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As Gun Violence Increases, So Does Disagreement Over De Blasio's Response

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Mayor de Blasio & NYPD Commissioner Shea (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

As New York City continues to see an increase in gun violence, concentrated largely in Brooklyn and the Bronx, Mayor Bill de Blasio and his police department have gone with a familiar playbook of shifting resources to hot spots, holding gun buy-backs, and coordinating with community groups that seek to prevent shootings in vulnerable neighborhoods. But as shootings and murders have jumped by especially large numbers amid the pandemic, its resulting mass unemployment, and a movement for police reform, the city’s approach is being called into question from the left and the right.

After slowly recognizing the urgency of the spike in gun violence that has hit the city this year, de Blasio, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea, and other administration officials announced a series of steps they said the city would take to combat the problem, all while a battle raged over ‘defunding the NYPD,’ de Blasio and Shea were regularly at odds in public, and President Trump threatened to send in federal troops.

Some activists and elected officials say the plan de Blasio and Shea have offered is stale, utilized repeatedly when shootings have spiked in the past and at best a stopgap solution to a perennial issue, relying too much on throwing more police at a problem rather than addressing its systemic roots. On the right, police unions, some elected officials, and others argue that de Blasio and Shea have handcuffed and demoralized officers by acknowledging racism in law enforcement and police brutality and agreeing to a series of reforms. Even prior to those reforms, however, police had begun to make far fewer arrests – as of August 19, arrests were down by 39%, according to a NY1 report, despite an uptick in shootings that started early this year.

Gun violence has fallen dramatically over decades and some cries to the contrary notwithstanding, New York is nowhere close to the “bad old days” when the city was rife with crime. Except for some relatively minor annual fluctuations at times, shootings, murders, and major crime in sum have generally fallen since the early 1990s, reaching historic lows under de Blasio’s tenure. Overall, the seven categories of major index crimes are even down slightly in 2020, about 2.6% according to NYPD data, compared to last year, though murders, burglaries and car thefts have jumped.

Shootings -- largely done with illegal handguns despite New York’s stringent ownership and carry laws -- tend to spike in the hot summer months and the set of solutions offered by the mayor and his three police commissioners have been similar throughout de Blasio's six-plus years in office. But this has been far from a typical year. As of August 16, according to NYPD data, there had been 896 shooting incidents citywide, an 82.1% increase from 492 in the same time last year. The number of incidents has already surpassed the 772 shootings in all of 2019, which itself was 23 more than in 2018.

There has also been an increase in homicides this year so far, from 199 as of that same period last year up to 259 this year – in 2019, there were 315 murders in total.

Even after being repeatedly pressed on the issue, Mayor de Blasio’s plan has been light on details and results, as a month after he announced it, shootings continue apace. He said on NY1’s Inside City Hall on Monday that gun arrests began to climb last week, reaching similar levels as the same time last year.

Amid the debate over solutions, some have called for what they say is re-empowering the police through less scrutiny, more street stops, and higher incarceration rates. On the other hand, Black Lives Matter and ‘defund the NYPD’ activists who have been pushed to offer their own alternatives to the mayor’s plan have pointed to demands they’ve made for years for greater community investments in lieu of police presence.

De Blasio’s Approach Met by Criticism
On July 17, after months of increased gun violence and just after the particularly horrifying shooting death of a one-year-old in Brooklyn, the mayor announced his “End Gun Violence” program, which included reliable methods from the past – increasing patrols and deploying more detectives to hot spots; organizing gun buy-backs in those areas; sending more Community Affairs Officers to engage with the neighborhoods; increasing coordination between the police department and Cure Violence groups, which are part of the city’s Crisis Management System to prevent gun violence through authentic local voices trained to deescalate; and an “omnipresence” of officers from the Critical Response Group and Strategic Response Group of the NYPD – the SRG is the unit otherwise tasked with responding to terror incidents and civil unrest.

