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NYPD Continues Move Away from Criminal Penalties for Low-Level Offenses, But Racial Disparities Remain


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(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


The New York City Council’s effort to reduce the criminalization of low-level, non-violent offenses through legislation passed in 2016 has continued to further achieve its aims for the third year in a row, as the NYPD makes fewer arrests and hands out fewer criminal summonses, opting instead for civil fines. But there remain concerns about racial disparities in law enforcement, as an overwhelming number of citations are handed out to black and Latino New Yorkers.

In 2016, the Council under former Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito passed the Criminal Justice Reform Act, creating civil penalties for low-level offenses that include public urination, open container of alcohol, breaking park rules, littering, and excessive noise. The legislation, signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio after some negotiation by the administration, allowed police officers to instead of issuing criminal summonses give civil fines, which involve a citation and court date but do not lead to jail.

Instead of involvement with the criminal justice system, many thousands of New Yorkers -- often poor, young, black, and/or Latino -- would instead be sent to a civil process through the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, preventing the detrimental effects of even one short trip to jail, the stain of a criminal violation on their permanent records, or arrest warrants in case of absences from court. The Council also worked with district attorneys to clear 644,000 outstanding warrants for those low-level offenses.

After the first report from the NYPD on the implementation of the CJRA, the Council touted a 90% drop in criminal summonses, and the numbers have continued to fall. In 2018, the department issued 89,908 criminal summonses, down from 424,883 in 2013. Through June 30 of this year, there were 44,382 criminal summonses issued, a pace just below last year’s.

The first CJRA report covered the third quarter of 2017, and showed 28,557 criminal summonses issued. In the second quarter of 2019, the number was down to 22,328, a reduction of 6,229. Even compared to the same period last year, there were 1,481 fewer criminal summonses issued.

The CJRA’s effects quickly became clear. In the third quarter of 2017, the NYPD gave out 2,607 criminal summonses for open container of alcohol violations, which dropped to 696 in the second quarter of 2019; public urination summonses fell from 327 to 174; littering summonses fell from 180 to 57.

Even as the city has moved from criminal to civil penalties, civil summonses have also been dropping overall. The NYPD issued only 14,908 civil summonses in the first half of 2019, down from 26,782 in the same period last year. 

Arrests have fallen from 388,368 in 2013 to 246,781 last year.

“The City Council is very proud that the Criminal Justice Reform Act has resulted in significant reductions in the number of criminal summonses given out in New York City for minor offenses that are better dealt with in civil court,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson in a statement. “These summonses don’t belong in criminal court because we’ve seen that they have no impact on crime rates. Unfortunately, there are significant racial disparities with respect to who gets a criminal summons in lieu of a civil summons, resulting in continued concern regarding consistent enforcement. Clearly, we need to address these racial disparities.”

As Johnson noted, enforcement remains uneven. Excluding businesses, 13,702 criminal summonses in the second quarter of 2019 were given to individuals, of whom 1,236 were white; 91% of criminal summonses were given to people of color. For comparison, out of 8,690 civil summonses given out in that same period, 15.3% were issued to whites; nearly 32% to black New Yorkers; 39.2% to Hispanics; and 7.6% to Asians and Pacific Islanders.

According to the latest available U.S. Census data, New York City’s nearly 8.4 million residents are 32.1% white; 29.1% Hispanic or Latino, 24.3% black, and 14% Asian.

Officers continue to use an exception that allows them to give out a criminal summons instead of a civil fine, vaguely citing “law enforcement reason” as a criteria. That criteria -- which an NYPD spokesperson declined to define for Gotham Gazette -- was used in 1,769 of the 22,328 criminal summonses in the second quarter of 2019, about 8% of the time, and up from 672 times in the third quarter of 2017.

There are other exceptions that allow for arrests as well, including having an open warrant or two felony arrests in the previous two years, for having ignored three or more civil summons in the previous eight years, or if an individual is on parole or probation.

