadership requires bold action, and immigrant New Yorkers deserve action.

But, here is the reality facing New York City today: Mayor de Blasio’s broken windows policing will now be the fuel for Donald Trump’s deportation machine.

Without important and necessary action from the mayor, New Yorkers who are arrested for minor, nonviolent offenses could now be subject to deportation. That is inhumane and completely contrary to our values.

Mayor de Blasio has the authority to take action immediately to protect immigrant New Yorkers -- without having to wait for the City Council, the State Legislature, or Congress. On his own, the mayor can direct the NYPD to stop arresting people, including immigrant New Yorkers, for low-level, nonviolent, quality-of-life crimes where a civil alternative is already readily available.

Take fare evasion, for example. In 2015, more than 100,000 New Yorkers were stopped by the NYPD for fare evasion. Nearly 30,000 New Yorkers were arrested for “theft of services,” a misdemeanor under the state penal law. The remaining individuals were issued a civil summons for violating the MTA rule against fare evasion, which is not subject to any kind of criminal sanction.

The difference between an arrest and a civil violation for fare evasion is monumental. A conviction for fare evasion could result in jail time, appear on an individual’s criminal record, and staggeringly enough, result in deportation for even documented immigrants like legal permanent residents of New York.

On the other hand, a civil violation is heard by the MTA’s Transit Adjudication Bureau, not a criminal court, and cannot result in jail time or deportation.

As Mayor de Blasio’s broken windows policing continues in this city, it is clear who is being targeted -- 92% of the arrests for fare evasion in 2015 were people of color. Oftentimes, too, if an individual cannot immediately produce an ID, the NYPD will choose to make an arrest, instead of issuing a civil violation.

All told the risk of arrest for immigrant New Yorkers for fare evasion is all too real. And for undocumented immigrants, any interaction with the criminal justice system, even for a minor offense like fare evasion, can result in deportation.

With the stakes so high for so many in our city, it is up to the mayor to determine if he is going to use his authority to protect people, or silently feed into Trump’s deportation machine. Talking about standing up to Donald Trump is one thing, but actually taking action is far more important.

New Yorkers are counting on the mayor to do what’s right and take a real, actionable stand for our values against Trump.

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City Council Member Rory Lancman represents parts of Queens and chairs the Council's Committee on Courts and Legal Services. On Twitter @RoryLancman.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Broken Windows Policing Will Fuel the Trump Deportation Machine Thu, 23 Feb 2017 05:00:00 +0000
City Makes Slow Progress in Effort to Prevent Wrongful Convictions http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6726:city-makes-slow-progress-in-effort-to-prevent-wrongful-convictions http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6726:city-makes-slow-progress-in-effort-to-prevent-wrongful-convictions lancman presser micah institute

City Council Member Rory Lancman (photo: Micah Institute)


In 2016, 159 people were exonerated in the United States after being wrongfully convicted for a crime they did not commit, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Fourteen of those wrongful convictions took place in New York, the third-highest number of wrongful convictions by state in 2016, including several in New York City: five in Brooklyn, two in Manhattan, and one in the Bronx. Those who were exonerated in New York spent more than 17 years in prison on average, with one wrongfully convicted individual serving 52 years behind bars.

When the wrong person is convicted, the actual perpetrator remains free to commit more crimes, while an innocent person is robbed of years, often decades, of their life. Wrongful convictions can undermine public confidence in the justice system, and cost New York tens of millions of dollars in settlements. Upon taking office in 2014 as Brooklyn District Attorney, the late Ken Thompson made creation of a conviction review unit a top priority, and he quickly overturned several wrongful convictions from his predecessor’s era.

False confessions are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions. Of the 149 exonerations that occurred in 2015, 18 percent were based on false confessions. Evidence-based policy solutions to minimize the occurrence of false confessions exist, and in 2012 the New York State Justice Task Force recommended reforms.

The task force, established by then Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and comprised of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, police chiefs, and other criminal justice experts, recommended that police departments record interrogations in their entirety, rather than just confessions. This helps to protect from false accusations not only the individual being questioned, but also the officers involved.

Videotaping full interrogations makes it easier for prosecutors, judges, and juries to weigh evidence by providing an account of the circumstances that led to a confession. There is widespread support for the practice: in 2013, the New York State Municipal Police Training Council also recommended that law enforcement record interrogations.

In New York City, the NYPD recorded 146 interrogations in 2011. That number jumped to 847 in 2014 as more rooms were equipped with recording software and the focus on recording interrogations increased. But as those numbers continue to climb through 2016, it is unclear whether the NYPD has fully implemented the recording of criminal interrogations, and the department is withholding information about its practices.

Though the NYPD says it is departmental policy to record all interrogations for certain crimes, it is under no obligation to do so by law, and it is unclear whether, and unlikely that, the NYPD has fully implemented the recording of all interrogations for those most serious crimes included in its policy. However, legislation is being drafted in the City Council that would indeed mandate the practice.

Since 2011, the department has recorded approximately 5,000 interrogations, according to the NYPD. However, the department’s unwillingness to share more information regarding its recording practices has made the implementation of the policy difficult to assess. The NYPD refused to appear at a September 23 City Council hearing examining its safeguards against wrongful convictions. The hearing was held jointly by the committee on Courts and Legal Services and the Public Safety committee, chaired by Council Members Rory Lancman and Vanessa Gibson, respectively.

The NYPD began a pilot program to record interrogations in 2011, after former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said advances in digital recording technology had made it possible for the department to afford it. Two precincts participated and a total of 146 interrogations were recorded that year, with only interrogations for felony assaults in the two participating precincts subject to recording. Three additional precincts began recording interrogations for felony assaults in 2012, and 183 interrogations were recorded, according to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ), which did testify at the September Council hearing.

The program has since been expanded citywide, according to the NYPD. "Currently, the New York City Police Department has 82 rooms equipped with video recording software. Each detective squad that is assigned to a precinct has a room equipped with this software. All Special Victim Squads are equipped as well," said Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce, in written testimony submitted to the City Council for the September hearing.

Crimes for which interrogations are subject to recording have also expanded since 2011. Since 2015, it has been NYPD policy that "all arrests effected by NYPD detective squads for index felony offenses and attempts...are subject to video recorded interrogations," according to Boyce's testimony. Index felony offenses include murder, rape, robbery, burglary, assault, grand larceny, and grand larceny auto. Certain arrests for gun offenses are also recorded, as well as "certain misdemeanor arrests...most often with misdemeanor sex crimes."

Nothing beyond internal policy is guiding NYPD interrogation recording practice, and the wording of the policy itself, as described by Boyce, seems to give police officers some latitude when it comes to implementation.

One issue in ascertaining up-to-date data is that the NYPD is not providing a full accounting of annual numbers even in the 2011-2016 timeframe. The department provided yearly interrogation recording data for 2011 through 2014, then grouped 2015 with 2016 through October.

For January 2015 through October 2016, the NYPD reports recording roughly 3,200 interrogations, according to data shared by MOCJ. It is a number that appears to be far short of the total number of interrogations that occurred.

“What I understand is that right now, the detective squads videotape interviews with people who have been arrested in the seven majors...that’s been the process since I think around mid-2015,” said MOCJ Director Liz Glazer during the September 23 City Council hearing.

Yet, 84,988 arrests were made for the seven major felonies during 2015 and 2016, according to the NYPD’s director of public information, which means a large number of felony arrests did not result in recorded interrogations.

Just this month, Governor Andrew Cuomo voiced his support for mandating the recording of interrogations, among other criminal justice reforms. During his 2017 State of the State speech in New York City, Cuomo said he was there to “propose groundbreaking reforms: we will videotape interrogations, improve fairness in lineups, and raise the age of [adult] criminal liability from 16 to 18.”

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance released a statement in support of Cuomo’s proposed reforms, noting that his office had partnered with the governor in 2016 “to fund the recording of police interrogations across the state.” The initiative made $500,000 in funding available to local law enforcement agencies outside of New York City to expand their ability to record interrogations.

As Cuomo’s proposal and NYPD reporting make clear, there is no state or city law to require the recording of criminal interrogations, major felony crimes or otherwise.

Due to the NYPD absence from the September 23 City Council hearing, there has been limited public discussion of the department’s efforts to prevent wrongful convictions. Most of that conversation has happened through individual district attorney offices, which vary in their efforts to overturn wrongful convictions, action that is corrective rather than preventative.

Experts who testified at the Council hearing, including judges, representatives of the city’s district attorneys, and a police chief from Massachusetts, say recording interrogations is helpful for everyone involved.

Glazer appeared at the hearing in place of the NYPD as the representative of the de Blasio administration.

In the written words of Chief of Detectives Boyce, “It has been our experience that recording not only aids those who are innocent, but also bolsters the work performed by our officers by preventing disputes about how an officer conducted him/herself while also increasing transparency as to what was said and done during an interrogation.”

Glazer explained that the “NYPD videotapes the interviews of every defendant arrested for index felony offenses and attempts, commonly referred to as the ‘seven major felonies.’”

As Boyce wrote, “NYPD policy mandates that the recording system is activated before the subject enters the interrogation room” and “that the interrogation is recorded in its entirety.”

While Glazer and Boyce say the NYPD records the interviews of every defendant arrested for the seven major felonies, the numbers for January 2015-October 2016 leave roughly 80,000 arrests for the seven major felonies that did not result in recorded interrogations. (It is likely that more interrogations were recorded in the final three months of 2016, but multiple requests for updated information on the number of recordings made by the NYPD went unanswered).

There are some exceptions to the NYPD’s recording policy, such as when the individual being interrogated requests an attorney, invokes their right to silence, requests not to be recorded, or when recording equipment malfunctions. When asked for clarification on the difference between the number of arrests and recordings in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette, NYPD Lieutenant John Grimpel said, “Not everyone arrested for a felony crime has to be interrogated or is interrogated by detectives.”

“Interrogations are recorded,” Grimpel said, “but I don’t have to interrogate everyone I arrest. I have 52 witnesses of a murder, right, I might not even need to talk to [the suspect] in regard to it. If there’s no witnesses, then I’ll interrogate him about a crime.”

Yet, judges who testified at the City Council hearing called the NYPD’s implementation of the policy into question. When Council Member Lancman, chair of the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, asked Judge Daniel Conviser if he was seeing evidence that the NYPD universally records interrogations or confessions, Conviser replied, “I’m seeing it rarely by the NYPD.”

“I have to say, I haven’t seen too many recorded police interrogations,” said Judge Mark Dwyer, a member of the Justice Task Force.

Still, both judges cautioned that what they are seeing from the NYPD might be slightly dated, as it can take anywhere from six months to two years for cases to come to trial.

At the hearing, Marika Meis, legal director at Bronx Defenders, said her office isn't seeing many cases where the interrogation was recorded. "Right now, my office has 800 felony cases that have been pending for over a year,” Meis said. “We have 15 cases in which the interrogation was recorded, and those are largely in homicide and sex cases, and a couple other violent felonies. And in the years preceding the recent past three or four years, we had a total of I think six or seven.”

Twenty-two states and Washington, D.C. mandate the recording of interrogations, and many police departments across the country do so voluntarily. Lancman has put in a request for legislation to be drafted that would do the same in New York City.