At the announcement, de Blasio emphasized the success the city has had in combining community engagement with targeted policing that the NYPD has employed. “We depend on grassroots efforts to stop violence, like the Cure Violence movement, the Crisis Management System. And we depend crucially on putting our police officers in the right locations with the right approaches and strategies,” he said. “And that's what precision policing is all about. That's what CompStat has taught us for years,” he added, referring to the NYPD’s crime statistics tracking system and departmental accountability paradigm. He’s used analogous approaches in the past few years, when there were upticks in shootings in specific neighborhoods, often under the through the Summer All Out banner signifying deployments.

Police Commissioner Shea noted that the recent violence was also largely localized in particular parts of the city. “We are moving all available resources to those areas,” he said. “You'll see increased foot patrols, as well as officers in uniform, in marked police cars. We'll also be overlaying that with increased technology, everything from cameras that are mobile to license plate readers and everything in between, and all of this is being done to really focus on that small number of people that frankly just don't get it."

To activists, the city’s approach fundamentally misunderstands the factors that underpin crime and gun violence, and skews the balance they would like to see between community-led and police efforts to pursue public safety.

Part of the disagreement stems from what they see as the reason for the increase in shootings and what the mayor, the NYPD, and moderate and conservative elected officials believe.

It’s a time of global upheaval, and the coronavirus pandemic has taken the lives of more than 23,600 New Yorkers (of more than 32,000 across the state). It has forced nearly a million people in the city out of their jobs and bankrupted thousands of businesses, shuttered schools and places of recreation, created fears of a looming eviction crisis, and left thousands of city residents struggling for basic necessities. It has left people stuck at home, idle, fearful, desperate, and angry -- in multiple ways increasing the chances for neighborhood, gang, and crew tensions to escalate, some have noted.

The mayor, while primarily pointing to the effects of the pandemic, which has taken an incalculable toll on New Yorkers, has also placed blame on the courts, insisting that with their closure to in-person proceedings and not calling grand juries, the city cannot prosecute suspects in gun violence cases. That rationale has, however, been debunked. Commissioner Shea has broadly attributed the spike in gun violence to the courts but also to the release of prisoners from Rikers Island during the pandemic and on recent bail reforms approved by the state Legislature (which went into effect January 1 but were later partially rolled back for July 1). Those theories similarly are not backed up in a significant way by available evidence. The mayor has refused to contradict Shea and has largely shied away from reprimanding him publicly, despite those and other false, misleading, inflammatory, or undermining statements.

“These are sort of easily proven lies,” said Katie Schaffer, director of advocacy and organizing at the Center for Community Alternatives, Inc. “But they're also dangerous lies because they are intended to move forward Commissioner Shea’s desire to stymie any kind of liberatory change, de-carceral change, investment in communities rather than in policing and jailing.” Schaffer emphasized that the mayor should stop resisting cuts to NYPD resources and instead restore funding to youth programs and social services cut under the recently-passed budget. “The reality is if you lie about the causes, then none of your solutions will make sense and in fact, they will be actively harmful,” she said.

Republicans and some conservative Democrats say the police have been demoralized and hamstrung by several police accountability measures implemented in the wake of recent Black Lives Matter protests. They point to Shea’s decision to disband the 600-member plain-clothes “anti-crime” units, known for taking guns off the streets in neighborhoods with high crime but, as Shea explained it, also responsible for a disproportionate number of shootings of civilians and disruption of attempts to improve community relations. 

“We should immediately reinstate the anti-crime teams,” said City Council Member Joe Borelli, a Staten Island Republican, in a text message. “If de Blasio wants to call them something else, so be it, but we need dedicated cops to go after those carrying guns on our streets.”

De Blasio and Shea have said that those anti-crime-unit officers, who were reassigned to the neighborhood policing program and the detective bureau, would continue to pursue more targeted policing methods while building more trust in communities. “[T]here's ways to pinpoint the specific individuals who are causing most of the violence and to do that more effectively. I think one of the things the Commissioner came to feel about the ‘anti-crime’ approach was that it was too broad. It was not providing enough focus on the individuals doing the greatest violence and putting together the information needed for successful prosecutions,” the mayor said at a July 21 news conference. 