An NYPD spokesperson did not address the increase in the use of the catch-all exception or the racial disparities in enforcement, but instead touted the department’s overall success in reducing crime and enforcement. Sergeant Jessica McRorie, a spokesperson for the Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, cited a five-year record that shows street-stops down more than 90%, arrests down by 37.3%, summonses down nearly 79%, and marijuana misdemeanor violation arrests down by 71%, while major felony crime fell by 14.2%.

“The NYPD has shown that we can drive crime down significantly with a far less-intrusive enforcement approach,” McRorie said in a statement. “By building stronger relationships with the community through Neighborhood Policing and a singular focus on violent crimes and those who commit them through precision policing, we have continued to drive crime down to record lows.”

Advocates have for years pointed to racial disparities in policing, particularly when it comes to the low-level offenses that are targeted by the so-called broken windows policing method preferred by Mayor de Blasio and his two most-recent predecessors, which focuses on low-level crime and disorder in the theory that it helps prevent more serious crime.

“In most of these categories, there should be no police involved,” said Bob Gangi, a veteran advocate who ran a longshot mayoral campaign in 2017 on a platform of police accountability and reform. His organization, the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP), regularly releases court monitoring reports that show how New Yorkers of color are overwhelmingly caught up in the criminal justice system for offenses that white New Yorkers are rarely punished for.

“Someone carrying an open alcohol container, who is not drinking, who is not disruptive, who is not in any way causing a threat to public safety or public civility, that shouldn’t be a matter for the police,” Gangi said in a phone interview. “And it’s similar with virtually all the other offenses.”

The police’s involvement in enforcement of these acts, he said, “in effect begins the process of criminalizing people for what are essentially innocuous activities” and the numbers show a “stark racial bias” in that enforcement. He pointed to one major problem with the CJRA itself that leads to this imbalance: that officers continue to have discretion in choosing a civil fine over a criminal summons. “So we have not eliminated the fundamental problem, which is racist policing,” he said. “We've tweaked it, we've modified it to a certain extent, but we have not eliminated it.” 

There are other takeaways from the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings report on the Criminal Justice Reform Act’s implementation. Nearly 20% of the total civil summonses were dismissed for being defective, which often means the ticket was improperly filled out by an officer, missing the date or time of the offense, for example. And a small percentage of people, just under 13%, opted to perform community service instead of paying a fine based on a civil summons.

Council Member Donovan Richards, chair of the Council’s public safety committee, called the latest data a “mixed bag” of results. “Certainly it shows that the department is continuing to recognize that incarceration is not the answer in all cases to reduce crime,” he said. “We still see crime rates going down at historic levels.”

He continued, “It shows the fact that there are those who will cry that when reforms take place, that the world is going to come to an end, but it's not, right?” As he alluded, when the CJRA was first introduced, it was met with opposition from the NYPD, and even Mayor Bill de Blasio, and it took months of cajoling and compromise to get them to agree to passable legislation. In part, then-Commissioner Bill Bratton insisted that the City Council leave the criminal penalties on the books, adding corresponding civil penalties as a preferred alternative, but not removing the possibility of arrest or criminal summons.

“In terms of correcting the [racial] disparities, there's a lot more work that needs to be done,” Richards added. “Certainly...this is a step in the right direction. But the only way to ensure we are building trust with communities and the police department is to ensure that we recognize that these disparities still exist.” Though he commended Police Commissioner James O’Neill for the department’s community outreach efforts, he called for more diversity within the department and its leadership.   

“This city still has a long way to go when it comes to addressing racial division,” he said. “The new Jim Crow is incarceration and I think it's incumbent upon the police commissioner and the mayor to really sit in a room and get serious about this stuff.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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New York City is Waist-Deep in a School Desegregation Conversation - How Did We Get Here?


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(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Earlier this week, the School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG) released its second and final set of recommendations to integrate city schools, a significant development in the current chapter of the city’s response to deep racial and economic segregation in its school system, which is the largest in the country and home to 1.1 million students.

This chapter began in 2014, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education and Bill de Blasio’s first year as Mayor, when a report published by the UCLA Civil Rights Project showed that New York’s was one of the least integrated school systems in the country -- the worst state in terms of white-black segregation and among the bottom three for Latino-white segregation. Much of that segregation was due to the facts on the ground in the country’s largest city.