A hearing on such legislation to mandate the recording of interrogations could prompt the NYPD to share more information regarding the current state of its recording practices. Though both Glazer and Boyce stated in their testimonies that every detective squad in the city is now equipped to record interrogations, a Patrol Guide issued Feb. 4, 2015 identified only five detective squads participating in the recording of interrogations. When Lancman asked Glazer why this was the case, she could not provide an answer.

“There’s a vast discrepancy between qualifying crimes and the interrogations being recorded that the NYPD has been unable to explain,” Lancman said in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

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by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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City Makes Slow Progress in Effort to Prevent Wrongful Convictions Mon, 23 Jan 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Much Agreement on Need for Bail Reform, But Little Movement http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6658:much-agreement-on-need-for-bail-reform-but-little-movement http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6658:much-agreement-on-need-for-bail-reform-but-little-movement de Blasio rikers ponte officers

On Rikers Island (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


There is an ongoing conversation in New York about how to fix the bail system that many agree is broken, keeping too many poor people in jail after they are arrested for low-level nonviolent offenses but cannot afford to post bond and, at times, allowing individuals back onto the street who are prone to violence but able to pay bail. Efforts at reform have been full of fits and starts.

About a month ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced measures to make it easier for people to pay bail through an online payment system, as opposed to the insistence that bail is paid in person. More recently, City Council Member Rory Lancman introduced legislation that would require a city service provider to furnish judges setting bail with details of a defendant’s financial situation.

These latest incremental local reform ideas and others are aimed at chipping away at the problems with the system, but many advocates, legal experts, and elected officials agree that there is a need for an expanded statewide conversation around the culture of bail and actual statutory reform, chiefly to ensure that those with limited material resources are not punished simply for their economic status.

Reforming the bail system in New York has been something of a priority at both the city and state levels, though tangible progress has been limited.

In January, Governor Andrew Cuomo included the issue in his policy agenda for this year, although there has been little follow-up through legislation. Cuomo proposed requiring judges to assess risk to public safety when making a bail decision -- something de Blasio and others are in agreement with -- and stronger regulations of bail bondsman practices.

In New York City, the de Blasio administration has implemented a number of initiatives this year to make bail payments less complicated and to provide alternatives to bail that keep people from being incarcerated. There have also been concerted efforts both in policing practice and through legislation to reduce arrests for low-level offenses in the first place, and arrests are down significantly while the city has become safer in terms of major crimes.

The population at Rikers Island jails, where about three-quarters of the city’s jail population is housed, hovers around 7,500 daily, down significantly from peak years over recent decades.

In April, the mayor committed nearly $18 million for a citywide expansion of a supervised release program that will allow as many as 3,000 low-level offenders each year to remain out of jail and work while they await trial. The program cuts down on the use of monetary bail, ensuring that people who are of low risk to public safety but cannot afford bail do not languish in prison.

Last month, the mayor announced the creation of a system that allows cash bail to be paid online, by a phone, or through a courthouse kiosk by family members and friends of defendants. The system, due to be launched citywide by the spring, aims at alleviating the difficulty of having to physically visit a corrections facility to pay bail. “Nobody with the ability to pay bail should sit in jail just because the bail process is an inconvenience,” de Blasio said at the announcement.

The City Council has also been inching closer to establishing a public bail fund, which was first announced by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in her February 2015 State of the City speech. The fund received a license from the state Department of Financial Services in August but cannot begin operations until a pending license application for a bail bond agent is approved. If it becomes operational, the fund will provide bail money for qualifying participants so that they can leave jail between arrest and court appearance.

Bail reform is a key consideration for the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, a body that was set up at the speaker’s behest earlier this year to recommend broad criminal justice reforms, with an eye toward creating a plan for closing the Rikers Island prison complex. The body is being headed by former New York State chief judge Jonathan Lippman, who, when he filled that role, argued vehemently for bail reform.

Lippman believes that bail reform is moving ahead slowly in the city, but he stressed in a phone interview that there needs to be statutory change in law to effect broad change. “The city is doing really good things but they’re nibbling around the edges, not able to get at the heart of it,” he said. “My belief is that we need cooperation from Albany and we need a new bail statute.”

Lippman suggested a two-fold approach to bail: giving judges the authority to assess risk to public safety and the need to “flip the assumption” that someone should be incarcerated instead of being released while waiting for a court date. “Bail doesn’t assure the person coming back and it’s an anachronism,” he said, promising that the commission will directly address the issue when it releases its recommendations sometime in spring 2017.

Last year, when Lippman was serving as chief judge (he was forced to retire due to age restrictions and is now “of counsel” at Latham & Watkins), he announced administrative measures to reform the bail system in the absence of legislative action by the state. His own proposals from 2013 to essentially do away with cash bail have not been taken up by legislators in Albany, where Republicans control the state Senate and are often opposed to what is seen as progressive criminal justice reform.

“I think we got a lot of attention when I proposed the legislation,” Lippman said, rueing that “getting a lot of attention and getting things done are two different things.”

The challenge to changing the bail statute, he said, is the same that creeps up in any issue of criminal justice reform. “Legislators are elected and get into this soft-on-crime/tough-on-crime syndrome,” he said. “I think we need to be smart on crime.”

A major impetus to the conversation around bail reform was the tragic death of Kalief Browder, a young Bronx resident who spent three years on Rikers Island awaiting trial on charges of stealing a backpack. Browder couldn’t pay bail but was eventually released when the case was dismissed. In jail, he faced physical and mental abuse and was placed in solitary confinement for nearly two years. In June 2015, Browder committed suicide.

The case prompted widespread outrage and besides putting a spotlight on the culture of violence at Rikers, it highlighted the problems in the bail system. Advocates use Browder’s experience as a rallying cry in their push for change.

While there’s a lot of agreement that an update of the legal statutes is necessary, there’s a greater need, many say, for reexamining the purpose of the bail mechanism and reeducation in how it is practiced.

“Bail, by definition, discriminates against the poor,” said State Senator Michael Gianaris, deputy Democratic Conference leader, who proposed a bill last year to scrap cash bail. “There’s no rational basis for continuing this process.”

Gianaris, of Queens, believes that reform is being slowed by a misunderstanding of the issue. “Bail was never intended to keep dangerous people off the street,” he said, pointing out that defendants have a constitutional presumption of innocence and cannot be considered dangerous for the purposes of bail if they haven’t been convicted yet.”

Ezra Ritchin, project director of the Bronx Freedom Fund, one of two charitable bail funds already operating in New York City, commends the mayor and the City Council for the steps they’ve taken and says there is an urgency around bail reform at the state level.

“We’re in an important moment right now where there’s a lot of change happening,” he said. “Since Kalief Browder...there has been momentum for reform.”

But Ritchin warned, “There are things that we are missing in all of this.” The root of the issue, he said, is the high volume of arrests in New York City, and the consideration that a defendant is likely to miss their court date. “It’s often labeled as flight-risk,” he said. “That’s a massive misunderstanding of what’s going on. No one is fleeing.”

“It’s a question of the way that we frame risk,” Ritchin said, referring to the chances that a person might flee or even be a risk to public safety, which is a consideration that both Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo have proposed as an addition to the bail statute. “What we don’t talk about,” Ritchin said, “is the risk of a person’s life falling apart from being wrenched into the system.”

Therein lies the biggest issue for Ritchin, the way the bail statute is put into practice. The current statute allows nine different forms of bail, including cash bail, that a judge can impose, some of which are less onerous.

“I think the statute, if used correctly, could result in a very different system than the one we see now,” Ritchin said. This “golden question” of how to change the culture of imposing bail, among prosecutors and judges, is one for which Ritchin said he has no clear answer.

City Council Member Lancman echoed that sentiment. As the chair of the Council’s Committee on Courts and Legal Services, Lancman is at the frontline of this issue. “The major obstacle is the unwillingness of judges and prosecutors to accept other forms of assurances for a defendant...than cash bail or bond, as well as the unwillingness to look at each defendant’s financial circumstances,” Lancman told Gotham Gazette in a phone interview. “The system in every way possible -- from the city side, the judiciary side, the district attorney’s side, and, to a lesser extent, from the defense’s side -- is not focused on eliminating this reality of people being sent to Rikers Island because they’re poor.”

Under the bill Lancman introduced November 29, an arraignment screening organization contracted by the city to provide details about a defendant, including a recommendation on their risk of flight, would also have to include information on a defendant’s ability to pay bail. This is just one of the few ways the city can change how the bail system works, Lancman said, stressing the need for action at multiple levels. “The effort to reform bail requires many stakeholders adopting the new procedures and policies and outlook, which cumulatively would have an effect of greatly reducing the number of people on Rikers Island because they’re poor,” he said. 

The understanding that cash bail is a misguided concept has taken hold in an unprecedented way at the city and state level, according to Insha Rahman, senior planner at the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice. Less than a decade ago, “it wasn’t a part of the rhetoric and conversation around bail as it is now,” Rahman said. 

She insisted that any legislative proposal, such as one that would consider adding public safety as a consideration, should be informed by data obtained through a statewide survey. “The push needs to be to understand the problems with the use of bail statewide to avoid unintended consequences in places where it’s being used effectively as opposed to ineffectively,” she added, pointing out that different counties employ different practices and that the system is far from a monolith even within New York City’s five boroughs.

There is no cash bail in Washington D.C., where defendants are only detained if they are considered a risk to public safety. It’s considered a model by many advocates of bail reform in New York. But, as Rahman argued, adding risk as a consideration in setting bail could create problems if not studied carefully. “Any change to that is basically change in the sorting mechanism of who stays in and who is released,” she said.

Judge Lippman supports the idea of factoring public risk. So do Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, and they have been criticized for it. The proposal has also held up reform at the state level as different stakeholders struggle to find middle ground. Advocates and legal experts fear that it could deprive defendants of their rights and further institutionalize racism in the judicial system.

Cuomo has not changed his stance since he first included it in his 2016 agenda, according to his office. “The Governor continues to champion comprehensive criminal justice reform, including changes to the state’s antiquated bail system,” said Abbey Fashouer, a spokesperson for the governor, in a statement. “New York is one of only four states in the nation that does not currently take into account public safety risks when making bail and release decisions – and it’s past time to develop a new approach.”

The mayor recently doubled down on his support for the proposal. During a November 7 appearance on NY1’s Inside City Hall, de Blasio spoke of the need for bail reform in the context of the fatal shooting of NYPD Sergeant Paul Tuozzolo in the Bronx just three days prior. Tuozzolo was shot and killed by a man who was out on bail and suffered from mental health problems. It was reminiscent of the October 2015 killing of NYPD Officer Randolph Holder, which the mayor referenced in the interview as well. Holder was killed in East Harlem while pursuing an armed suspect who had earlier been sentenced to a treatment program by a drug court rather than being sent to jail.

“This is a reminder that we need bail reform in the State of New York,” de Blasio told NY1 anchor Errol Louis of Tuozzolo’s murder. “We need to include the question of how dangerous a criminal is in the bail decision because there are times when someone is not – a criminal is not a flight risk, but they are a threat to the community, or they have a profound mental health challenge that needs to be addressed. These issues have to be taken into account and we need a state law that recognizes that bail – judges should have the opportunity to consider the dangerousness of the individual when making a bail decision.”

Peter Goldberg, executive director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, said, as others did, that, “The fundamental problem with how bail operates is that it cages presumptively innocent people for their inability to come up with a certain amount of money.” He warns that replacing it with a system that assesses public safety might ignore that presumption as well.