Critics like Borelli also took particular issue with a City Council-led measure that criminalizes the use of chokeholds and other restraint methods by police. That particular law, they say, is one reason police officers have significantly reduced arrests, leading to a spike in shootings. They have called for the law to be repealed or at least reformed to remove a provision that forbids any maneuver that would compress a suspect’s diaphragm during an arrest. “You have police officers that are paralyzed because the only person likely to become a felon for making an arrest is the officer themselves,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former NYPD officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

But even as the mayor and other officials have expressed openness to adjusting the law, those critics haven’t reconciled the fact that de Blasio only signed that bill into law on July 15. Shootings had begun to increase well before then. They also often don’t take into account that the increase in shootings isn’t unique to New York City, that other major cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, Oakland, Houston, and Denver, to name a few, have seen a similar rise in gun violence.

What Reformers Want
For reformers, particularly activists of color, conservative critiques and the mayor’s response to gun violence amount to reinforcing the adage that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. More crime means more police, rather than more investment in say education, affordable housing, anti-poverty initiatives, workforce and economic development, food insecurity, social welfare and community benefits.

“Police are almost by definition a reactionary solution,” said Mark Winston Griffith, executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center and a long-time police reform activist. “Police show up at the scene after someone has already fired their gun....For the most part, when you're talking about shootings, when you're talking about violence between people, that is caused by a whole series of factors that police almost have nothing to do with.” 

The solutions that the mayor and police commissioner tout are the very things that communities of color are already rebelling against, Griffith said. “If you create a culture of incarceration, which also creates a culture of repression and violence and anger and captivity, then I think that that contributes to shootings,” he said.

Activists like Griffith readily concede that there are no simple fixes. But the city’s knee-jerk policing response, he said, fails to address the underlying socio-economic factors that create the conditions for increasing violence. “When you talk about putting more police on the street, that does not speak to gun violence, it speaks to control,” he said. “It speaks to surveillance. It speaks to punishment and incarceration. It doesn't speak to what leads to someone picking up a gun and deciding that they want to use it on somebody else.”

The pandemic has only worsened the desperation in those communities that have historically suffered from government apathy and where mistrust of police was well ingrained well before George Floyd was killed. While de Blasio has repeatedly pointed to the socioeconomic dislocation of the pandemic when discussing the gun violence crisis, he has often been criticized for moving in too-limited fashion to help spur the city’s economic revival.

In such a situation that the city finds itself, a social problem shouldn’t be met with a police response, said Anthonine Pierre, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition of activist groups. “Safety is not just about keeping a gun from being waved in your face. It's about making sure that I don't feel like I have to wave a gun in someone's face to feed my family,” she said. “What are we doing to make sure that people don't get to the point where they feel like violence is their only option? I think the answer to that is jobs.” Pierre specifically warned of the “storm brewing” as the city could face a second wave of the coronavirus and as the mayor prepares to lay off as many as 22,000 city employees.

Among elected officials of color there are degrees of difference in the response they want to see from the city. There’s consensus that violence interrupters and community outreach workers are valuable in preempting shootings, but varying perspectives on other pieces of the equation. These divisions could also be seen in the debate over defunding the NYPD in the new city budget.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams last month proposed three short-term solutions to gun violence that the city should implement, acknowledging that the NYPD would have to work in close collaboration with community groups to curb the recent increase in shootings. He called for implementing 'Community CompStat' where the NYPD proactively shares crime data with anti-violence groups; pushed for an “Advance Peace” model that would expand the Crisis Management System and provide mentorship and financial incentives to at-risk youth; and urged the NYPD to do its job with “with equity, transparency and accountability” without blaming the recent bail reforms, ‘defund’ debate, and Council legislation for the rise in shootings.

“Those who believe that law enforcement have no role to play in our public safety discussion are wrong,” Willias said. “Those who believe law enforcement is the only role needed in public safety could not be further from reality.”

