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City Council Considers New Office to Aid Non-Profits


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Council Member Farah Louis (photo: New York City Council)


The New York City Council is considering legislation that would create a new office to assist non-profit organizations in navigating regulations and applying for city contracts and funding.

Council Member Farah Louis, a recently elected Brooklyn Democrat, has proposed legislation that would mandate that the mayor institute an Office of Not-For-Profit Services. The bill is set to be examined by the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations at a hearing on Tuesday.

The legislation, which is thus far co-sponsored by Council Members Helen Rosenthal, Ben Kallos, and Justin Brannan, intends to create a resource center that can help nonprofits tackle the bureaucratic challenges presented by city government. Nonprofit human service providers are a crucial resource for the city, with more than 200,000 employees contracted out to deliver a range of services including housing, mental health care, job training, and care for the elderly, children, people living in poverty, and those experiencing homelessness.

“Across New York City, nonprofits are on the ground, doing vitally important work in schools, senior centers, libraries, and other public spaces, and providing services that our constituents rely on every day,” Louis said in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

But the city’s nonprofit sector has long been in crisis and is headed towards a fiscal cliff. Across the city, nonprofits suffer from perennial delays in the payment of contracts by the city and nonprofit leaders say Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has been slow to respond to their calls for more funding to cover the costs of and related to their services.

A January report from Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office noted that 89% of human services contracts in the 2018 fiscal year were sent to the comptroller for certification after the contract start date. “This is a higher retroactivity rate than the city-wide average, suggesting that non-profit organizations wait longer for their contracts to be submitted for registration than vendors that do business with the City overall,” a summary of the report stated.

A separate study published in April by Seachange Capital Partners, a nonprofit merchant bank, found that contract delays in the 2018 fiscal year became “slightly worse” than the previous year. It found that social service contracts were registered an average of 221 days after their start date, up from 210 days in the 2017 fiscal year; only 11% were on time, slightly better than the 9% in 2017; and 20% continued to be unregistered after one year, marginally worse than the 19% in 2017. The report estimated that the fiscal burden on nonprofits from registration delays was as much as $744 million, up from $675 million in 2017.

“A nonprofit delivering services under an unregistered contract faces a growing cash flow burden associated with the unreimbursed expenses. It must also pay interest and fees on the debt it uses to finance this cash flow need – if it can be financed at all,” the study reads.

Council Members Rosenthal and Kallos cited that study in a July joint op-ed, criticizing the city’s “broken procurement system” and how delays affect nonprofits. “New Yorkers deserve the best services, and the CBOs providing those services deserve to be paid fairly and on time by a city government they can hold accountable. Overhauling the procurement system may be bureaucratic and slow in nature, but it is necessary if we are to properly serve the New Yorkers who are most in need,” they wrote, citing separate legislation they introduced to achieve that goal.

Though leaders in the nonprofit sector credit the mayor for creating the Nonprofit Resiliency Committee in 2016, they say more must be done to ensure the survival of essential partners in city services. Earlier this year, when the City Council and mayor came to an agreement over the $92.8 billion budget for the 2020 fiscal year, they did not include a $106-million funding request from nonprofit service providers.  

Louis’ bill seems intended to address some of the needs of nonprofits, while creating a general structure to ensure more city accountability for support of the sector. She said it would “provide guaranteed resources to anyone seeking to incorporate and successfully maintain a non-profit.”

The proposed Office of Not-For-Profit Services, which per the bill the mayor could choose to house under the executive office or as a separate office, would be charged with analyzing the problems plaguing the nonprofit sector and proposing solutions to them. It would act as a one-stop-shop to conduct outreach and give nonprofits advice and assistance, while also coordinating with other city agencies to refer organizations to services related to obtaining exemptions, waivers, permits, registrations, or approvals. It’s aim would be to simplify application processes and regulatory mechanisms.

“This office will function as a liaison between nonprofits and any city agencies, work to devise solutions to any problems that organizations might have with incorporation, financing, or administration, and keep the Council updated on issues affecting local non-profits,” Louis said.

But the bill does not solve the core issues facing the sector, said Allison Sesso, executive director of the Human Services Council of New York, which represents 170 nonprofits that provide 90% of human services in the city.