“There’s a risk that  a system that replaces it will exacerbate existing racial and socioeconomic inequalities,” Goldberg said. “And in any system that looks to judge a person’s dangerousness merely based on the accusation of a crime, the data being used to create that system needs to be made available to the public, to be vigorously validated, but the bedrock principle needs to be the presumption of release.”

As 2017 approaches and with it the next budget and legislative agendas for state legislators and the governor, there’s widespread optimism that bail reform will be a priority. Judge Lippman believes the issue has gestated long enough. “That digestive process has already taken place and it’s time to pick it up and run with it,” he said, confident that his commission’s recommendations will be bold and “out of the box” and will not be politically constrained. “Because of the credibility of the commission, because of the depth of the research...no public official is going to be able to fuzz around these issues,” he said. “That releases some of the political pressure.”

Senator Gianaris is bullish on bail reform as well. “We’ve seen enough injustice,” he said, “that the time has come to take a comprehensive look at this and get rid of bail once and for all.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Much Agreement on Need for Bail Reform, But Little Movement Thu, 08 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Drafting Bills to Regulate Political Nonprofits Like Campaign for One New York http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6545:city-council-drafting-bills-to-regulate-political-nonprofits-like-campaign-for-one-new-york http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6545:city-council-drafting-bills-to-regulate-political-nonprofits-like-campaign-for-one-new-york Kallos

Council Member Ben Kallos (photo: John McCarten for the City Council)


At least three City Council members have made requests to the Council’s bill drafting unit to formulate legislation that would regulate political participation by and with “social welfare” nonprofit organizations. These are political advocacy, or lobbying, groups, which have been the subject of intense scrutiny in New York City of late due to the Campaign for One New York, a political nonprofit established by allies of Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The bills currently being drafted in the Council would increase disclosure requirements for political nonprofits and reclassify the groups under the jurisdiction of the city’s Campaign Finance Board and its rules around donation limits, including by entities with city business.

“Social welfare” or political nonprofits, designated 501(c)(4)s by the Internal Revenue Service, are issue advocacy groups that have been around for decades, but their heavy involvement and influence in electoral politics has been a more recent phenomenon, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in the Citizens United case. In that judgement, the Court recognized unions and corporations as individuals whose political expenditures are a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment. That opened the floodgates to massive independent expenditures in political campaigns and also allowed political nonprofits that advocate, or lobby, on issues to use the unlimited fundraising at their disposal for political means, as long as politics is not their main focus. These groups are tax-exempt and are not required to disclose their donors - thus, their expenditures are often referred to as “dark money.”

Separate from promoting or attacking a candidate for office, these groups also lobby government on any number of issues or agendas.

When allies of de Blasio established the Campaign for One New York to push his progressive agenda it did not take long before questions were swirling around the major donations being given to the group by labor unions, real estate developers, and others with city business. The group’s fundraising activities, the mayor’s involvement, and whether government action was offered or given in exchange for donations to the Campaign for One New York are currently under federal and state investigation. Earlier this year, de Blasio announced that the organization was shutting down - he declared that it had done its job given his administration’s successes around pre-kindergarten and affordable housing policy.

A separate probe by the city’s Campaign Finance Board concluded in July, where the board found that the nonprofit and the mayor had not acted illegally, but criticized the mayor for exploiting loopholes in the campaign finance law. De Blasio has maintained throughout that he and the group followed the letter of the law, while also willingly disclosing donors and expenditures, which is not currently required.

The mayor’s deep connection with the group and its donors, including big moneyed interests with business before the city, have created impressions of a pay-to-play culture at City Hall and led to calls for closer monitoring of such organizations. Certain City Council members are taking up this charge.

Council Members Ben Kallos, Rory Lancman, and Elizabeth Crowley - all Democrats like de Blasio - have each submitted a request that legislation be crafted around regulating 501(c)(4) nonprofits. Kallos’ bill drafting request is “on point” with a recent proposal made by Citizens Union, a government reform group. That proposal would require that 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(3) organizations created at the behest of elected officials to promote their own image or agenda be treated like political committees under the city’s campaign finance laws. This would entail detailed disclosure of contributions and expenditures, limits on contributions similar to those for political candidates, and oversight by the Campaign Finance Board.

“Anytime you’ve got elected officials whose political campaigns are limited in the money they can raise affiliated with 501(c)(4)s that engage in quasi-electoral activities that don’t have the same limits, that is a place we should be paying attention,” Kallos said in a phone interview. Kallos chairs the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations, where the bills would likely be introduced and heard.

Council Member Lancman’s request was along similar lines. He has suggested that 501(c)(4)s face contribution restrictions similar to those imposed on political campaigns, which would also limit the amount of money donated by entities that have business before the city. For instance, in a citywide campaign, an individual can currently make a maximum contribution of $4,950 while an individual with business before the city can only give $400. A citywide candidate can also not accept contributions from corporations, partnerships, or Limited Liability Companies. Under Lancman’s proposal, these limits would apply to 501(c)(4)s as well. He called his proposal a “direct response to the mayor distorting the political process and undermining the campaign finance law.”

“The mayor’s transformation of this loophole into a gaping hole in the campaign finance system is probably unique,” Lancman said in an interview. “To the extent that any other elected would think of [skirting] the campaign finance law by setting up an issue advocacy organization that is for all intents and purposes an extension of the CFB-limited campaign committee, this would be a deterrence.”

The third proposal, Council Member Crowley's, would prohibit candidates who participate in the CFB's public matching funds program from fundraising for 501(c)(4)s established for lobbying purposes. "It’s important the city look at multiple approaches to ensure that candidates who participate in the Campaign Finance Board’s matching funds program run a fair race," Crowley said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "This legislation would work to prevent the influence of unregulated money used by an elected official or candidate for office to push their own political agenda and prevent an unfair advantage."

The progress of the Council members’ bill requests is currently unclear. Both Kallos and Lancman separately indicated that their proposals may conflict with others and that they were unsure of who would finally introduce legislation. While the Campaign for One New York is closing down and appears to no longer be soliciting or accepting donations, the 2017 city election cycle is about to truly take off.

Asked about the status of the bill requests and if City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito had comment on the proposals, spokesperson Eric Koch emailed, “We're going through our normal legislative process.”

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

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been updated with comment from Council Member Elizabeth Crowley.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

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City Council Drafting Bills to Regulate Political Nonprofits Like Campaign for One New York Fri, 23 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Council to Hear Bill Mandating Publication of NYPD Patrol Guide http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6515:council-to-hear-bill-mandating-publication-of-nypd-patrol-guide http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6515:council-to-hear-bill-mandating-publication-of-nypd-patrol-guide Garodnick NYPD

City Council Member Garodnick, in NYPD hat, & colleagues (photo: William Alatriste)


A bill introduced by City Council Member Dan Garodnick to require the NYPD to publish its patrol guide online will be heard for the first time by the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety next week. The hearing, set for Thursday, September 15, follows shortly on the recent controversy over the Right to Know Act, a package of police reform legislation that Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito put on the backburner in favor of related changes the NYPD agreed to implement through training and its patrol guide.

The compromise struck between Mark-Viverito and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton upset some Council members and police reform activists, while also drawing renewed scrutiny to the NYPD patrol guide.

While Mark-Viverito has insisted the Right to Know Act bills are not off the table permanently and some call for Council members to push for their passage without her agreement to schedule a vote, Garodnick’s patrol guide bill is moving forward, and appears to have widespread support. After being heard in committee the bill can be amended and then voted through committee and the full Council - if it has enough support.

While police and government reform advocates alike call for more transparency around police officer conduct, publishing the patrol guide online may be one fairly simple measure that most, if not all, stakeholders can agree on.

The NYPD patrol guide lays out procedures and codes of conduct for police officers, including protocols for interactions with the public. Free but outdated versions of the guide are available online. In 2014, Shawn Musgrave, a reporter for MuckRock, obtained a copy through a Freedom of Information Law request, albeit after significant back and forth with the department. (Local writer and political organizer Keegan Stephan also posted the same version on his blog in April this year.) The current guide can also apparently be purchased online, at this officer uniform store and through this publisher, for between $55 and $70. Garodnick’s bill, introduced in March of 2015, would require the police department to make the full patrol guide available on their website free of cost, but would exclude portions on non-routine investigative techniques, confidential information or any information that would compromise an officer’s safety or that of the public. The police department would have to update the guide each time an amendment is made, clearly noting the changes along with their effective dates. The bill would go into effect 90 days after it is signed into law. 

“The Police Commissioner supports posting the Patrol Guide on the Department's website,” said an NYPD spokesperson in a statement to Gotham Gazette, also confirming that department personnel will testify at the Sept. 15 hearing. (Coincidentally, Bratton’s last day at the NYPD is set for Sept. 16; he announced his retirement earlier this summer. Bratton has often clashed with the Council on police reform and oversight.)

Garodnick called his bill an “important transparency initiative” for the police. “This bill will help build the trust that some feel is lacking between the police and communities,” he said in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette. “It will also add accountability because New Yorkers will be able to know what to expect in interactions with the police and be better equipped to speak up” if there are any violations, he said.

It will also help the police department, Garodnick said, in ensuring that the public understands the rules. Mark-Viverito appears to be backing the bill. “This is part of our continued push to reform the NYPD to make it more transparent,” said Eric Koch, spokesperson for the speaker, in a statement.

Publishing the patrol guide is unlikely to quiet those calling for passage of the Right to Know Act, but it would bring more light to the new directives being given to officers for carrying out street stops, among other updates that have recently been agreed upon, such as the use of civil summonses instead of criminal summonses or arrests for a variety of non-violent, low-level offenses.

Incoming Police Commissioner James O’Neill, who will take over the department when Bratton departs, has said he is fully supportive of the Right to Know compromise.

The legislation in the Right to Know Act would require police officers to identify themselves by name, rank, and command if a street stop does not result in an arrest and requires an officer to obtain consent to search a civilian, a vehicle or house and inform a civilian of their right to refuse consent for a search if there is no probable cause. The bills were strongly opposed by Bratton on behalf of the NYPD, and thus the de Blasio administration. Mark-Viverito did not agree to schedule a vote on the bills, which had a committee hearing on June 29, 2015.

Instead, Mark-Viverito struck an administrative compromise with Bratton to implement aspects of the two bills through department training and the patrol guide. In a recent interview with Gotham Gazette, Mark-Viverito defended the compromise as progress, explaining that the Council had moved the NYPD from its strong opposition toward middle ground. Police reform advocates have criticized the agreement, pointing out that the NYPD is particularly opaque when it comes to its patrol guide.

“Editing training and patrol guide language will never deliver real change on the ground to end the police abuses that the Right to Know Act would help end, and the Speaker’s deal to gut and seek delay of the reforms certainly will not,” said Anthonine Pierre, lead community organizer for Brooklyn Movement Center, in a statement.

Brooklyn Movement Center is a part of Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition. “Transparency is needed on a range of fronts with the NYPD and Council Member Garodnick’s efforts to advance that regarding the patrol guide are positive, but it’s troubling that this transparency bill was not provided with a hearing until public scrutiny of Speaker Mark-Viverito’s deal that lacks transparency and deficiently relies on the patrol guide,” Pierre said. There is no evidence that the hearing comes as a result of the Right to Know Act compromise.