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former NYPD officer, has pushed for partially reinstating a version of the ‘anti-crime’ unit, if not at a citywide level than at least in certain precincts. “I think that a total elimination is something we need to reevaluate,” he said at a news conference last month, according to a CBS2 report. “Right now, bad guys are saying if you don’t see a blue-and-white [police car] you can do whatever you want.” Adams also praised the work of the CMS and has additionally called for the creation of a tri-state task force to directly address the proliferation of illegal handguns.

City Council Member Donovan Richards, who chairs the public safety committee, said, “The solutions lie within the community. That's just the bottom line.” He did raise concerns about the increased mistrust among communities of color about police leading to lower morale, and a clear slowdown in police activity. Richards has now floated the possibility of amending the police chokehold law (being called the diaphragm law by critics) in exchange for a return to vigorous policing. But he also said the city failed to be ready for the expected consequences of a massive public health crisis.

With people out of jobs and wondering how they will make rent or buy groceries, Richards said “it becomes survival mode, it becomes Game of Thrones out here, right now in real life.”

“So the question is which strategy will the city move towards in the long-term that will prevent something like this happening ever again?,” he continued. “And those safeguards have to be in place before a pandemic...These are largely the things communities were screaming for for decades and no one heard them.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Donovan Richards on Development, Jobs & His Vision for Queens

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City Council Member Donovan Richards (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

August 19, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Donovan Richards on Police Reform, Jobs & His Vision for Queens

City Council Member Donovan Richards, very likely the next Queens Borough President, joined the show to discuss how he plans to operate as borough president and what's next as he chairs the Council's public safety committee.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Can New York Officials Deliver November Election Results in a Timely Fashion?

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"Every Vote Counts" (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography)

While New Yorkers have come to expect challenges in the voting process, they’ve also come to expect "unofficial election night results" rolling in in the hours after polls close -- a tradition that sometimes entails staying up late to find out the winner of a close race, or waking up the next day to a new leader-elect who had been only a hopeful when voters went to the polls.

But with the unprecedented volume of mail-in ballots for the June primary this year, some races took up to six weeks for clear winners to become apparent, during which time uncertainty about the results and fears of what the delay portends for the already-fraught general election reverberated across New York City. With the promise of skyrocketing turnout less than 80 days away, and Governor Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature indicating New York will again greatly expand absentee voting, few of the challenges to the timely counting of ballots have been resolved and representatives of the New York City and New York State boards of elections have said little about what they are doing to improve the process.

In the June primaries, the New York City Board of Elections (BOE) sent 775,000 absentee ballots to voters -- twelve times the number mailed in 2016 -- and received over 400,000 back. In the fall general election, with races for President, Congress, the State Legislature, Queens Borough President, and other offices, the State Board of Elections is expecting as many as 5 million absentee ballots to be cast statewide -- a four-fold increase from the 1.2 million received in the primaries, which strained election infrastructure across the state. With the Electoral College set to formally select the president on December 14, the New York City Board will again have to certify the election results within six weeks of election day, this time contending with vastly more ballots. Even if they can meet the statutory requirements, as some administrators appear confident of, many want to see a tighter timeline.

Lawmakers have passed or proposed a series of bills that would again expand absentee eligibility for Covid concerns as well as others that aim to address problems that arose in the primaries. On August 11, the State Senate and Assembly held a joint oversight hearing where officials raised concerns about preparedness for the fall and mishaps with absentee requests, delivery, and counting in the primaries, which in New York City resulted in 80,000 mail-in ballots being rejected.

The New York City Board of Elections is taking some steps to scale up its absentee counting operations, like purchasing new technology and encouraging people to take advantage of in-person early voting, a nine-day period from October 24 through November 1. Election Day is November 3. But very little is public about what other measures are being taken to prepare for the onslaught of mailed ballots or what resources are available to the board.

To count all the ballots requires personnel, space, and machinery, and to do it quickly means more of everything. That all requires money and a pool of workers, both of which have become hard to come by in a pandemic.

A typical general election costs anywhere from $20 to 25 million, according to the State Board of Elections. For the 2020 general election, administrators expect they will need twice that.

"To do everything, we need $50 million, conservatively," State Board of Elections Co-Chair Douglas Kellner told state lawmakers at the August 11 oversight hearing.

