In an attempt to rid New York City streets of gangs and reduce their ability to recruit new members, the City Council approved legislation on Thursday that creates a specific crime for gang initiation activity.
The problem, said opponents of the proposal, is the bill does the exact opposite.
Too broad and too vague, the bill will give the city’s police department another excuse to put innocent kids in jail, the critics charge, creating more tension between police and the communities they are trying to protect.
"I don't think it's going to deter one gang violation," said Councilmember Jumaane Williams. A bill like this, he added, would have sent him on the wrong path as a youth. "The collateral damage isn't worth it," said Williams.
Supporters of the legislation argue it will give prosecutors and police one more weapon to deter violent and harmful gang activity.
"We need to give our prosecutors tools that will aid in prosecuting individuals who engage in activities that put our communities at risk," said Councilmember Maria del Carmen Arroyo, the sponsor of the bill.
The bill was approved by a vote of 38 to 9 with one abstention.
The bill (Intro 1) would create a misdemeanor charge for conducting a gang initiation.
Whether it's harassment, hazing or assault, activity associated with gang initiations is already illegal, said Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr., the chair of the council's Public Safety Committee. What the law does, officials said, is create an extra penalty if that illegal activity is part of a gang initiation. To convict someone of violating the new law, prosecutors would not have to prove that an injury took place during the gang initiation. That means a prosecutor would not need the testimony of any alleged victim to prove the crime occurred, according to city officials.
The bill, supporters said, will not result in innocent youth being targeted by police.
"You can't pull anyone off the corner with this law," said Vallone. "That’s ridiculous."
Advocates and civil liberties groups disagree. According to a letter to the council from a number of civil rights groups, including the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Peter Cicchino Youth Project at the Urban Justice Center, the bill does not tackle the root of gang activity. The bill, the letter charges, is too broadly defined. It defines a gang as an informal or formal group of three or more, where one of the primary purposes is criminal activity. The abuse of that definition would result in the arrest of black and Latino youth for lawful conduct, critics say.
"This law enforcement activity is unlikely to reach criminal gang activity, but will more likely sweep in groups of three or more young people with no gang affiliation," according to the letter to the council. "Parents who call the police out of concern that their kids are being solicited by gangs are likely to find that their children will be subject to police interrogation and, if admissions are made, will face arrest, inclusion in the NYPD's gang database, and quite possibly incarceration and a criminal rap sheet."
The letter urges the council to concentrate on prevention, intervention and educational programs to combat gangs.
The Renters' Blacklist
In addition to the gang bill, the council unanimously approved legislation (Intro 5) tackling an obscure and often under-the-radar tool used by city landlords: the tenant blacklist.
Hundreds of companies comb through housing court violations every year to compile tenant-screening reports, which landlords have used to deny tenants apartments. But unlike credit reports, these companies compile their information by name, not social security number, making way for inaccuracies and errors, said council officials.
On Thursday, the council approved a bill to require landlords to disclose to tenants if they are using a tenant screening report in their selection process and what company they are using. The disclosure allows for tenants to correct any inaccuracies or errors and provide justification for any visit to housing court -- appearances that can be caused by deplorable conditions, not an inability to afford an apartment.
"We are making sure that tenants are fully empowered," said Quinn. "It is hard enough, ask anybody, to find an affordable good quality rental apartment in the City of New York. We don’t want to make it even harder."