De Blasio and his administration have been forced to acknowledge that dismal reality in the years since, at first looking to largely sidestep the issue, then beginning with modest proposals to improve diversity in schools and ultimately creating the SDAG at the end of 2017. The administration’s focus on school segregation did not happen immediately following the March 2014 UCLA report, released just three months into de Blasio’s tenure as mayor, and not without pressure from grassroots advocates, students, families, and local elected officials at various stages during the last five years.

The SDAG’s two sets of recommendations, some of which are especially controversial, on top of de Blasio’s previous proposal to take aggressive measures to integrate the city’s eight prestigious specialized high schools, have set off something of a firestorm. They set the stage for challenging decisions that de Blasio will soon make about which recommendations to pursue, including, perhaps, a sweeping overhaul of the city’s “gifted and talented” programs and selective admissions to middle schools. Following will likely be years more of debate about how to desegregate city schools while also improving the quality of education hundreds of thousands of students receive.

Before the next chapter begins, how did we get here?

2012-2013
Some would say the recent history of New York City’s school desegregation debate begins, before the 2014 UCLA report, with a districting proposal that illustrated the complex factors the city would later need to address.

In the fall of 2012, the District 15 Community Education Council approved a school district rezoning proposed by the Department of Education (DOE) under Mayor Michael Bloomberg that would shrink the geographic districts of two popular but overcrowded schools in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and open a new school to serve some of the students who would be cut out. At the same time, the DOE was rebuilding a predominantly African-American 300-seat school in neighboring Community School District 13. For a period of time, both the District 13 and District 15 schools were housed in the same building.

“That sounded sensible, except what they were really saying was, ‘We’re gonna build a building with two doors; into one door will go 300 black kids, and to the other door will go 600 mostly white kids,” said Brad Lander, a City Council member representing parts of both school districts, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

“That was enough for people to wake up in this district and say, ‘That is insane. We will not allow that level of school segregation,’” recalled Lander, who succeeded then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio in the City Council.

After a prolonged battle with the Bloomberg administration, local elected officials, parents, and advocates, the DOE agreed to create a single 900-seat school -- P.S. 133 -- open to students from both districts with a model for inclusive admissions, becoming the first school with enrollment set-asides to increase diversity, according to Lander.

2014-2015
In 2014, six decades after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled racial segregation in schools unconstitutional, the UCLA Civil Rights Project published its report, with research led by Dr. John Kucsera and Dr. Gary Orfield, which stated New York State had “the most segregated schools in the country,” largely due to inequality in the city’s school system.

The report found roughly 66 percent of black students and 57 percent of Latino students attended schools where less than 10 percent of students were white. Some of the worst segregation was in the Bronx, where not a single school’s student body was more than 10 percent white.

“For New York to have a favorable multiracial future both socially and economically, it is absolutely urgent that its leaders and citizens understand both the values of diversity and the harms of inequality,” the report reads.

When asked about the report and the city’s segregated schools, de Blasio initially and for years mostly had a three-pronged answer: one, that school segregation is the result of hundreds of years of history and broader “structural racism” in society; two, that his education programming was focused on improving all schools and thus helping foster integration and reduce the need for desegregation; and three, that if local communities wanted to pursue solutions to desegregate nearby schools, they had his blessing.

He also noted on multiple occasions that families make major decisions and investments based on schools, and indicated he needed to be cautious about more drastic measures that might alter school zoning, enrollment or admissions policies. And, the mayor repeatedly mentioned that in part because of housing segregation, there are many geographic areas of the city home to residents of limited diversity, making local school integration especially challenging without a choice he was not willing to pursue: the New York City equivalent of busing students to achieve integrated schools.  

“The reason we have segregation in our society is about structural racism, is about 400 years of American history and a lot of things that should have been done differently in American history,” de Blasio said later, in 2018. “It’s about economics first and foremost and the fact that economic opportunity is still not open and consistent across different racial groups and ethnic groups and that’s the first problem. That leads to housing segregation and that in turn leads to a situation where our classrooms are not diverse.”