In March, New York State received $20.5 million in federal CARES Act funding to cover election-related expenses that rose due to the pandemic, and counties received an additional $4.1 million in state funds. The State Board of Elections established a grant reimbursement program to distribute the federal funding to local boards, which have spent roughly half of it, according to testimony provided to the State Legislature. It is unclear how much of that has gone to New York City and how much the NYCBOE has spent. Neither the New York City nor State board of elections provided comment or information requested for this story, including about how much money is available to New York City for ballot-canvassing in the general election.

In Fiscal Year 2020, which ended at the end of June (after the primaries), the New York City Board of Elections was allocated $246 million in city funds and saved $31 million by only running one election between March and June, instead of two as had been planned but changed due to the pandemic, according to a spokesperson for the Mayor's Office of Management and Budget (OMB). That budget was nearly twice what was available in FY19, largely due to start-up costs associated with early voting.

In the current fiscal year's budget, which went into effect July 1 and was negotiated during the pandemic, the city allocated $136 million to the BOE. That money is meant to cover the general election this fall and the primaries for city offices set for next June.

"We are monitoring the BOE’s needs, and will make sure that they are properly funded for this year's elections," a spokesperson for OMB wrote to Gotham Gazette.

The extent of the city's canvassing needs are obscure, in part because of uncertainties about potential changes to election rules, either via state legislation or gubernatorial order, and the state of the coronavirus outbreak -- and in part because of a lack of information coming from the city BOE.

One week after the August 11 oversight hearing, the board still has not submitted its written testimony to the Legislature’s elections and governmental operations committees (or to Gotham Gazette after multiple inquiries). In his oral testimony and in response to questions from lawmakers, NYCBOE Executive Director Michael Ryan focused more on obstacles to mailing ballots to voters and the 80,000 ballots that were disqualified than on changes that could improve the ballot count and deliver speedier results.

Asked whether the BOE would be able to certify the election by the deadline for electors to choose the president, Ryan said "yes," without indicating whether any effort would be made to expedite the process.

"The City Board of Elections, long before I got here and since I've been here, has met many challenges and we have always found a way to get the job done, ultimately, despite what some others may think," he said.

Representatives for the State Board of Elections, a regulatory body, have not responded to requests for the information they have on the city board's canvassing efforts and challenges.

Earlier this month, the New York City Board of Elections approved the purchase of mail-sorting machines -- one for each county (borough) -- at a cost of $1.5 million. The machines are capable of opening, sorting, time- and date-stamping, and digitally scanning up to 15,000 ballots an hour, according to Sherwin Suss, the agency's chief contracting officer, in a presentation to commissioners on August 4.

Ryan said the agency was exploring whether it will need back-up machines from the supplier, Neopost USA.

"We will pursue those other avenues of process with the chiefs and deputies and with the vendor to determine what additional pieces of equipment we will need," Ryan said, referring to the leaders of the board's borough offices and Neopost. "We will treat this five as a floor."

The machines, which are set to arrive in October, will undoubtedly ease the BOE's logistical burdens, and their ability to scan ballots alone could save an immense amount of physical labor. In the primaries, "our borough offices copied over 443,000 individual absentee ballot envelopes, which required two pages, so that was almost a million pieces of paper that had to be photocopied for challenges and court cases," Ryan said at the oversight hearing.

Even with the technological upgrades, personnel for the actual counting of ballots, which by law must be done by hand, is still an issue.

"Recruiting personnel to actually physically count ballots is probably the hardest part of our recruiting personnel," said Dustin Czarny, an elections commissioner in Onondaga County and chair of the Democratic Caucus of the New York State Elections Commissioners Association, in an interview. "They need more training and more expertise than, say, a normal election inspector that is at the polls."

"This is not something that can be trained easily -- you learn by doing," he added. There are a number of technical and statutory "quirks" to canvassing ballots, which require training and care, Czarny said. Canvassers have to know how to open and count ballots making sure each vote is properly reviewed, that anonymity is maintained, and that votes are not being disqualified without cause.