Amid the criticism of the deal, Politico New York recently reported that the NYPD was speeding up its estimated timeline for implementing the compromise by six months. According to Politico, NYPD sergeants were to receive training on updated search protocols as early as August 26 and would relay that to officers in the next few weeks. A second “reinforcement” training was planned for September, with the department expecting the patrol guide to be updated by October 15.

At a recent news conference on the steps of City Hall, government reform group Citizens Union pointed to the lack of transparency with the patrol guide. The group released a set of proposals to improve police accountability; among them, making the patrol guide freely accessible to the public.

“I’m surprised that it even takes a law,” said Council Member Rory Lancman, a vocal proponent of police reform and a co-sponsor of the bill. “It seems obvious that it should be available to the public except in rare circumstances where that compromises public safety.”

Lancman said making the patrol guide public has been an issue for years, and not just since the Right to Know controversy. “One would have thought that de Blasio, on taking office, would have published it without needing to be forced through legislation three years into his term, to do so.”

Lancman expects the hearing to go smoothly and that the bill will receive overwhelming support. “There’s no reason the NYPD shouldn’t be transparent in this way,” he said.

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

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union.

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Council to Hear Bill Mandating Publication of NYPD Patrol Guide Tue, 06 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Change of Commissioner Spotlights De Blasio’s Record on Police Reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6467:change-of-commissioner-spotlights-de-blasio-s-record-on-police-reform http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6467:change-of-commissioner-spotlights-de-blasio-s-record-on-police-reform de blasio nypd tucker bratton oneil et al

photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office


Many believe that the biggest responsibility of the Mayor of New York City is to keep people safe and Bill de Blasio has largely done that, in no small part by letting his lightning-rod police commissioner, Bill Bratton, call the shots on public safety policy. The mayor has focused on pre-kindergarten and affordable housing while Bratton has governed the streets, helping bring crime down to historic lows. At the same time, Bratton has led an evolution of sorts in how his force polices the city, adjusting practices toward the fairer, more equal city de Blasio promised.

“I don’t think any of us could have predicted this much reduction in crime and this much improvement in relationship between police and community simultaneously,” de Blasio said in a recent WNYC radio interview, succinctly making his case and indicating the tough balancing act on safety and reform that he and Bratton have been attempting.

On Thursday, de Blasio and NYPD officials announced that through July, there have been the fewest number of felony crimes, including murders and shootings, and the fewest number of overall arrests, in 20 years.

For some, though, the pace and quality of change has not been nearly enough, and not what critics say de Blasio promised as a candidate for Mayor, when he pledged to “end the stop-and-frisk era,” as his son Dante famously said in a prominent TV ad, and ensure that policing is fair and constitutional in all neighborhoods.

Some point to his decision to hire Bratton, the architect of Broken Windows policing, as a long-ago sign the mayor was not serious about what they call real NYPD reform. On the other side of the ledger, some who saw crime in New York City drop precipitously over the past two decades have sounded the alarm over the reforms that have been instituted under de Blasio, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Bratton in the commissioner’s second stint as the city’s top cop after a ‘90s run.

Throughout his term, de Blasio has been hit from the right and the left over police reform, or the lack thereof. To the right, de Blasio has had strong crime data and Bratton himself, an idol to many more moderate and conservative New Yorkers, to help bat back criticism or warnings of a return of “the bad old days.” To the left, de Blasio has pointed to policy changes and a different set of data, with the mayor and the police commissioner attempting to sell the “evolution” of “proactive policing,” even citing a “peace dividend” of reduced “negative interactions.” The number of arrests for lower-level crimes has dropped by the tens of thousands.

As de Blasio faces re-election next year, he’ll be judged on both how safe the city is and his record as a policing reformer. He and his allies call results in both areas outstanding, while some critics say he’s playing with fire on reform and others say he’s barely tinkered. De Blasio is likely to run in 2017 as both a crime-stopping mayor and a police reformer.

On Tuesday, a major curveball was thrown into the mix. The legendary, polarizing commissioner announced that he will retire next month. At a City Hall press conference, de Blasio heaped praise on Bratton while announcing that he will be replaced by Chief of Department James O’Neill, a veteran officer and “architect” of the NYPD’s new neighborhood policing program.

O’Neill, like de Blasio, is a Broken Windows policing disciple - both true believers in Bratton’s brand of tough, rigid enforcement of low-level offenses in order to prevent more serious crimes that is the controversial fulcrum of the debate over policing in New York. All three - de Blasio, Bratton, and O’Neill - see Broken Windows as evolving and say that the NYPD is changing for the better all the time.

Whether de Blasio is the policing reformer he claims to be is a key piece of the discussion as O’Neill begins his tenure in September and will be a source of debate through next November’s Election Day.

De Blasio’s Case for Reform
“[C]hanges in the police department now are rapid and extraordinary,” de Blasio said at a recent press conference. He was speaking in defense of an agreement between the City Council and his administration, namely the NYPD, to institute changes to the department’s patrol guide instead of passing police reform legislation with broad support. Many City Council members and police reform advocates blasted the compromise, calling into question de Blasio’s commitment to changing the NYPD and putting de Blasio and Mark-Viverito on the defensive.

The mayor took the opportunity to downplay the criticism and make his case as a reformer: “The retraining of all the officers, the neighborhood policing program, the de-escalation techniques that are being taught, the implicit bias training – all of this is happening at once,” de Blasio said. “And because of the [City] Council now, there’s going to be a whole new way to approach a number of these situations,” he added, referring to changes being brought about with respect to police stops of civilians and communication during those encounters.

Alongside the aforementioned numbers of shootings and murders, de Blasio has several other data points to make his reform case: all 34,000 police officers are being trained in de-escalation tactics and will be taught to recognize implicit biases; between 2013 and 2015, marijuana arrests fell from 28,649 to 16,030 and criminal summonses decreased from 424,850 to 297,413; stop-and-frisk incidents dropped from 191,558 to just 22,939; complaints made to the Civilian Complaint Review Board that evaluates allegations of officer misconduct also decreased from 5,388 new complaints in 2013 to 4,460 in 2015 (and there have been 2,347 complaints in 2016 through June).

Arrests for the most serious crimes, felonies like shootings and murders, are up, while arrests for lower-level crimes are down by tens of thousands. At the Thursday press conference to discuss crime numbers for 2016 through July, NYPD officials explained that they continue to heighten their use of precision policing to avoid unnecessary arrests and Bratton reiterated that notion of the “peace dividend,” whereby for minor offenses officers are relying on arrests as a last resort. They ask people to move along from a stoop or corner, encourage them to not to sleep across several seats on the subway, and so on.

Not Enough to Critics
To some City Council members, police reform advocates, and community groups, the mayor’s words ring hollow. Many who focus on the NYPD and have long-called for changes to what they say are discriminatory practices are in agreement that this mayor, who has universally stood behind Bratton and Broken Windows policing, has not lived up to his 2013 platform of police reform. De Blasio, critics say, ceded public safety policy to Bratton, who over-polices communities of color, and that the mayor is a hypocritical politician who would rather appease and compromise than implement wholesale, meaningful reform of the police department.

Bratton says his officers go where the crime is and cites the number of 911 and 311 calls that come from communities of color, including many public housing complexes. Reformers say that behaviors that have been virtually decriminalized in predominantly white communities, like riding a bike on the sidewalk, are still being heavily policed in communities of color.

For advocates across many organizations, such as Communities United for Police Reform and the Police Reform Organizing Project, and other reformers, including some elected officials, meaningful reform is not only fair enforcement in all communities and decriminalization of most low-level non-violent behaviors, but increased accountability for officers who abuse their powers. Systemic change is needed, they say, to pull policing policy out of the vicissitudes of institutional racism, protecting people’s rights in interactions with police and holding the NYPD to a higher standard.

There are calls for defunding the NYPD in order to better fund community outreach and social workers, social services, and education and employment opportunities. De Blasio has significantly increased the NYPD budget, including by adding 1,300 new officers to the force, but he has also devoted millions toward homeless outreach, mental health care, and other services to move away from arrests in many typical street encounters.

De Blasio’s focus has been on training over punishment for officers, wherein he has said that with better-trained officers, there will be far fewer bad actors to hold accountable. He acknowledges that a history of structural racism plagued the NYPD and insists that his administration has taken steps to combat it. “I am looking for the tangible, specific things that we can do to make things better,” he said in a Thursday appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, citing new methods of training and recruitment and giving police officers “a different model of policing to overcome some of the history.”

At a recent press conference, de Blasio his focus on “how you build a different kind of policing – different relationship between police and community paradigm shift, culture change.” He said that “other folks are focused more on accountability” and that “the accountability discussion is real and it’s not only important substantively, it obviously comes with tremendous emotional meaning because there has been so much pain.”

“Both have to happen and both have to give the public confidence in the rule of law,” he said. “But the one that will have by far the greater impact is the former, not the latter.”

Many outside the administration say he should indeed focus on both training and punishment. The City Council recently passed and de Blasio’s signed into law new NYPD use-of-force reporting guidelines. Still, NYPD watchdogs and critics say that officers are not disciplined for bad behavior as often as or to the extent necessary. Complaints to the Civilian Complaint Review Board about officer misconduct are indeed down under de Blasio and Bratton despite a time of heightened awareness about police misconduct.

There are those, including Bratton, who believe that the NYPD is better off without interference from outside quarters and that the City Council regularly oversteps its jurisdiction. At a Nov. 17 Citizens Budget Commission breakfast briefing, Bratton said, “The City Council...depending on the day of the week, is supportive and helpful or obstructive and destructive.” Referring to a number of reform bills that were under consideration by the Council at the time, Bratton said a majority of them were “unnecessary, intrusive and self-serving on the part of particular members of the Council.”

Pushback from the commissioner has slowed some reform efforts and watered down others.

Bratton insists it is better to find common ground on policy changes rather than pass more laws, while Council members bristle at the pushback against their legislative and oversight responsibilities and the power the commissioner wields within the de Blasio administration.

The mayor has made the argument that the new policies that he and Bratton are implementing will create a culture change in the city’s police department and a seismic shift in police-community relations. He has also stressed a strong collaborative effort with the City Council, which has made a significant push for criminal justice and police reform under Mark-Viverito. Even those moves, which include shifting a good deal of low-level non-violent law enforcement from the criminal to civil justice system, are often called insufficient by people who want to see an entirely new policing paradigm in New York. Still, even those reformers almost always acknowledge some progress in the moves being made.

As the mayor heads into his 2017 re-election campaign, he has some opportunity to redefine policing under incoming Commissioner O’Neill and bridge the gap in trust between police and community members that de Blasio, O’Neill, and Bratton all acknowledge continues to exist, though they say they are making strides already. At the center of this is the neighborhood policing initiative that Bratton championed, de Blasio agreed to, and O’Neill has been implementing.

Just after announcing that Bratton would be retiring and O’Neill promoted, de Blasio and the two announced that the neighborhood policing program is expanding further. With 12 more precincts beginning implementation in October, the program will cover a total of 51 percent of citywide commands and 100 percent of housing commands.

Hiring Bratton and Broken Windows
When de Blasio ran for mayor, he was Public Advocate, the elected citywide official tasked with speaking on behalf of New Yorkers who government is not properly serving. He forcefully criticized the NYPD and its over-reliance on the practice of stop-question-and-frisk, which earned him significant goodwill with communities of color and activists who saw an opportunity for change.