In November 2014, prompted by the UCLA report and the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown decision, the City Council held its first public hearing on school segregation in decades, and led to the passage in 2015 of three pieces of legislation sponsored by Council Members Inez Barron, Brad Lander, and Ritchie Torres, known as the School Diversity Accountability Act.

The UCLA report and the anniversary year “presented an occasion to renew our city and our country’s commitment to desegregation,” Torres, who represents parts of the Bronx, said in an interview. “The fact is that we have the most segregated school system in the country. We have a school system more segregated than the vestiges of Jim Crow in the South.”

The package required the DOE to report annually on demographic data that could be used to evaluate segregation and diversity, and report on what steps the DOE is taking to address those issues. The City Council cannot mandate the DOE adopt specific policies, so Torres sponsored a resolution in the package calling on DOE to develop a plan to combat school segregation. 

“In some ways that call is what SDAG is now, many years later, answering,” said Lander.

“This is a step further in our efforts to ensure that our schools are as diverse as our city and people of all communities live, learn, work together,” de Blasio said in June 2015 when signing the legislative package.

In 2014 and 2015, grassroots advocates, parents, and educators in Community School Districts 1, 3, 13, and 15 became more active organizing around school-by-school, as well as district-level, integration plans. Some of the most vocal desegregation activists, like those in IntegrateNYC, a student-led advocacy group, formed during this period.

They “saw a historic opportunity to renew the campaign to desegregate our school system. It was driven not primarily by elected officials but by grassroots activists, especially students,” Torres recalled.

Activism, panel discussions, and other conversation around school desegregation continued.

In 2015, the DOE took its first steps toward establishing the Diversity in Admissions pilot program, a school-by-school approach modeled on the types of inclusive admissions policies P.S. 133 was employing. The city designated seven schools to participate in the program that year, according to Lander, “and since we have 1,700, that was pretty modest...It was the first official step of them doing anything [but] it was not yet a serious effort to confront segregation across the school system.”

“We were able to create admissions policies that promote diversity and respect the needs of the community. I’m hopeful that these changes will help serve as a model for schools across the City,” said then-Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña in a press release, without explicitly mentioning the issue of segregation.

When Gotham Gazette asked the mayor in November 2015 why he wasn’t taking more aggressive measures to integrate city schools, de Blasio’s response made waves. “You have to also respect families who have made a decision to live in a certain area oftentimes because of a specific school,” de Blasio said.

By this point, the advocacy around the issue was well underway and gaining steam, and the DOE was submitting its first reports required under the School Diversity Accountability Act.

2016
In 2016, much of the public attention and advocacy was focused on district-level plans, where changes could be made on a small scale and tested, especially in areas that resemble a microcosm of the city’s school demographics.

Questions still hovered around whether de Blasio, who ran for mayor on a progressive platform focused on equity -- including bridging racial, educational, and socioeconomic gaps -- would make the issue a priority. (School segregation was not a high-profile issue during the 2013 election, and his campaign did not address it other than de Blasio calling for greater diversity at the city’s eight specialized high schools.)

A “controlled choice” admissions policy -- in which parent/student school choices are balanced with goals of socioeconomic integration -- was proposed in District 1 in the Lower East Side. (In October 2017, District 1 became the first district to push for and win a district-wide model for school integration.)

Asked about pursuing greater desegregation measures and specifically a broader controlled-choice admissions policy during a June 2016 appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, de Blasio demurred.

“We believe there is a lot more to be done in terms of fully integrating our schools, but I do want to say, right now we are seeing some real success with models that are being used right now in our school system that are starting to be very, very effective in terms of bringing in a better mix of kids into some of our schools. I think the pre-K program has also been an example of an initiative that has had a really good impact in terms of diversity. So, we’re looking at a lot of options. I’m committed to it.”

Pushed a bit further, de Blasio said, “There’s different models that we have some real hope in. But let’s be clear...this is also the result of decades, in fact hundreds of years, of segregation in our nation. And a lot of that goes back to economics and housing. Our affordable housing plan, also, we believe, creates more diversity in neighborhoods, and that’s really, obviously, the root of the situation. If we can create more diversity through housing and development, that is another way to get at the schools issue.”