"A lot of that has to come through the experience of dealing with absentee ballots, which we've never dealt with on a scale like we have now," he said.

The pool of experienced canvassers is small -- a perennial challenge for administrators -- and shrinking.

Boards of elections often rely on retirees to make up the poll-worker and -inspector pool. With seniors among the most vulnerable to COVID-19, administrators around the state are scrambling to fill vacancies. Czarny hopes that the fact that canvassers generally don't interact with the public will make that specific recruitment easier: "the risk will be less, but whether we can convey that" is another story, he said.

Another obstacle is related to the BOE's bipartisan structure, a vestige of anti-corruption sentiments at the turn of the last century.

In New York State, for every ballot cast there must be a designated Democrat and Republican canvassing each vote. That means boards will need to hire two times the number of ballot canvassers than is physically necessary to tally up the votes, even with the historic surge in turnout expected in the presidential election.

More personnel also means more tables to sort and count ballots, and more space to house them. With the coronavirus pandemic requiring social distancing, the BOE's space needs are growing exponentially.

An executive order signed by Governor Cuomo on August 24 requires local election boards to submit staffing plans, including personnel needs, to the State Board of Elections by September 20, providing an opportunity for the state board to assist if possible.

Statutory Hurdles
Even without resource challenges, there are certain waiting periods built into state election law that, in conjunction with growing absentee voting, will likely delay general election results.

The statutory deadline for boards of elections to accept absentee ballots is seven days after an election, so the actual tally cannot begin until after that time (November 10 this year).

"That's sort of baked into the process," said Sarah Goff, deputy director of the good government group Common Cause New York.

Normally, with a few thousand absentee ballots cast statewide their impact on the final results is trivial, allowing local boards to publish "unofficial" results shortly after the polls close. But with potentially 40 percent of voters voting absentee statewide, the deadline poses a significant obstacle to getting the final outcome with any of the expediency New Yorkers are used to.

Once the seven-day period is up, administrators still can't simply start counting ballots. New York State law permits a voter to vote in-person even if they have cast an absentee ballot, with the in-person vote usurping the mailed ballot. Ensuring the right ballots are being counted takes time.

"Once they hit that seven-day cutoff point in terms of ballots received, they then have to go through this time-consuming, but obviously necessary, process in which they cross-check absentee ballots against folks who voted in person," Goff said, adding that New York is one of the few states that allows in-person voting to override an absentee ballot. "And then they will finally start to count the ballots."

The process could take days, meaning the actual canvassing of ballots may not begin until 10 to 14 days after Election Day, according to Goff.

"Obviously, looking ahead to November, they will be better prepared given that they've gone through this already once, they know what to expect in turns of increased volume, and can sort of roughly project the volume that they are going to see," she said. But the coronavirus pandemic is unpredictable and an uptick in cases could drive up the number of absentee ballots beyond the current estimates.

Cuomo's August 24 executive order will help boards expedite the counting by allowing them to start processing, though not necessarily opening, received ballots before Election Day. The change will speed up the process of settling contested ballots, but won't impact the seven-day post-Election Day period to receive mailed ballots.

Early voting "in the middle of a pandemic"
One thing advocates want to see is a better use of alternatives to absentee voting, particularly early voting, which first rolled out in 2019.

"Early Voting sites were not properly promoted, they promoted absentee ballots," said Sarah Steiner, a New York City-based elections lawyer, of the city's and state's approaches during the primaries. But doing so "would be the biggest thing that I think they should do," followed by establishing additional early voting locations, she said.

In his oral testimony to the State Legislature, Ryan said the BOE would be undertaking a public education campaign around early voting "through social media and other outlets." For the primaries, the Board of Elections expanded the number of early voting sites from 61 to 79 in New York City.

"The board increased -- increased -- the number of early voting sites by 30 percent in the middle of a pandemic," Ryan told lawmakers.

Nevertheless, only about 52,000 took advantage of the option, just 6 percent of the city's total turnout in the Democratic primaries.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this story has been updated with two pieces of information about Governor Cuomo's August 24 executive order, issued after this story originally published.

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