The way the NYPD was practicing stop-and-frisk was deemed unconstitutional in a federal lawsuit in August 2013. In part, de Blasio rode a wave of displeasure with the NYPD under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly to victory in the 2013 Democratic primary, then general election for Mayor.

But much of the goodwill de Blasio cultivated began to wither when he hired Bratton to be commissioner of the police department.

“I don’t understand how the mayor’s primary agenda was to end stop-and-frisk and then he hires the architect of stop-and-frisk,” said Dr. Christina Greer, political science professor at Fordham University. For some, Bratton’s appointment was a key indicator that de Blasio wasn’t going to flip the script on policing, but would instead write a new chapter in a mostly congruent story.

While stop-and-frisks began to drop dramatically under Bloomberg given the federal case and heightened scrutiny, a significant reduction has indeed continued under de Blasio. The number of stops fell from a high of 684,330 in 2011 to 191,558 in 2013, to just 22,939 in 2015. The easing of the practice was seen as a necessary way to let air out of the ballooning tensions between the NYPD and communities of color.

Importantly, de Blasio moved to drop the appeal to the stop-and-frisk lawsuit and implement the reforms ordered by the judge, including instituting a police body camera program. The Department of Investigation also appointed an independent Inspector General for the NYPD in March 2014, mandated by a City Council bill that passed over a Bloomberg veto the previous year. In September 2015, the NYPD also introduced official receipts for stops that don’t result in arrests.

“The NYPD has been reformed as an institution in a lot of good ways,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former NYPD officer, now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Notably the easing up of quota-driven policing, and the level of enforcement for enforcement’s sake has been curtailed.”

But even now, those stopped-and-frisked are still overwhelmingly people of color, disproportionate to their numbers in the city population. “Even though stop-and-frisks are down, they haven’t gone away,” said Greer. “It’s better but that doesn’t mean it’s good or great.”

A February 2016 report by a federal monitor, appointed by the judge in her ruling, found that many police officers remained ignorant of the new stop-and-frisk reforms and continued to engage in unconstitutional stops.

Criticism of policing in the city goes well beyond the practice of stop-and-frisk, stretching to the overarching policy of Broken Windows. It is a controversial approach proudly pioneered by Bratton, who previously served as the city’s top cop under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani from 1994 to 1996 and was credited with drastically reducing crime across the city.

Both de Blasio and Bratton regularly stress the evolving nature of Broken Windows, pointing to the current “peace dividend” that yields far fewer arrests and negative interactions between police and civilians, fostering greater trust with communities. When a recent report by the NYPD Inspector General found no direct correlation between increased quality-of-life enforcement and reduced felony crime, many interpreted it as an indictment of Broken Windows even though the report categorically stated otherwise. Bratton aggressively criticized the report and the mayor largely agreed, though in much more delicate terms.

“Quality-of-life enforcement, or Broken Windows as it’s sometimes referred to, is an essential component of policing,” Bratton said at a June 23 news conference where he addressed the report’s findings. “Its essentiality, however, is dependent on how it is implemented. And the mayor and I have made a great deal of effort over these two-and-a-half years to modify it to reflect the changed city.”

As he has done before, Bratton drew a doctor-patient analogy of the NYPD’s role in the city, saying that the “patient” is not as sick as before and that allows him to use “less threatening medicines” to treat the problem.

In a July 26 interview with WNYC on the sidelines of the Democratic National Convention, de Blasio confirmed that he would continue Broken Windows policing even after Bratton’s tenure, while indicating that it must continue to evolve. “There is no room in that strategy for disparate treatment of communities,” he said. “There is no room in that strategy, from my point of view, to leave it stale. It has to be constantly updated in terms of the training of our officers.”

Citing the one million fewer encounters between the police and the community, de Blasio indicated that there was a disconnect between public perception and actual results. “I think a lot of the critique is being answered on the ground by real work, but I think the public debate hasn’t caught up with that fully,” he said.

It’s not a convincing enough argument for proponents of reform, such as Bob Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP), who criticized the mayor for hiring “the author of Broken Windows,” a system that Gangi sees as encouraging “quota driven” policing. He said the mayor has only made superficial changes to the NYPD instead of substantive reform that recognizes institutional, racially biased police practices.

“Broken Windows was introduced by Bratton in 1994,” Gangi said. “It continued under a different philosophical framework under Giuliani and Bloomberg, and de Blasio and Bratton have kept their foot on the pedal. It targets mostly people of color for minor infractions that have basically been decriminalized in wealthy communities.”

Kowtowing to the Commissioner
Perhaps the biggest critique of the mayor has been the extent to which he allowed Bratton to drive policing policy, his unwavering loyalty to Bratton, and his willingness to stand behind the commissioner even in controversy.

“There is no question that the mayor has ceded public safety policy to the police commissioner to an unprecedented degree,” said City Council Member Rory Lancman, another member of the public safety committee and a frequent critic of the mayor, “and it is unhealthy and it is inconsistent with the agenda that the mayor promised to New Yorkers he was going to deliver on when he ran.”

Even if de Blasio claims that Bratton’s policies fall squarely within his own mayoral vision for the police department, their incongruent views at times betrayed differing approaches. The mayor has often been placed in the awkward position of trying to explain the disconnect between Bratton’s rhetoric and his own words. For instance, when Bratton referred to rap artists as “basically thugs” following a fatal shooting at a hip hop concert in the city; the time he said women need to use the buddy system to avoid rape; or when he suggested that the killings of two police officers in Dec. 2014 were a “direct spin-off” of protests against police-involved deaths of unarmed black men. Bratton practically doubled down on the last claim recently, following the assassination of five police officers by a lone gunman in Dallas, Texas, by characterizing the Black Lives Matter movement as practicing a “different kind of bigotry” which portrayed all police officers as racist.

At each occasion, de Blasio demurred or gave slight clarifying comments through his own view, while being careful not to criticize Bratton. The mayor often pushes back again against critics, time and again saying that Bratton is a reformer who has overseen significant changes in policing, including the new de-escalation training for officers and stopping arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Dr. Greer said Bratton has been the mayor’s “Achilles Heel.” “I think as long as we have someone like Bratton in charge, [the NYPD] can only be reformed so much,” she said in an interview just before the announcement of Bratton’s departure. “This is someone who’s consistently used racialized and what I might argue is incendiary language referring to blacks and Latinos in New York City. The most high-ranking NYPD official has his own preconceived notions of particular racial groups.”

bdb bratton oneill tucker nypdWith O’Neill, Greer said in a follow-up interview that there may be an opportunity, both for the mayor and the new commissioner, to start fresh. “[O’Neill] is not coming in with the same baggage as Bratton did,” said Greer. She said Bratton’s departure was not necessarily a “negative break” and that O’Neill should make efforts to establish a positive tone at the start of his tenure. “He doesn’t want to come in and just be Bratton 2.0,” she said. “He has to think critically of what he wants to do in relation to the mayor, the City Council and the community, and what he wants to say and how he wants to say it.” She also said that the mayor now had a chance assert himself instead of deferring to his commissioner.

Council Member Lancman agrees with that sentiment. He has in the past criticized the pattern of diverging messages from the mayor and Bratton, particularly in light of their recent comments on Black Lives Matter. “I’m beginning to wonder,” he said a few weeks before Bratton’s resignation, “whether it’s just some kind of cynical good cop-bad cop, pardon the metaphor, where the mayor is trying to please both sides of New York by the commissioner taking a more right-leaning view of things and the mayor taking a more left-leaning view of things. But it’s unacceptable. It should be one administration. And the mayor promised policies that are not being effectuated and it is in large part because he seems to not have control over his own police department.”

In the wake of Bratton’s announcement on Tuesday, Lancman told Gotham Gazette the city has an opportunity to talk about real police reform, which Bratton often stifled despite his many accomplishments.

“Chief O’Neill now has to establish his own identity and vision and whether or not he is willing to confront issues of over-policing and unequal policing in communities of color,” Lancman said. “And the mayor has to now take ownership of public safety policy in a way that he hasn’t in the last two-and-a-half years.”

Lancman also sees a particular opportunity for the City Council to push forward an agenda of police reform, including passing the Right to Know Act and his bill making chokeholds illegal, “which were blocked by Commissioner Bratton’s obstinate refusal to engage in meaningful dialogue on these issues.”

New Contract with the Community
In June 2015, de Blasio and Bratton unveiled a new vision for the police department, “One City: Safe and Fair - Everywhere. The plan focused heavily on a model of neighborhood policing, interchangeably called community policing, that would create better relationships while also helping to reduce crime.

“This is a modern, advanced, sophisticated approach to neighborhood policing,” said de Blasio, at the announcement. “That’s going to mean the cop on the beat knows community leaders, knows the clergy, knows the rhythms of the community, the needs of the community, where the problems are. And the community is going to know that officer. And they’re each going to feel a tremendous sense of connection and that they’re in it together.”

The plan involved putting more officers on the street, and on the force, made possible by the hiring of 1,300 new police officers at the behest of the City Council. Council Member Jumaane Williams, an outspoken proponent of police reform who sits on the Council’s Committee on Public Safety, agrees with the model and said he’s seen “tangible positive changes” in the department. But he said the city has yet to address the issue of accountability for erring police officers.

“I am happy that at least this administration is talking to us in a way that didn’t happen before,”  he told Gotham Gazette at a recent Council hearing. “That in itself is a plus. But there’s still this notion that any discussion around police reform means you’re anti-police, means you want to somehow handcuff the police and make communities less safe. The people who represent these communities and put these reforms forward are not stupid, they’re not devoid of the pain that’s going on. But I think we’re viewed as people who don’t understand the violence that’s going on there.”

The need for increased accountability is one that others have also expressed. “I support community policing, but to do it cosmetically and still be unaccountable, that’s not changing anything,” said William Burnett, a board member of Picture the Homeless (PTH), an advocacy organization. “That’s just changing appearances, changing optics.”

Burnett believes de Blasio isn’t the reformer he first appeared to be. “I think rhetorically he’s a reformer, but in terms of substantive action, the administration is blocking reform,” he said. “Rhetoric doesn’t have any meaningful impact on people’s lives.”

While he praised the mayor for dedicating substantial resources to dealing with mentally ill people, particularly among the city’s homeless population, Burnett is wary of creating any additional justification for police interactions with homeless people on the streets. He said such interactions have drastically increased and “it has gotten worse.” On May 26, Picture the Homeless and the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint with the New York City Human Rights Commission alleging that the NYPD had violated the Community Safety Act, which forbids bias-based profiling, by profiling people based on their housing status.

Dr. Greer, of Fordham, said one of de Blasio’s biggest accomplishments is his ability to compromise, and the community policing model was a product of that but also a “missed opportunity.”

“Couldn’t we build community relationships without people carrying weapons walking the neighborhood?” she wondered. “And in communities that feel hyper-surveilled already.”

Resisting the City Council
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has made criminal justice reform a top priority. Council members have proposed wide-ranging legislation to introduce more transparency, scrutiny, and accountability of the police department while also reforming the punitive side of the criminal justice system.

It was the City Council that pushed the mayor and commissioner to add 1,300 new police officers to the force, enabling them to put into effect the new neighborhood policing program. The Council recently passed three bills requiring quarterly reports on use-of-force by officers across the city, which members say will be important transparency tools that aid in oversight and accountability. Two other bills, which would create an early warning system for overly aggressive police officers, have yet to pass.