In September 2016, de Blasio was asked by a reporter about pushing more desegregation measures, and said, in part: “[W]e’ve already foreshadowed we’re going to have a bigger vision that we’ll put forward about how we can do diversification work for our schools – something we believe in. But we also want to be clear about the limits of it, and I’m going to be very explicit about this as we present that vision. The problem is not an education problem, the problem is an American history problem. It’s the problem of structural racism. It’s a problem of housing segregation.”

He continued: “Let’s not ask the schools to address all those problems simultaneously – that’s not viable. But there’s ways that we can do better through our schools. And, I certainly think if you talk to parents about pre-K and what it’s done for their kids, it’s been a success. So, we have to – the first mission is always to make the education system work for the kids to achieve onto itself equity and excellence. And it’s crucial distinction – if we want a more just city and a more just nation, then let’s get our school system to live up to a notion of equity and excellence. Separately, we have to do a lot in our society writ large to create more diversity and more opportunity across the board.”

2017-2018
One indication from de Blasio that he would pursue a broader integration plan came with the launch of Equity and Excellence for All in June 2017, which led to the School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG) that would explore solutions for city-wide desegregation, according to Council Member Lander.

The vision’s main focus, however, was expanding course options and resources in underserved (and heavily segregated) schools and districts. The program included initiatives like “Algebra for All” and “AP for All” and other planks of a platform de Blasio said would help improve learning opportunities for students wherever they may attend a city school.

The framework also provided for the DOE to support school districts in developing diversity plans to achieve greater integration, without ever making explicit mention of segregation, according to Lander. 

All the while, de Blasio maintained that through his universal pre-Kindergarten initiative, Renewal School turnaround program, and Equity and Excellence initiatives, he was ensuring there would be “no bad schools,” which would make racial segregation less of a concern and improve the chances of integrated schools.

During a June 2017 appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, de Blasio defended himself against the notion that he was not being bold enough on school desegregation. He said, in part, “Here’s what troubles me when people put the question of diversification ahead of the question of immediate efforts, toward better schools and more equal schools. We’ve got kids right now -- a generation of children right now who need our help. By doing things like Pre-K for All, Advanced Placement courses in all high schools, including ones that never had any – getting kids on grade-level reading by third grade. These are things that got ignored for many, many years...And so, bluntly, inequality grew and grew and grew. I have the tools right now to start addressing this, with the geographical realities and demographic realities we face. That is how we address equity right now while building towards a more diverse and integrated society. But, we’ve got to help kids now.”

In Fall 2018, District 15 in Park Slope, where Lander, Council Member Carlos Menchaca, and Parents for Middle School Equity had been working to change screening policy in middle school admissions, became one of the first districts to be approved and receive funding for integration planning.

“We eliminated screening in the District 15 middle schools. In some ways that is the proposal SDAG is making, to take that to a broader level,” Lander told Gotham Gazette, referring to the recommendations released this week that call for sweeping changes to admissions processes and investments in new enrichment programming.

The SDAG, a group of civil rights activists, students, parents, educators, and other experts appointed by the mayor as he sought reelection, held its first meeting on December 11, 2017. The same month, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced she was stepping down from the post.

At the December 22, 2017 press conference announcing Fariña’s retirement, Gotham Gazette asked her if she regretted not taking on school desegregation more aggressively.

“No,” she said, “I think we’ve done some really good work. There’s always more than can be done on any initiative, but I’m going back to what I said before – you could mandate some things, but having a lot more conversations with people, which is what we’ve been doing...And I think convincing people to come to the table to want to do the right thing for the right reasons is a lot more important, and I think that’s what we’ve been doing.”

She continued; “I certainly feel that our new diversity committee that we just put in place – they just met, I think, last week – has gotten some great suggestions because this is not just us coming with ideas, but what does the community think?”

After a few other thoughts, she concluded: “So you can always do things better. I agree with the Mayor that in our Equity and Excellence the next chancellor should be thinking about going deeper and deeper, but I think we’re on the right path.”

