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The New Human Rights Commissioner

by Andy Humm, Apr 01, 2002
 

Patricia Gatling, the new chair of the City Commission on Human Rights, made her first appearance before the City Council's General Welfare Committee, outlining her vision for an agency that now enjoys charter status but that has seen its resources trimmed by more than three-quarters over the last ten years.

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"The mayor is committed to the vigorous enforcement of the Human Rights Law," Gatling told the committee, but her agency has only been given the money to hire seven new lawyers, which would bring the total to 22. While other agencies are reeling from cuts, there may not be much clamor for restoring Human Rights to its pre-Giuliani staffing levels--especially since it is getting a modest increase this year.

"Seven more attorneys is the right direction," said Craig Gurian, author of a scathing report from the Bar Association of the City of New York documenting the chaos at the commission and offering a blueprint for its rebuilding. "But if they're going to litigate cases, they need substantial new funding." He puts the minimum necessary at $20 million annually, up from the present $3.1 million, calling it "what the Police Department spends every nine hours" and reminding us that human rights is a law enforcement function. Some of the funds necessary could come from the commission assessing penalties of up to $100,000 on discriminators, something the previous commissioner was loathe to do. "There will be a price to pay for discrimination," Gatling said. "The commission will not shy away from imposing and publicizing these penalties to maximize their deterrent value." But she told the council that she could not "give a bottom line of how we will be revenue producing."

"After I read the Bar Association report, I was really scared," Commissioner Gatling told Gotham Gazette, in particular about the backlog of 4,500 cases. But those 4,500 are not really all "cases," she said; most of the backlog consists of old "complaints" that have not yet become cases, and may not turn out to be. She is working with the staff to resolve the backlog quickly, having disposed of a thousand in her first few weeks on the job--even as new complaints continue to come in to an agency that has not had a high profile in recent years. "Our goal is to have a maximum one-year limit between the initiation of a complaint and its just resolution," she testified.

New Yorkers with unresolved complaints at the agency are getting detailed letters from the commission. She said that many are grateful to get any kind of acknowledgement. But it will take time to determine if those who believed they were victims of illegal discrimination feel that they have gotten justice under the law. Gatling noted that those who do not agree with the dismissal of their complaints can appeal them to the commission.

Gatling testified that "the commission is a law enforcement agency and as a former prosecutor, I understand this." Two of her chief deputies, Avery Mehlman, for Law Enforcement, and Cliff Mulqueen, for Investigations, came with her from the D.A.'s office. Gurian noted, "They don't have civil rights backgrounds, but they are interested and serious about investigating and prosecuting these cases."

The commissioner also acknowledged their responsibility to educate the public about the agency and to "improve relations among the city's diverse populations." The ability of the commission to do that job can best be assessed when there is another flare-up in inter-group relations, as the city has witnessed in such incidents as the Crown Heights riots of the early 1990s and the attacks on Arab- and Muslim-Americans in the wake of September 11th. She also committed herself to "initiating investigations," the kind of work that looks at systemic discrimination in a particular sector.

General Welfare Chair Bill DiBlasio (D-Brooklyn) pressed Gatling on the backlog of cases. "I'm an experienced prosecutor," she said, invoking her work in narcotics at the Brooklyn District Attorney's office, "and I'm used to dealing with backlogs." She also told DiBlasio that she wanted to start "a more constant testing effort, so that anyone who thinks about discriminating knows that there will be an investigation."

Shortly after the hearing, the Bar Association's subcommittee on human rights met with Gatling and her deputies. Gurian, the chair, said that the commission is now committed to reviewing its backlog by the end of May. "If that does happen," he said, "it doesn't mean that they all will have gone away, but an important triage function will have been done. Meritorious cases or those that need investigation will see the light of day." He also said that Gatling intended to move toward having some non-enforcement staff members take on enforcement functions.

Gurian said that the present plan is for each lawyer to handle 50 complaints a year, some of which will turn into real cases. "That's unrealistic," he said. He believes that when the commission gets a new reputation for taking complaints seriously, the cases will become more complex and time-consuming. He said that plaintiff attorneys will start referring clients such as those with disabilities who were denied reasonable accommodation where the damages may not be that high, but an administrative process at the commission could resolve it.

"They said that they're eager for good cases," Gurian said. "They've started to do testing." The commission hasn't looked for discrimination in recent years. But when it does start finding bias, according to Gurian, "they can't think you can cap the amount of resources" devoted to securing justice. "They understand that they are coming into a situation where the reputation of the agency is sub-optimal. They will have to fight hard to be taken seriously."

Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly Gay USA on Channel 35 on Thursdays at 11 PM.


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