Perhaps the most significant criminal justice victory for the Council was a package of bills, named the Criminal Justice Reform Act, which provides for the prosecution of low-level offenses in civil court, in effect preventing thousands of people from getting a criminal record each year and virtually decriminalizing behaviors like having an open container of alcohol that have led to many thousands of criminal summonses and outstanding arrest warrants. The NYPD will, however, retain discretion in applying civil or criminal enforcement in those cases, which was a result of pushback from Bratton.

As evidenced by the use-of-force warning system bills, the chokehold bill, the CJRA, and more, de Blasio and Bratton have either stalled or diluted legislation that would create increased oversight of the police department or change law enforcement practices.

“The commissioner has declared dead on arrival every police reform bill that the Council has in its hoppers,” said Lancman, “and the mayor is seemingly giving the commissioner a veto on administration policy as it relates to working with the City Council on police reform.”

Even reforms that have been achieved, like the CJRA, Lancman said, owed to the Council “dragging and forcing” the mayor and commissioner to a point of agreement. (Lancman also criticized the mayor’s opposition to his chokehold bill, which would make the practice illegal except in life-threatening situations. The administration instead chose to adopt the bill’s definition of chokeholds but in effect rolled back an existing departmental restriction on the practice, Lancman says, by making it easier for officers to justify their use.)

Council Member Chaim Deutsch, who has been among a minority of Council members to oppose many of the criminal justice reforms passed through the Council, including the CJRA and the recently passed use-of-force reporting bills, said he was nevertheless discouraged that members of the public safety committee have rarely had a chance to meet with the commissioner to engage in constructive dialogue on police reform.

“I think the mayor’s trying very hard to reform and I think a lot of it should be done through collaboration with the members of the City Council and the police commissioner and the community without forcing any type of legislation,” Deutsch told Gotham Gazette. He said, though, that he has repeatedly asked for a one-on-one meeting with Commissioner Bratton to no avail.

John Jay’s O’Donnell also decried the Council’s multiple attempts to push legislation, which he sees as counterproductive to police performance and ultimately recruitment of talented officers. “The sum total of all the people critiquing, second guessing, and demonizing the cops is going to absolutely depress the interests of the best people in going into the department,” he said.

Council Member Vanessa Gibson, chair of the public safety committee, believes the process has been more collaborative between the Council and NYPD. “I think sometimes what a lot of New Yorkers don’t always understand is that they’re our partners,” she told reporters at a recent hearing. “We don’t always agree, but I will say that under this administration, under the leadership of our speaker, we’ve had an incredible amount of cooperation.”

In the wake of the Bratton and O’Neill announcement, though, Gibson did say that she is looking forward to the shift because she knows O’Neill well and believes that he better understands the Council’s legislative role.

The intricacies of the dynamics among the City Council, the mayor and Bratton’s police department were on display around the Right to Know Act, and the agreement between Bratton and Mark-Viverito that would table a vote on the legislation in exchange for changes to the NYPD patrol guide. The details of this ongoing saga are instructive of the larger question around de Blasio as a police reformer.

The Right to Know Act is aimed directly at the type of issues de Blasio promised to address as a candidate: street stops of civilians by police and the relationships between the two groups. The bills would mandate police officers identify themselves by name, rank, and command when a street stop doesn’t result in an arrest and to get consent from a person before searching them during a street stop without probable cause. Officers would also have to inform a person that they have the right to refuse in such instances.

The bills go one step further toward ending unconstitutional stop-and-frisks and are reflective of guidelines put forth last year by President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Bratton publicly derided the bills as another attempt by the Council to meddle in everyday NYPD function. De Blasio cautiously hedged. “There will be a legislative process,” he said at a Nov. 2014 news conference. “In the past, I have raised concerns about that legislation because I want to make sure that we don’t inadvertently undermine the ability of law enforcement to do its job. But there will be a legislative process, for sure.”

That legislative process was pre-empted by compromise and the promise of a revised patrol guide that lays out the rules for consent searches: officers will be retrained to obtain consent for the search of a person, home or vehicle and will be required to provide business cards to people after a search. The deal does not come with the weight of law and the speaker’s decision was seen by many as a backroom deal that not only betrayed the public but also her own members, a majority of whom were in favor of the bills. Advocates directed their ire towards both the speaker and the mayor for undercutting a crucial measure of accountability.

“The recent administration workaround to go around the Right to Know Act shows that [Mayor de Blasio is] committed to a cosmetic fix but not necessarily accountability at the root causes of issues with policing,” said Anthonine Pierre, lead community organizer at the Brooklyn Movement Center, a member organization of Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition that includes dozens of community advocacy groups.

“Bill de Blasio needs to work with the City Council to get stronger legislation and accountability, to actually make reform that affects people’s lives, not just “reforms” that are politically advantageous to him,” Pierre added.

Yul-San Liem, co-director of Communities United for Police Reform’s justice committee, said the mayor has been “acting like a hypocrite” when it comes to police reform. “We’ve seen no meaningful police reform legislation that’s been passed,” she told Gotham Gazette, shortly after a rally on July 13 outside City Hall to call for a vote on the Right to Know Act. “We’ve seen a bunch of statements from City Hall and from the NYPD saying that things are changed but for those of us that are working in communities that are directly impacted, we know that change is not happening on the ground.

The Police and the Mayor
The irony in the debate is that while many reform advocates feel the mayor hasn’t acted enough, there are those who feel he’s overstepped.

The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), the union of rank-and-file police officers, has targeted him for not being supportive enough of the police force and for creating increasingly dangerous conditions for officers on the ground.

It’s a view shared by Heather Mac Donald, the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. Mac Donald rejected the notion that the NYPD is in need of reform and said it is already under multiple levels of civilian oversight. “[The NYPD] is regarded as a paragon across the world of professional, accountable policing,” she said. She insisted that the mayor has “made things a heck of a lot worse,” and characterized his comments regarding a history of racism in policing as “outrageous and ignorant.” She also said the reduction in stop-and-frisk couldn’t be attributed to his policies but were a result of media scrutiny and the federal ruling.

The PBA has multiple problems with the mayor, including ongoing contract negotiations. De Blasio entered office with none of the municipal labor unions working under current contracts and his administration has reached deals with 98% of the workforce. The PBA has not agreed to the same deals the de Blasio administration reached with other uniformed unions, firefighters, sanitation workers, and corrections officers.

Police union leadership and many officers were skeptical of de Blasio when he came into office due to his campaign rhetoric, which many saw as vilifying the police. De Blasio and his allies say the mayor was criticizing departmental policy as dictated by former Mayor Bloomberg and former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, not insulting the members of the department. Nevertheless, de Blasio was seen as more sympathetic to protesters than police after the death of Eric Garner, a black man killed in a chokehold by a white police officer in July 2014, and as offensive when he explained having to “train” his own biracial son to be especially careful in interactions with the police.

When two NYPD officers were murdered in December 2014, not long after de Blasio made the comments about training his son when a grand jury had declined to indict the officer who put Garner in the chokehold, things reached their boiling point. NYPD members turned their backs on de Blasio at the hospital where Detectives Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were taken and at their funerals. The PBA president, Pat Lynch, said de Blasio had blood on his hands and officers engaged in what amounted to a (possibly illegal) work stoppage for several weeks.

Bratton has perhaps been the glue holding things together. The outgoing commissioner has defended de Blasio at every turn even while admitting to low officer morale and a “dislike” for de Blasio among cops. In a Thursday interview with Charlie Rose, Bratton acknowledged the “gulf that still exists between my mayor and my cops,” and said it was a source of major frustration for him as he departs the administration.

'Tomorrow is too late'
“Tomorrow is too late,” said Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, at the July 13 Right to Know Act rally at City Hall, just a few days before the two-year anniversary of her son’s death.

The Garner case, perhaps more than other instances of police-involved deaths of people of color, is emblematic the problems people have with police accountability. The officer who placed Garner in the chokehold, Daniel Pantaleo, was not indicted by a Staten Island grand jury and, two years on, is still the subject of a federal civil rights investigation. He has not been disciplined by the NYPD other than to modify his duty. Commissioner Bratton has said the department’s internal investigation into Pantaleo’s behavior is complete, but that the NYPD is waiting to release its findings and any accompanying consequences until the Justice Department has completed its process. Fingers have been pointed at de Blasio and Bratton for not taking more quick action in the case as well as others involving police use of force.

Those who spoke at the Right to Know Act rally yelled in outrage, questioning whether they could trust the NYPD to implement provisions of the bills through its patrol guide, the same guide that has banned since 1993 the chokehold that killed Garner. “The sense is that if the NYPD says they want to make internal changes in lieu of the City Council passing any laws, they’re just trying to evade accountability,” said Burnett, from Picture the Homeless, also a member of Communities United for Police Reform.

Fordham University’s Greer said the city needs to be “much more swift and severe” when it comes to bad actors in the force, and in training and recruiting officers.

Council Member Deutsch said change needs to “start from the top” of the police department, through department-led change in policy instead of Council-led legislation. Council Member Gibson called it “a big circle that has to work together” on issues of accountability, practices, procedures, and technology.

All agree that the city, the mayor, and the police department have a long way to go in bridging the trust deficit between police and communities. According to public opinion polls, de Blasio’s support among African-Americans remains strong, though many calling for more assertive police reform are people of color. Backing during his re-election bid will in part come down to who the mayor is facing and what their police reform platform entails.

De Blasio and his allies say they are well on their way to making real, lasting police reform progress. Faced with a series of questions over the past two-plus years, de Blasio has repeatedly outlined the steps his administration is taking and said he understands that advocates always want more.

This is true. And strident police reformers are largely disillusioned with the mayor.

“When the city elected de Blasio, a lot of reformers were encouraged given his progressive bonafides and the campaign that he ran,” said PROP director Gangi. “To say that he’s fallen short is a kind characterization.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Change of Commissioner Spotlights De Blasio’s Record on Police Reform Thu, 04 Aug 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Without Key Stakeholders, Administration Supports Council Police Misconduct Bill http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6419:without-key-stakeholders-administration-supports-council-police-misconduct-bill http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6419:without-key-stakeholders-administration-supports-council-police-misconduct-bill jumaane williams

Council Member Jumaane Williams (photo: William Alatriste)


The City Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations heard a bill on Tuesday, sponsored by Council Member Jumaane Williams, which would require centralized reporting of data on police misconduct from multiple agencies to identify systemic problems and help create an early intervention system for the NYPD. To the disappointment of Williams and others, though, key stakeholders to be affected by the bill and instrumental in implementing it if it becomes law, were not present to testify at the hearing.

The bill, Intro. 119, requires the Inspector General for the NYPD, whose office is part of the Department of Investigations, to provide a report every six months on cases of police misconduct, particularly civil cases filed against police officers, in order to develop systemic recommendations on training, disciplining and monitoring officers. Council Member Williams was a co-lead sponsor of the law creating the NYPD IG, which passed over a Mayor Michael Bloomberg veto in 2013.

At Tuesday’s hearing, the city’s Law Department testified in support of the bill, which has been through a number of revisions since it was first heard at the Council two years ago. At earlier hearings, Law Department representatives expressed concern that they lacked the necessary resources to provide the data required and that some of the information may be confidential under attorney-client privilege. The department represents employees of city agencies, including the NYPD, in civil and criminal litigation.