2018
In March 2018, Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho very publicly announced he would not become the new Schools Chancellor a day after accepting the job. That week Mayor de Blasio hired Richard Carranza, a superintendent in Houston and San Francisco schools, to be the next schools chancellor.

“The equity agenda championed by our mayor is my equity agenda,” Carranza said at the City Hall press conference announcing he would be taking the position. Within a month, Carranza was discussing school desegregation explicitly, breaking from de Blasio’s and Fariña’s practice of avoiding the term in favor of the far less defined and loaded concept of “diversity.”

“Without that [shift] we would not be anywhere close to where we are. He has been much more enthusiastic about this issue than the mayor,” Lander said, responding to a recent New York Times article that describes Carranza in his second year as trying to “reset expectations” about the prospect of integration.

In June 2018, two months after Carranza started, he and the mayor announced a proposal to improve diversity at the city’s selective specialized high schools, where enrollment of black and Hispanic students has declined precipitously in the last four decades. The plan included scrapping over three years the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), which is seen as a critical factor in the predominant enrollment of white and Asian students.

The fate of the SHSAT for the three most prestigious of the eight specialized schools is controlled by the state, not the city, and many saw it as a way for de Blasio to take up the issue of school segregation without implicating his administration’s own responsibility in addressing it. That plan faced severe backlash from many parents and students who were eager to keep the rules the same, and was criticized for not having enough community input. It did not advance in Albany in 2018.

2019
A year later, the SHSAT is still the single admissions test for enrollment in eight of the city’s nine specialized high schools (the ninth is a performing arts school). In March, it was reported that only 7 out of 895 seats in Stuyvesant High School’s next freshman class would go to black students. Later that month, as he was considering a presidential run on a progressive platform, de Blasio used the word “segregation” to describe New York’s school system for the first time, according to Chalkbeat.

Discussing specialized high schools during an appearance on WNYC radio, de Blasio told host Brian Lehrer, “We’re saying we’re not going to live by this old system that has perpetuated massive segregation, not just segregation – massive segregation.”

Meanwhile, in February, the School Diversity Advisory Group released its first of two sets of recommendations for the city to improve school integration. The recommendations include adding metrics on diversity and integration to mandated reporting, creating a “General Assembly” of high school reps to assist in crafting a citywide agenda, and monitoring discrepancies in school discipline. Other suggestions dealt with improving culturally-relevant education and engaging communities through local partnerships.

“Although we applaud SDAG’s reference to more ambitious short, medium and long term integration goals by requiring district, borough and then city-wide integration plans, these will only be effective if the City develops powerful metrics for defining integration,” wrote the Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation, a coalition of recently-formed and longstanding civil rights groups, in a statement following the report.

Asked about taking on segregated schools during a February 26 press conference on the “record high” number of city students taking Advanced Placement course, de Blasio said, “[T]here is a much bigger discussion that we will have in this city and we’ve put forward some pieces of it, and there is a lot more to come, on how to make sure our children learn with each other and how to have the most diverse classrooms that we can have. But that should not be mistaken for the primary way or the only way to ensure that kids get a great education. We have kids in every kind of community who are ready to achieve their potential. They need investment. They need high quality teachers. They need the best possible principals. This is the path forward, first and foremost, that’s what Equity and Excellences is all about.”

In June, de Blasio announced the city would be adopting 62 of the initial 67 recommendations. At the time, the report was criticized for not dealing with gifted and talented programs for elementary school children and selective admissions screenings for higher grades, which are seen as among the greatest barriers to integration.

“I wish the focus could largely be kept on reforming admissions. For me enrollment policy is, beyond housing, the root cause of a heavily segregated school system,” Council Member Torres told Gotham Gazette, saying the administration’s preoccupation with specialized high schools diverts attention and political capital from more fundamental issues. 

On Tuesday, SDAG released its second and final report, which among other things recommended the city eliminate its gifted and talented elementary school programs and admissions screenings for middle schools, while adding new enrichment programs to all schools that need them to serve all learners. The new recommendations fell short of proposing admissions policy for high schools be changed, even as they called for other selective admissions practices to be reformed, instead suggesting study down the line after other changes are adopted.