“The main issue facing New York City's human services nonprofit sector is not a lack of understanding of the City's policies and contracting processes, it's chronic underfunding,” Sesso said in an email. “While providing nonprofits with educational resources and assistance is a positive goal, it falls flat in a system that is setting those same organizations up for failure. One out of five providers in New York City are technically insolvent and organizations across the City are being forced to scale back services or consolidate just to survive. We need fundamental change to address the underfunded contacts and unfunded mandates that impact services across the City and stifle the wages of the human services workforce.”

Three other bills related to services for nonprofit providers are also being discussed at Tuesday’s hearing. Council Member Antonio Reynoso has proposed creating a nonprofit ombudsperson within the Department of Finance (DOF), and exempting in certain cases the lien sale of property owned by a nonprofit organization.

A bill from Council Member Diana Ayala would require the DOF and Department of Environmental Protection to create a single application form for the nonprofit real property tax exemption and exemptions from water and sewer charges. The third, introduced by Council Member Carlina Rivera, would require DOF to create an informational guide on relevant taxes and exemptions for nonprofits.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Facing Criticism, NYPD Reps Tell City Council Body Camera Program 'A Work in Progress'


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(photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


The NYPD’s body-worn camera policies are a “work in progress,” a police official said at a hearing of the New York City Council’s public safety committee on Monday, seeking to allay concerns expressed by Council members about the program that now includes more than 20,000 uniformed officers. At the hearing, Council members had questions and criticisms about transparency and accountability taking a back seat to surveillance and police authority, particularly with regard to the NYPD’s control over body camera footage.

The NYPD rolled out cameras to every uniformed patrol officer by March of this year and more recently completed equipping 4,000 specialized team officers with cameras as well. It’s a major potential step towards transparency and accountability for a department that has not had a reputation for either. But the implementation of the program has been accompanied by a slew of questions about the footage collected and when, and in what manner, it is released to the public, press, prosecutors, and external watchdogs.

The department only published its “operations order” on public release of footage last month, and that too without a public announcement (Gotham Gazette first reported the order’s existence after repeatedly checking in with the NYPD until a link was provided). The order shows how much sway over the footage the NYPD is retaining, providing several sources of criticism for Council members and other stakeholders.

The policy also makes no reference to releasing footage to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates police misconduct and abuse of power complaints. CCRB requests for footage are often delayed, some for months at a time. Meanwhile, the department turns unedited footage of all arrests over to district attorney offices almost immediately.

“Basic transparency requires someone other than the NYPD to be the gatekeeper of this footage when a member of the public makes a complaint,” said Council Member Donovan Richards, chair of the public safety committee, in his opening statement. “When an oversight agency is dependent on the discretion of the very agency it is overseeing, what you end up with is the wolf guarding the henhouse. We need to do better.”

Richards, a Queens Democrat, is also troubled by the amount of discretion built into the policy on public release, which allows the police commissioner to decide within 30 days to release footage of “critical incidents” when an individual may be killed or severely injured by a police officer, or other incidents of intense public interest.

“The policy reads as a series of vague considerations, not a standard for the commissioner to follow,” he said. “The result is that many people are rightly concerned that the department can decide to release footage only when it looks good for them, and that body worn cameras are in fact being used as another surveillance tool, rather than for the purpose they were intended: for accountability, transparency, and to encourage civil interactions between officers and members of the public.”

Richards’ worries were echoed by several Council members as they peppered NYPD Assistant Deputy Commissioner of Legal Matters Oleg Chernyavsky and Assistant Chief Matthew Pontillo to clarify and improve the department’s body-worn camera policies.

“It's a work in progress,” Chernyavsky said. “We're always learning. I mean, the idea here is to be transparent, and to give the public this vital information with as little delay as possible. If there's ways to do it better, we're certainly open to that.”

Pontillo said body camera policies have been routinely adjusted since the first pilot program in 2015, and they continue to change. “We anticipate in the near future, we will revise the policy again. We’ll probably add a couple of more categories of events that police officers get involved in, like responding to disputes,” he said. “Department policies are always under review. No policy is ever written with the idea that it will exist in perpetuity, but rather, it's an evolution and this whole thing has been an evolution since early 2014 when we began the research.”

Chernyavsky detailed the department’s efforts to balance transparency with privacy as it faces a deluge of requests for footage. Since the launch of body cameras, the department has collected about 8 million videos, he said. On average, each video is about 8 minutes long and 130,000 new videos are uploaded to the department’s cloud video storage each week. These are then accessible to prosecutors automatically.