Thomas Giovanni, chief of staff and executive assistant for government policy at the Law Department, said the bill in its current form resolved those issues and “strikes an appropriate balance between the Law Department’s operational capability and its mandate to safeguard the attorney-client relationship with the desire of the public to know more about the performance of the city’s police officers.”

Other than the Law Department, there was no other testimony from the de Blasio administration or related entities. No one testified from the NYPD, the Department of Investigations, the NYPD inspector general’s office, the Civilian Complaints Review Board, or the Commission to Combat Police Corruption. Under the legislation, these agencies would coordinate to provide the required data. The absences of the IG and NYPD were particularly felt, considering the bill aims at reforming the police department and would be executed by the IG’s office.

“Certainly there were questions here that were relevant to the PD, the IG or the DOI, and those questions couldn’t be adequately asked or answered because they were absent,” Council Member Vincent Gentile, chair of the committee, told reporters after the hearing.

Council Member Williams also expressed disappointment that the IG and NYPD failed to show up at the hearing. “I think if they weren’t here, someone from the administration should’ve been here that can answer the questions as a whole because it does apply to more than just the law department,” he said after the hearing.

The Department of Investigation declined to comment for this article. The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.

Last week, an IG report that undermined the belief in aggressive policing of low-level offenses as preventative of felony crimes invited a sharp rebuke from the NYPD and led to an ensuing back-and-forth between the head of the DOI, Mark Peters, and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton. One reporter asked Council Members Williams and Gentile if this might have been a reason behind the absences. “If there is a spat going on,” Gentile responded, “they shouldn’t hold our bill hostage as a result, so to speak. We’re gonna move forward in any regard. It would’ve just been a more complete hearing had they been here.”

(The same reporter, from Crain’s New York Business, said Council Member Rory Lancman, a member of the committee, told her after the hearing that the administration was “contemptuous” of the Council for not being there.)

Representatives from the Legal Aid Society and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund also testified at the hearing. “This bill is an important first step in identifying patterns and trends of police misconduct and has the potential to improve both officer performance and police-community relations,” said Cynthia Conti-Cook, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Special Litigation Unit in Criminal Practice. The two organizations also proposed amendments to the bill to make it more effective. These included expanding the data collected, specifying how civil action data can be used, and ensuring transparency in the collection and analysis of the data.

A concern brought up by Council Members Lancman and Helen Rosenthal was that the city should also collect and examine data on misconduct by precinct and geographical area. Law Department officials said this would be overly cumbersome and even possibly misleading in cases where police officers are assigned to different locations for specific events.

A second-order effect of the bill that emerged at the hearing is a reduction in the city’s expenditure on litigation arising from misconduct cases. Early in the hearing, Gentile cited Mayor Bill de Blasio’s allocation of $4.5 million to the Law Department to fight the increasing number of lawsuits against the NYPD, especially frivolous ones. The Law Department’s Giovanni stressed that this funding was meant for hiring more attorneys to deal with cases faster and more efficiently.

Later, in response to Gentile’s questioning, Giovanni said, “The more efficient information exchange we have, the more clear we are about trends, the more we know about what’s happening, I assume that hopefully more efficient our response will be, and ultimately that means cost savings. That’s the goal.” He estimated these savings would occur at least a year after the bill is approved.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Without Key Stakeholders, Administration Supports Council Police Misconduct Bill Tue, 28 Jun 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Criminal Justice Reform Act is No Alternative to Broken Windows Policing http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6112:criminal-justice-reform-act-is-no-alternative-to-broken-windows-policing http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6112:criminal-justice-reform-act-is-no-alternative-to-broken-windows-policing  bratton times sq group

NYPD ceremony in Times Square (photo: @CommissBratton)


Monday morning the City Council will begin consideration of a series of bills, called the Criminal Justice Reform Act, which would limit the use of criminal penalties to manage a variety of low level “quality of life” offenses such as public drinking, park code violations, noise, and public urination. City Council Member Vanessa Gibson, chair of the public safety committee, said she hopes these changes will reduce the problem of excessive criminalization in communities of color, a sentiment echoed by Council Member Rory Lancman, chair of the courts committee, on WNYC radio last Friday. Lancman noted that too many areas of the city have experienced overpolicing and overcriminalization.

The Act, being spearheaded by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito,  already has broad support in the Council and the endorsement of NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, and thus, Mayor de Blasio. It's encouraging that political leaders in New York City are exploring ways of reducing the impact of the criminal justice system on communities of color, but this package of reforms is at best a baby step, and at worst, may open the door to more racially discriminatory police actions.

The bills, if passed, would create new civil penalty options for these offences by allowing police to choose between a criminal summons and a civil one when encountering an offender, a choice made based on departmental guidelines. The criminal codes remain on the books per Bratton’s insistence, which he says is necessary so that officers can demand identification, conduct searches, and perform background checks.

With a criminal summons, people must appear in summons court and if they fail to do so a warrant is issued for their arrest. Over a million such arrest warrants are currently on the books, leading to numerous unfortunate encounters with the police, such as being arrested on the way to work or to pick children up from school.

The new civil process, to be administered by the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, will be more like traffic court in which people must pay a fine or perform community service, but no warrant will result from failure to comply. Instead, a civil judgement will be issued, which could result in the garnishment of wages or bank accounts, or seizure of property. This might also affect one’s credit rating. None of this will result in incarceration, which is positive, but the penalties can still be substantial, with fines ranging from $25 to $250 for a first offense.

In addition, these financial penalties are likely to fall heaviest on areas where quality-of-life, or broken windows, enforcement is the most widespread, removing resources from already poor communities. While some will escape these penalties through community service programs, many working poor will not.

Vincent Riggins, chair of the public safety committee of Community Board 5 in East New York has actually called for the return of half of all those fines to the local community board to be spent on community development projects. It is a great idea that would reduce the financial incentive that has driven excessive and discriminatory summonsing in places like Ferguson, MO.

Riggins has raised another important point. By leaving these offenses on the books, rather than truly decriminalizing them, the door is left open for the kinds of invasive policing experienced under stop, question, and frisk in recent years. By keeping open alcohol an offense, police will have “reasonable suspicion” to stop anyone drinking a beverage in a bag or unmarked container, potentially leading to exactly the kinds of unwarranted police intrusions that we have worked so hard to reduce. While Bratton rightly touts reductions in police enforcement encounters, racial disparities persist.

Another area of concern is the discretionary nature of the new rules. The NYPD insisted that it would only support the bill if it retained the ability to treat these offences as criminal when officers felt it appropriate. This gives them the ability to demand ID and run people for warrants. But what will determine who gets a civil summons, who gets a criminal one, and who gets run for warrants? There is a real risk that the more punitive practices will become heavily concentrated in exactly those poor, non-white communities that bore the brunt of stop, question, and frisk, and who bear the burden of most criminal summonses and low level arrests now.

Council Member Gibson says that there will be a process of determining policies for guiding officer discretion, and that the City Council is calling for the default to be a civil summons. This outcome, however, is far from assured, since the ultimate decision rests with the NYPD and the officer on the street. Therefore, there is a real risk that the police will perceive the need to take harsher and more invasive action in exactly the same places they do now, with milder penalties reserved for more prosperous parts of the city. If these changes are enacted, this must be monitored closely, something Council Members Jumaane Williams and Mark Levine are proposing through a bill mandating reporting by the NYPD.

Any reduction in the use of criminal penalties is welcome, but this measure retains an adherence to using punitive mechanisms to manage so called quality-of-life problems in keeping with the deeply conservative Broken Windows theory. There is nothing in the bill to develop non-punitive mechanisms for addressing community problems.

As one caller to WNYC pointed out, the current criminal penalties seem to be largely ineffective in reducing the amount of public urination, why should the civil penalties be any more effective? They won’t. The reality is that public bathrooms are largely non-existent in New York City. Other major cities around the world have much more developed amenities in place and have largely avoided this problem. If you don’t want people to pee in public, give them functional and accessible public bathrooms, not a choice between criminal and civil sanctions.

In addition, a lot of quality-of-life problems are driven by pervasive underemployment for youth of color, a lack of positive social activities for young people, and widespread homelessness. While the Mayor and City Council have started to acknowledge the extent of some of these problems, their focus has been primarily on hiring more police and tinkering with what kind of punitive sanctions to use, rather than a major redistribution of resources away from police, courts, and prisons, and towards housing, healthcare, and youth services.

In his book The Silent Black Majority, Michael Fortner shows that the push for criminal justice solutions to community problems was supported by many in poor black communities and my own research on the rise of quality-of-life policing in the ‘90s shows the same thing. But what I also found was that these communities also called for youth centers, improved housing, and better schools, but what they got was only the policing and prisons. It’s time our political leaders quit asking the NYPD for permission to really shift resources away from the criminal justice system and towards improving communities in positive ways.

In Los Angeles, the Youth Justice Coalition has called for redirecting 1% of all criminal justice spending ($100 million) in the county towards youth jobs, community centers, and violence reduction outreach workers. That would be real reform. The Police Reform Organizing Project here in New York is currently exploring a similar initiative on an even broader scale. Crime and disorder matter and need to be addressed, but we must strive to develop affirming rather than punitive solutions whenever possible. If the City Council is serious about reducing the negative impacts of the criminal justice system, it should start by revisiting its decision to expand the NYPD. More police with more discretion is not the answer.

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Alex S. Vitale is associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics. He is senior policy adviser to the Police Reform Organizing Project and serves on the New York State Advisory Committee to the US Civil Rights Commission. You can follow him on Twitter: @avitale

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Criminal Justice Reform Act is No Alternative to Broken Windows Policing Sun, 24 Jan 2016 19:01:27 +0000
Participatory Budgeting Grows in NYC - Why Isn’t Every Council Member Doing It? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5946:participatory-budgeting-grows-in-nyc-why-isnt-every-council-member-doing-it http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5946:participatory-budgeting-grows-in-nyc-why-isnt-every-council-member-doing-it PB NYC East Harlem

PB voting in East Harlem, photo via PB NYC


In four years participatory budgeting has exploded from four to 27 New York City Council districts. With over 51,000 voters casting ballots last cycle to allocate a total of $32 million dollars to projects across the city, New York‘s experiment in direct democracy has quickly become the largest of its kind in North America.

"This is the biggest year of participatory budgeting yet, with 27 Council members asking their constituents to decide how to spend at least $1 million on improvements in their communities...this is truly what democracy is about,” City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, an early PB adopter, said at a recent conference on advancing the city’s progressive agenda.

On Monday, October 26, Mark-Viverito and her colleagues will be recognized for their efforts at a ceremony in Manhattan where they will be presented with an innovation award and corresponding $100,000 prize. Last month, Harvard University‘s John F. Kennedy School of Government recognized the growth and impact of participatory budgeting in New York City by awarding the Council the Roy and Lila Ash Innovation Award for Public Engagement in Government.

The award “spotlights...programs that engage all citizens, particularly those from overlooked communities, and that serve as effective models of participatory democracy for other communities throughout the United States,” says Stephen Goldsmith, the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Ash Center’s Government Innovation Program.

City Council members decide individually whether to run participatory budgeting in their home districts, and exactly how much of their capital budget allocation to devote to public determination, with $1 million the minimum. Capital projects are infrastructure items, like playgrounds, dog runs, and neighborhood benches. They can also include technology for schools, like laptops.