Now it is up to Carranza, and ultimately the mayor, to act on the group’s recommendations. At a press conference Tuesday, Carranza indicated he was eager to review the report, and de Blasio also said he would review it but made no commitment to acting on the recommendations. 

SDAG has left the ball in the mayor’s court.

“We have decided not to be very prescriptive in terms of the recommendations, in part in recognition that New York City is so large, districts differ greatly in terms of their demographics and their needs,” said Amy Hsin, a sociologist at Queens College and a member of the SDAG executive committee, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. 

“So we feel that the DOE needs to work with communities to co-develop an integration plan where communities are stakeholders,” she added. “That’s what we are trying to push the city to do in our reports.”

How de Blasio responds will pose a major test in the final years of his mayoralty, and may significantly shape public discourse during the upcoming race to replace him.

***
by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this story.

Launch of Required City Reporting on Required Reports Shows Gaps in Reporting


council holds oversight

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The New York City Council regularly passes bills mandating that city agencies create reports on their work, ostensibly as part of the Council’s oversight responsibilities. From city jail populations to hate crimes statistics to use of force by police officers, the Council has passed bills requiring a report be delivered to it.

The Council passes so many reporting bills that last year, it passed legislation that would help it track the number of total reports required under local law, the City Charter, or mayoral order. The bill compelled the city’s Department of Records and Information Services to create a central list of every single report required from every city agency, board, or office.

The result: a 57-page document that lists a whopping 842 required reports of various types due at a variety of time intervals. Of those, 490 are listed as not received by DORIS, despite some being producing by agencies on a regular basis, raising questions for Council members about whether agencies are refusing to comply with the law or are overwhelmed with burdensome reporting mandates.

The Council often requests information from city agencies to gauge the effectiveness of city services and programs and to decide on annual budget allocations. City agencies, however, can sometimes be less than forthcoming, necessitating that the Council put the force of law behind their inquiries.

But agencies just as often fall out of compliance with their reporting requirements, which even City Council Members admit can be onerous and time- and resource-intensive. Council Members themselves can forget about their requests once they’ve been legislated. Some have questioned whether passing a “reporting bill” is good for a press release or constituent newsletter but leads to little follow up from the Council members who insist on their importance.

The initial posting of the list, which was due July 1, shows that the mayoral administration, city agencies and boards, and the Council have a long way to go to prove that the reporting bills so frequently passed are actually essential to effective and efficient city government, and getting completed and used.

“Transparency is essential for responsive and effective government. We need accurate and up-to-date information to be easily available to the public,” said Council Member Fernando Cabrera, who sponsored the bill as chair of the governmental operations committee, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. Cabrera inherited the bill from former Council Member James Vacca, who introduced it last session as chair of the technology committee but was term-limited out of office before it passed.

Cabrera said the bill was a response to a review that showed reports from several years either missing from agency websites or unavailable on the DORIS website. His legislation now requires a full list of all such agency reports, the frequency with which they are due, the law mandating them, and the date they were last published.

For example: The Department of Homeless Services’ shelter repair scorecard, due every quarter and last delivered to DORIS on July 15. The Department of Buildings report on injuries and fatalities at construction sites, produced monthly and submitted to DORIS but marked as not received on the list. The Department of Corrections’ latest report on punitive segregation in the third quarter of 2019, available on the DOC website but listed as last received by DORIS in July 2014.

Starting in January 2020, the report will also have to include links to the reports online, and DORIS will be required to request each report from a specific agency if it is not delivered within ten days of its due date.

“People have a right to easily access the information that the law requires be made public. This is about accountability,” Cabrera said.

For some agencies, such as the Department of Education, the Council also has a limited ability to pass new laws dictating policy or procedure, and has to instead rely on requiring greater transparency that can lead to better oversight. “There's nothing more meta than a report on reports,” said Council Member Ben Kallos, a member and former chair of the governmental operations committee and co-sponsor of the legislation, in a phone interview.

