NEW YORK — Legendary former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau recalled yesterday how in the 1960s and 1970s police avoided making stops of potential suspects out of fear of retribution.
"That's where we were," he said as he stood with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and a bevy of law enforcement leaders who had gathered at One Police Plaza. They had gathered to voice their opposition to a package of City Council bills aimed, in part, at reining in the New York Police Department's use of stop-and-frisk.
Morgenthau, who was the city's top prosecutor for more than three decades until his retirement in 2009, praised the NYPD's record and said that, instead of pursuing the legislation, the Council should tackle what he called the disproportionate deaths of black men by gun violence.
"What's the City Council going to do about that?" he asked. "If City Council wants to do something that's important, let see how they can reduce or propose a reduction of the murder of African American men."
It was an argument that echoed defenses of stop-and-frisk put forth in the past by Bloomberg and Kelly.
The mayor, for his part, said the bills would be a burden on the NYPD. "What we mustn’t have is what these laws would create: A police department pointlessly hampered by outside intrusion, and recklessly threatened by second-guessing from the courts," the mayor said.
The City Council bills had been stalled in the public safety committee, where the chair, Peter Vallone Jr., opposed it and refused to bring it to a vote. Using a seldom-used legislative procedure known as a "motion to discharge," the Council voted to circumvent the public safety committee today and the bills will now go to the floor for a vote.
The pair of bills aim to strengthen the city's racial profiling ban and create an inspector general to independently monitor the NYPD — potentially setting the ground to reshape police policy.
Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams said New Yorkers who are disproportionally stopped and frisked or who are under police surveillance are already living in a 1960s-like reality as a result of racial profiling by the NYPD.
"We're making our communities trust police," Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams, a co-sponsor of the bill, said, defending the legislation. "I've gone to my community and said we have to view them as community partners."
William's co-sponsor, Brooklyn Councilman Brad Lander, said the bills would improve public safety.
"The bills are simple," Lander said. "When we vote to discharge them today, when we vote to pass them on Wednesday, when we override Mayor Bloomberg's veto when it comes back to us — we will help makes sure that we have safer streets. We will make sure that people's rights are protested and respected. And we will restore the bonds of trust that are necessary for good policing in New York City."
On Monday, the motions to discharge by the sponsors of the Council legislation were met with bipartisan opposition from seven Council members: Queens Democrats Vallone, James Gennaro and Peter Koo joined with Queens Republican Eric Ulrich, as did Staten Island Republicans James Oddo and Vincent Ignizio. Brooklyn Democrats Lew Fidler and Mike Nelson voted against the discharges as well.
It was the first time in the seven-year tenure of Speaker Christine Quinn that a motion to discharge had been brought in the Council. Quinn is opposed to the racial profiling bill, but has said she would support the inspector general bill.
The bills now go to to a floor vote at a second City Council meeting currently scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. As of Monday afternoon, only the inspector general bill has a veto-majority of 35 co-sponsors secured.
The racial profiling bill only has 33 of the same 35 co-sponsors its sister legislation enjoys.
Gotham Gazette intern Daniel Stein-Sayles contributed to this report.