Under Mark-Viverito, who became Speaker in early 2014, the Council has promoted PB expansion and provided greater support through its central staff to those Council members opting in.

With more than half of the City Council’s 51 members now running the program - and much fanfare around it - it is curious to some why all members haven’t adopted the program. In the latest PB cycle, the city's fifth, which began this fall, only three additional Council members signed on, increasing participation slightly from the 24 who ran the program last year, when there was a major jump after an election that saw many new, young, and progressive candidates elected.

What’s holding the remaining Council members back? Gotham Gazette sent emails to representatives of six Council members not running PB, only two of whom responded: representatives of Council Members Rory Lancman, of Queens, and Inez Dickens, of Manhattan (both Democrats), explained their rationale.

One common theme in the two responses is that participatory budgeting provides superfluous community input. There are already sufficient avenues of constituent-Council member interaction, and it is already up to Council members to take constituent opinions into consideration when allocating the funding they have to work with.

“Local community boards, which are composed by local residents and constituents, submit to their local council members their capital priorities, projects, and concerns,” wrote Council Member Dickens’ press secretary, Frances Escano. “As the collective voice of the community, their expressed views on the capital projects that need funding provide a significant input on what needs must be addressed.”

Council Member Lancman‘s reply gets at a concern expressed by other Council members Gotham Gazette has spoken to: the significant staff time and energy that PB requires. "Participatory budgeting takes an extraordinary amount of office time and resources for no discernible improvement in outcomes over working through the existing vast civic infrastructure for public participation,” Lancman said in a statement. “My district does not lack for opportunities and vehicles for community engagement, which I'm proud to say my constituents take ample advantage of."

These responses seem to miss the point, says David Beasley, Communications Director for the Participatory Budgeting Project, the nonprofit that helps run the program. “Participatory budgeting should not replicate the existing power structures,“ he asserted in an interview with Gotham Gazette, “that‘s not what PB is for.“

According to a press release from Speaker Mark-Viverito’s office, the voter demographics from the most recent PB vote (ballots were cast in April at the end of the 2014-2015 cycle) serve as a shining example of this ideal. Nearly 60 percent of PB voters identified as people of color; approximately one in ten were under 18; nearly 30 percent reported an annual household income of $25,000 or below; more than a quarter were born outside of the U.S.; nearly a quarter reported a barrier to voting in regular elections, with one in ten reporting they were not U.S. citizens; and 63 percent identified as female.

Participatory budgeting allows votes from anyone living in the City Council district at hand, with the exception, in most cases, of those younger than 16. Some Council members have allowed those as young as 14 to vote.

In their 2014-2015 Participatory Budgeting Report, released Tuesday, October 20, the Urban Justice Center and PBNYC showcase another telling statistic: 51 percent of PB voters, “were not part of a community group or organization.“ That is to say, it is many voices not present on community boards, PTAs, neighborhood civic associations, et. al. that participatory budgeting incorporates into public discourse. In Council Member Carlos Menchaca‘s Brooklyn district, to give one example, more monolingual, non-English speakers voted for a PB project than did in the general election when Menchaca was chosen in 2013.

The direct democracy, ability to shape one’s neighborhood, and low barrier to entry seem to be the cause of the participation outlined above.

Through a series of public assemblies, residents work with elected officials over a period of eight months to identify neighborhood concerns, create projects to address them, and put the ones with the most interest to a vote.

The practice culminates when district residents fill out ballots to allocate at least $1 million in capital funding toward proposals developed by the community to meet local needs. Absent much of the typical bureaucracy of community politics, participatory budgeting lures previously dormant New Yorkers into the public sphere.

PBNYC, the umbrella organization uniting the City Council, the Participatory Budgeting Project, the outreach nonprofit Community Voices Heard, and 63 community-based organizations across the city, oversees the entire operation; and the coalition continues to launch new ways to wrangle more participants. The organization‘s recently launched “Ideas Map“ is one of their major additions for the just-started 2015-2016 cycle. Anybody who wants to can go online and submit their capital funding idea for their district, specifying the project’s location on the digital outline of NYC. (A tip: participating PB Council districts are lit up, but eager residents can post suggestions in non-PB districts as well. Perhaps a nudge toward more Council enrollment.)

Council Member Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn let on in an interview with Gotham Gazette that Council members‘ decisions to not run PB may be about more than already getting “significant input” from their constituents. Confining community recommendations to established local channels is a way for Council Members to retain their power, Williams said. While legislators can largely choose to reject suggestions from community boards, participatory budgeting completely cedes a portion of a Council member‘s budget to popular vote.

"It's one thing to receive input, it's another thing for someone to actually vote on it and for it to be a binding decision," said Williams, whose district 45 residents last year elected to spend over $300,000 on schools including classroom computers, smartboards, and renovated bathrooms.

Jumaane Williams(CM Williams - photo: William Alatriste)

Council Member Menchaca - whose district 38 constituents cast over 6,000 ballots last year, also allocating funds for a litany of school upgrades in addition to outdoor fitness equipment for Sunset Park - takes Williams' point a step further. Menchaca sees resistance to PB as stemming from an overly cautious, controlling, and outdated form of governing.

“One of the main things that I get in resistance from members or other people...is the fallacy that I am relinquishing power,” Menchaca says, “because I got elected to make these decisions - what am I doing giving it back to the people?...I think that‘s just an old-school way of understanding the role of government and the role of people and the role of democracy, a true participatory democracy that empowers people in decision making.“

While Menchaca is clearly a true-believer, and puts his money where his mouth is, other Council members run the program, but to a more limited degree.

“You may miss some very good projects...if there is no other way to get some things funded,” says Williams, acknowledging that not everything on a PB ballot will get funded.

Lancman‘s other reason for not participating in PB--that it requires “an extraordinary amount of office time and resources for no discernible improvement in outcomes“--may hold the most weight. It is something that other Council members have expressed concerns about in off-the-record conversations.

The $32 million spent last year on participatory budgeting projects represents just .4 percent of the average $7.9 billion spent on city capital projects annually (2003-2012), according to an IBO report. Yet implementing a robust and dedicated PB program drains Council members of a significant amount of effort and resources - during the height of PB season, Council members often have to dedicate one staff member (of units that usually only run about five deep) to PB full-time, with others chipping in part of their time.

“It is a commitment,” says Williams, “there’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. You jump in, you can’t really jump partially in...It touches most of my staff in different ways.“

Menchaca also acknowledges the effort required. “This has to be your priority,” he says, “Everything is built around PB in [my] office. It is at the core of what I do.” Even with this type of attention the council member says, he needs more resources. “I could use another five people to help staff the PB portion of my operations.“

Budget info, as seen in the IBO report, shows that over the course of three years from 2013-2016, Council members are committed to spending $1.765 billion in capital funds. Divided by 51 Council members (though the money is not evenly divided), this comes out to about $34.6 million each over the course of those four fiscal years, or $8.65 million per Council member per year. In that context, $1-2 million toward participatory budgeting in a given year is fairly significant.

The benefits of participatory budgeting also extend outside of its explicit function. The most notable of these benefits, according to the Urban Justice Center report, include better informed policy decisions, increased resident trust in government, and more cohesive community bonds.

On a practical level, needs revealed by the participatory budgeting process can inform and direct further non-PB government spending. In its 2013-2014 report, the Urban Justice Center found that seven out of ten Council members running PB programs used their capital expense funds left over from the PB process to implement projects suggested during PB that did not garner enough support to be selected by constituents.

The same report also suggests how participatory budgeting has the power to affect city-wide change. Following a flood of PB proposals to renovate decrepit school bathrooms, the DOE elected to dedicate $100 million to repair deteriorated lavatories - $50 million more than it had promised. The increase in funding came out to three times the amount spent on all PB-designated capital projects that year.

On top of this, Council members acquire valuable, new community contacts through participatory budgeting. “I‘m developing social networks that didn‘t exist before...and...I‘m utilizing the networks that I‘m building here to deal with the other issues outside of PB,” says Menchaca.

As an example, he cites a recently-made connection with an employee of BioBAT, a bio-tech incubator, “maybe I can get her involved in organizing small-businesses if there is an infrastructure issue,” he said.

Menchaca(CM Menchaca, left - photo: William Alatriste)

The benefits of these new networks go both ways, too, as the Urban Justice Center report found that by working with Council members and city agencies to create and implement capital projects, community members develop greater trust in government. Confident that Council members will be responsive to their input, residents feel free to reach out to their representatives if an issue comes up - even outside PB.

In one case detailed by Beasley, of the Participatory Budgeting Project, this past year Council Member Menchaca was considering a large development project in the middle of a local park. Community members caught wind of the project and pushed back hard. They insisted it would cost too much money. According to Beasley, Menchaca paused, reevaluated the project and said 'I think you‘re right. We have this money in the budget; what should we spend it on to make this park better?'

It is this type of empowerment that Council Member Williams was seeking when he first started his PB program five years ago. “The most important thing that I do is probably pass the budget and that’s the thing that my constituents understand the least,” Williams told Gotham Gazette. “[Participatory Budgeting] was a good meld of empowering and allowing people to get involved in the budget process. It allows them to get their hands dirty.”

Increased public awareness of discretionary funds is something the city could use too. Also known as “member items,“ discretionary funds have historically been one of the most abused pots of City Council money. It was no coincidence that Speaker Mark-Viverito‘s decision to provide centralized funding to PB came in conjunction with several rules making discretionary funds more equitable and transparent.

This summer, Council Member Brad Lander of Brooklyn, also an early PB adopter, launched an interactive map that tracks capital projects in his district, including those funded through PB and not. Lander told Gotham Gazette that "the long-term answers is a citywide system that tracks all capital projects" so that constituents can see the progress of government-funded efforts.

The first years of PBNYC saw expansion by just a few districts per year after the initial class of four. It was only in the fourth year, when, after an election and under Mark-Viverito, the City Council dedicated centralized resources to PB and the number jumped by 14.

In this sense, though, David Beasley doesn‘t see this year’s three district growth as anything abnormal.

Participatory Budgeting, “hasn’t had time to stabilize and really set in,” he said. “It is still almost brand new...For some people PB is an obvious answer, for others they want to see that it works.“

He‘s quick to add, “we think it‘s been proven through the evaluations from the Urban Justice Center...but we‘ll see how the reports continue to go.”

Council Member Menchaca is convinced and sees the growth of PB as inevitable, but that it might take just a couple more years. “I think we need to elect new people,” Menchaca said regarding those who don't run the program in their districts, “[PB] becomes a political strategy for empowerment.“

Gensis-Muelens Dixon, a 13-year-old from the Flatbush area and a constituent of Council Member Williams, is feeling empowered. Together with his mother Taja Dixon, Co-Chair of District 45 Participatory Budgeting, he wants to secure funding to turn an empty plot of land into a community garden.

The pair proposed their idea at Williams' inaugural PB assembly, which Gotham Gazette attended. Their project aims to supply fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as foster the same community spirit the two have come to appreciate through participatory budgeting. As the meeting came to an end, Gensis gave a quick word to Gotham Gazette about his experience in the two years he and his mother have been participating in PB.

"It is really amazing how much people think about their community," he said. "Usually, in this area at least, you would think that some people just don't care and to see that this many people care about these little things in their community is inspiring." 

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by Colin O’Connor, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

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Participatory Budgeting Grows in NYC - Why Isn’t Every Council Member Doing It? Thu, 22 Oct 2015 19:36:43 +0000