“As a legislator, I try to avoid legislation that requires a report, a task force or a study, because they always seem like a waste of time,” Kallos added. “I prefer to focus on legislation that just does things. That being said, with certain non-city agencies, we're left with no other choice.”

The current report includes dozens of city agencies and the information they are meant to publish everywhere from just once to monthly, quarterly, annually, or every two, five or ten years. The Department of Environmental Protection tops the list in number of required reports, with a total of 48; the Department of Transportation is second with 41; the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is meant to produce 35 reports; and the NYPD is mandated to provide 34.

A glimpse at the report of reports might give the impression that agencies are being negligent with their reporting responsibilities, given that 490 of the 842 are listed as not received. But the list is far from perfect. Those reports that are listed as having not been received include many that have been created and are regularly maintained by city agencies on their websites, which is part of the problem that Cabrera pointed to in his statement.

Ironically, the report even notes that DORIS itself has not submitted an annual report “on powers and duties, cost of savings,” as required by the City Charter. 

Jose Bayona, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said the discrepancies stem from processing the hundreds of required reports which, for a small agency like DORIS, is an intensive task. “It takes time,” he said. Reports may have been sent but not included in the list or have not been sent and DORIS has pushed agencies to provide them, he added.

“DORIS continues to expand content on the government publications portal by working with agencies to submit all of their reports, as required by the City Charter,” Bayona said in an email. The publications portal is meant to contain digital copies of every report produced so far by city agencies, commissions, and boards. “The number of reports available on the portal has increased from 4,180 in [Fiscal Year 2015] to 23,089 today.”

On DORIS’ annual report, Bayona explained, “DORIS submits data about its powers, duties and costs in the [Mayor’s Management Report] and considers that to be an annual report. Nevertheless, the Librarians listed the charter requirement for an annual report as a separate document because one of the Council’s requirements is that the Library list all required reports.”

For Council members seeking greater transparency from the administration, the report is illuminating, even with its deficiencies. “I can’t say I’m not disappointed,” Kallos said, pointing to the picture of “rampant non-compliance” that emerges from the report. He said agencies often withhold reports from the City Council that they are required to provide.

“It's no surprise that if they didn't send reports to the City Council, that they didn't follow their charter requirement to submit them to the Department of Records and Information Services. After all, very few people even know that DORIS exists.” He did concede that perhaps agencies themselves are unaware of their responsibility to send reports to DORIS, an issue that this new report might rectify.

Kallos said he often requests reports from agencies which they will send to the Council but not to him, leaving him to track them down. Then, agency officials will embarrass him at City Council hearings. “It's a game of cat and mouse in the very worst way of Tom and Jerry where the mouse actually clobbers the cat,” he said, noting that the DORIS report would help him in those efforts. “If there's a report I can't get my hands on and [DORIS] can't either, then it seems like maybe the agency didn't do their job.”

Council Member Ritchie Torres chairs the Committee on Oversight and Investigations, and he said the report of reports is a valuable tool for the Council’s scrutiny of the administration but might also prompt a more “holistic” review of how the Council requests information.

“Reporting bills can be a powerful advocacy tool for shining a spotlight on a matter of public concern,” he said in a phone interview. “But here's the problem. Even if a reporting requirement has merit, the accumulation of the requirements over time becomes a real imposition on a city agency. The notion that a reporting bill has no fiscal impact is something of a myth.”

Similarly, as the city’s new reporting on reports law went into effect July 1, state legislators in Albany are looking into whether they are imposing burdensome “study bills” on state agencies. Polltico New York reported earlier this month that State Senator James Skoufis and Assemblymember Brain Barnwell plan to introduce a bill requiring an examination of state study bills. “We do need to, as silly as it sounds, study all of these study bills,” Skoufis told Politico.  “Perhaps if nothing else, it will shine a light on this issue and make us think twice about just doing study bills to make a political statement.”

Torres said the Council should refocus on a more demand-based approach to obtaining the reports they need, to ensure that the information being produced is not obsolete.

“Rather than have ongoing reporting requirements that persist in perpetuity, why not make the reporting requirements dependent upon written request from the City Council, from the Speaker or relevant committee chair?,” he said.

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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