For the CCRB’s disciplinary investigations, however, the department edits and redacts videos as it deems necessary under state laws. This year, the CCRB has made about 3,700 requests, which generated almost 14,500 responsive videos, Chernyavsky said, up from 2,080 requests in 2018, which led to 6,134 responsive videos. Another 870 request for footage were made this year under the Freedom of Information Law, with roughly 3,000 videos provided in response.

He also emphasized the department’s internal quality control and random auditing process, and said the most recent 28-day audit showed 92% compliance by officers with guidelines in the NYPD Patrol Guide, which include when to turn the cameras on and off.

Another topic of discussion at the hearing was a bill proposed by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams that would place detailed reporting requirements for the NYPD’s body-camera program. Though Chernyavsky said the department was open to collaborating with the City Council to create some form of reporting mechanism, he said Williams’ bill as written was far too onerous.

“The bill would require us to report on data which could not be captured without a trained analyst watching and listening to every recording in its entirety, then conducting an investigation to gather additional data points,” he said in his testimony, noting that the department would need to hire and train about 800 new analysts and investigators to meet that need.

Richards pointed out, as Gotham Gazette has reported, that the CCRB experiences delays in receiving footage, which can be heavily edited, and sometimes has its requests denied outright. “Why do you have to be the gatekeeper? Can't you just give access to the CCRB so they can look for the footage they need to investigate their cases?” he asked.

But Chernyavsky argued that the CCRB does not have the same authority as district attorneys and so is subject to certain restrictions that stem from state laws on privacy. He did say the department is trying to reduce delays as far as possible. “We've been working collaboratively with [the CCRB] to streamline the process even further, and to reduce the turnaround times even more, and we're anticipating that will be able to do that, especially in the near future to hopefully almost eliminate any kind of delay and turnaround time,” he said.

That explanation wasn’t adequate for Council Member Rory Lancman, another Queens Democrat and a longtime critic of certain NYPD practices, who questioned why the operations order on public release did not include a time-bound mechanism for releasing footage to the CCRB. “It's very disturbing to me that this order lacks a clear mechanism for getting BWC footage to the CCRB in a timely manner,” he said.

He also pointed out, as did Council Member Brad Lander after him, that the operation order merely says the commissioner will decide within 30 days whether to release footage of a critical incident to the public. It does not seem to mandate the release, Lancman said. He also questioned whether the policy’s stated guidelines on releasing representative samples of footage would allow the NYPD to create a narrative of incidents that would protect its officers rather than reveal the truth.

Pontillo and Chernyavsky, however, sought to reassure him. “This procedure creates a presumption of release,” Pontillo said. Chernyavsky said representative samples are part of a common sense policy. “What we are striving to do is to give this type of sample, where possible to attach a more comprehensive video to it, when you have a situation where there is just so much video footage that it's not feasible to turn it around that quickly,” he said. “You may have a situation where we're putting out something of great public interest rather than simply being silent for an extended amount of time.”

Several Council members also pushed the police officials to commit to ensuring that body camera footage is released immediately or is at least allowed to be reviewed by the family members of individuals killed in police-involved shootings. They cited two recent examples: the fatal police shooting of Kawaski Trawick in the Bronx in April and the September incident where officers shot one of their own, Brian Mulkeen, and a civilian, Antonio Williams, in a hail of bullets. In both cases, neither Trawick’s nor Williams’ families have been allowed access to footage from officers on the scene. “I do think just families should have access sooner than everybody else,” Public Advocate Williams said. “That seems to make sense to me.”

But the operations order notes that families of those involved would be notified and shown footage only before it is publicly released, as has been the department’s practice. Families do not receive immediate access when they demand it. 

Civil rights and police reform advocates who spoke at the hearing in support of Williams’ bill expressed additional criticisms of the overall body-camera program. 

Jacqueline Caruana, senior trial attorney at the criminal defense practice at Brooklyn Defender Services, said the program is currently being used to the NYPD’s advantage rather than for transparency. “Any legislation that establishes reporting requirements for body-worn camera usage will likely be ineffectual if it does not also impose a consequence for failure to follow them, and if the department itself remains generally unwilling to penalize offices for misconduct,” she said.

Michael Sisitzky of the New York Civil Liberties Union said the NYPD’s total control over cameras and footage undermines the goals of the program. “If it becomes apparent that these cameras are primarily focused on surveillance and tool for prosecution, New York City must be open to reconsidering whether the substantial sums currently spent on this NYPD program could be better invested in our communities,” he said in written testimony.

Lenora Easter, team leader of the early defense team at the criminal defense practice of The Bronx Defenders, urged the Council to close a loophole that allows officers discretion to not turn on their cameras in exigent circumstances. She also pushed for increasing the “buffering period” on officer cameras – the two types of cameras currently used will save 30 seconds and 1 minute of footage prior to a camera being turned on. That extra buffer provides added context to an incident but recorded without audio.

Laura Hecht-Felella, legal fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, said Williams’ bill should be passed alongside the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act, a bill introduced by Council Member Vanessa Gibson to mandate the NYPD disclose information about the surveillance tools it uses. The NYPD has vehemently opposed that bill over the course of two Council sessions.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

East Harlem Community Board to Vote on Resolution Condemning Subway Policing Plan


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(photo: NYPD)


The MTA’s crackdown on fare evasion and homelessness in the city’s subway system, at the behest of Governor Andrew Cuomo and with support from Mayor Bill de Blasio, is facing a chorus of criticism over the criminalization of poverty and targeting largely of New Yorkers of color. Rather than a police response, these issues can be better handled by stronger safety net programs, including discounted Metrocards, and outreach from social workers, some critics say, while others also point out the MTA is in no fiscal position to hire the planned 500 new transit police officers ordered by the governor.

On Tuesday, Community Board 11 in Manhattan is expected to express its displeasure with the plan by voting on a resolution calling for the subway policing plan to be scrapped and for funds to be redirected to communities in need, including $40 million pledged toward hiring police officers by District Attorney Cyrus Vance.

In September, Cuomo pushed the MTA to hire 500 more police officers to address so-called quality of life issues that he said were plaguing the subways. The governor, who has not ridden the subway since December 2016, and only then in a ceremonial journey to open the new Second Avenue line stops, repeatedly insisted that major crime was up on the subway, despite NYPD data showing the opposite, and said more officers were necessary to deal with increasing numbers of individuals experiencing homelessness and finding refuge underground.

Those 500 officers, estimated to cost $56 million in the first year and about $260 million by 2023, were in addition to 500 officers that had already been diverted by the governor and mayor to reduce fare evasion, supported with the $40-million infusion from Vance, whose policy of not prosecuting most fare-evaders had come under scrutiny from Cuomo and others who started to redirect ire over subway performance toward those who evade the fare.

As general criticism was expressed by many, a series of high-profile incidents of aggressive arrests, as well as the handcuffing of two women selling churros in the subway, were captured on video and led to additional public outcry. Just last week in East Harlem, a young black man was tackled to the ground by four police officers for illegally selling candy on a subway platform. The arrest was criticized by State Senator Brian Benjamin and Assembly Member Robert Rodriguez on Twitter.

East Harlem, along with Randall’s Island and Ward’s Island, makes of the core of Manhattan’s Community Board 11. This past Thursday, every member of CB11’s executive committee – except for Jose Altamirano, chair of its public safety and transportation committee – voted to adopt a resolution that calls on Cuomo to claw back the plan to hire the 500 new MTA officers and to reinvest funds into improving public transit. It also calls on DA Vance to divert the $40 million to reentry programs for formerly incarcerated individuals.

“Governor Cuomo’s explicit purpose in hiring 500 additional MTA cops is to police fare evasion, homelessness, and so-called quality of life issues. This is not about public safety,” said Jason Wu, the CB11 member who drafted the resolution, in an email. “When 89% of fare evasion arrests are of people of color and a third of East Harlem residents lives below the federal poverty line, we are talking about a policy that reinforces systemic racism and criminalizing poverty.”

The full community board will vote on the resolution Tuesday evening. Wu said he expects it to pass. The resolution notes that the annual median household income in East Harlem is far lower than the median citywide annual income, that a third of families there live under the federal poverty line and that incarceration rates in the community are among the highest in the city. It’s the kind of neighborhood that would be particularly impacted by the type of crackdown envisioned by Cuomo and the MTA, and in some ways already underway via apparent efforts by the MTA and NYPD. De Blasio has expressed support for the additional 500 MTA police officers, while other top city officials have expressed skepticism or criticism about the plans or the recent subway policing incidents.

“Our elected officials cannot remain silent,” Wu said, promising to push local and state elected officials to similarly reject the governor’s plan. “We need our leaders to defend our community members from police violence and abuse, and if they won't lead on this issue, then the Community Board must.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated to note that the MTA plan to hire 500 new officers will cost $260 million in total by 2023, not annually. 



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