Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Even After Delay, Will City Schools Be Ready to Reopen?

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Mayor de Blasio & Chancellor Carranza visit a school (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

September 2, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Even After Delay, Will City Schools Be Ready to Reopen?

Asamia Diaby, an organizer with the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), joined the show to discuss concerns about the city's school reopening plans, remote and blended learning, and more.

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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After Big Dip, City Jail Population Creeps Back Up

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Mayor de Blasio and top NYPD officials (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

In mid-April, Mayor Bill de Blasio took a victory lap as the city’s daily jail population fell below 4,000 for the first time in nearly 75 years. It was a marked drop of almost 1,500 since the city went into lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, and was a result of several factors, including measures the mayor took to release hundreds of detainees whose health was at risk. But the jail population has slowly begun to increase, reaching 4,160 on September 1, as the city heads down a path to normalcy and amid a large spike in gun violence, rollbacks to bail reform laws, and calls by the police commissioner, among others, that too many defendants and detainees were being released.

On March 13, when the city was still coming to grips with the rapidly escalating pandemic, the daily jail population stood at 5,432, according to Department of Correction data compiled by the Vera Institute for Justice. By April 29, it dropped to a low of 3,809 before slowly beginning to increase, crossing the 4,000 mark on August 7. The number of people admitted to jails has fluctuated in that time but was slightly higher in August compared to March.

The recent uptick in the total jail population, according to a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ), has been “driven by more people coming in charged with robberies, guns, and a series of non violent felonies.” Even though arrests have generally dipped this year, by as much as 60,000 according to a New York Post report, the NYPD has recently begun making more gun-related arrests, the mayor and police commissioner have said. Gun arrests are still down about 5.7% through August, according to the Post, despite so many more cases.

Over the course of years the de Blasio administration has taken significant steps to reduce the number of people in city jails. At the start of de Blasio’s first term in 2014, the jail population was 11,289, according to MOCJ. Since then, through a series of administrative measures and legislative reforms at both the city and state levels, including a recent state law that significantly curbed the use of cash bail, there has been a steady decline in that number.

Spurred on by the City Council, the mayor in 2017 announced a plan to close the scandal-ridden Rikers Island jail complex by 2026 and replace it with four borough-based jails, predicated on reducing the population down to 5,000 at least. The new jails are set to be built to hold a total of 3,795 beds, with the intention that only 3,300 people would be detained in the four facilities on any given day.

When the pandemic hit and it became clear that Rikers was becoming a hotspot for infections, the mayor and Governor Andrew Cuomo separately announced plans to release detainees in the jail system; roughly 300 detainees who were serving short sentences were placed into supervised release to serve their remaining sentences at home, while another 500 or so who were being held on technical parole violations were also let out. About 600 pretrial detainees were released through collaboration between prosecutors and judges.

“We have reached a historic milestone, and done so in a way that is both humanitarian and just,” de Blasio said in a statement on April 12, when the jail population fell below 4,000. “This achievement is one part of the overall effort to create a system that is smaller, safer, and fairer for all,” he added.

Advocates for criminal justice reform say the city should not squander what headway it made and should pursue policies that emphasize decarceration, particularly as the pandemic progresses and the city could see a second wave of the coronavirus.

“What we're kind of seeing now is that there was a lot of pressure initially to keep people out of jail, obviously very dangerous congregate settings, and that’s changed...Just more people are being sent to jail now than there were before,” said Nick Malinowski, civil rights campaigns director of VOCAL-NY, an advocacy group and service provider.

As Malinowski pointed out, the court system has been partially stalled by the pandemic, which means that detainees have little recourse of being released even as arraignments continue. While the mayor has called for the courts to resume full operations, it’s because he believes it will help stem a recent uptick in gun violence. Along with NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea, de Blasio has said that prosecutions of gun arrests cannot be completed because grand juries cannot be convened.

“The intention from the mayor's office and the police commissioner's office of sort of provoking the court to start stacking people in there for misdemeanors again was not to move cases for people who are incarcerated,” Malinowski said.

Public defenders have also said that the suspension of grand juries has simply meant that some individuals are being detained for longer. "To the extent that the court is not functioning to its full capacity, the result is more people being held in jail than previously would have been,” said Alice Fontier, managing director for Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, in an interview with Gotham Gazette in late July. To add to that, people continue to be sent back to jail for technical parole violations, as The City recently reported.

City Council Member Keith Powers, chair of the Council’s Criminal Justice Committee, said the state Legislature needs to approve a bill that would limit detention for those types of minor violations. “I have long advocated for the passage of the Less is More Act, which would help to reduce the jail population and reduce the detainment of people in on technical parole violations,” he said in a statement. “I urge Albany to pass that legislation as soon as possible before a potential second wave of COVID-19.” On September 21, Powers’ committee will hold an oversight hearing to examine how the Department of Correction has responded to the Covid-19 crisis.

What worries reform advocates is that the mayor and commissioner continue to question policies that would reduce the city’s reliance on incarceration as a public safety solution. Police Commissioner Shea, for instance, in a July 6 interview on NY1 blamed the rise in gun violence in part on the release of detainees from Rikers. “Look at the Rikers population of the last’s about half,” he said. “Where is that other half right now? We’ve transplanted general population to the streets of New York City and it’s extremely frustrating.”

Shea has questioned if the city jail population shouldn’t be closer to 10,000.

As Malinowski pointed out, “You have a police commissioner and the mayor relying on these old themes, tough-on-crime kind of rhetoric, despite it not being backed up by any kind of data or evidence.” He noted that they both expressed strong resistance when the state first passed the bail reform law, which was later watered down with a change that went into effect July 1. “We need a realignment of how the government responds to issues in the community...We need to create a politics of compassionate care, as opposed to this punitive sort of politics,” Malinowski added.

“New York is just not ready to decouple this notion that we need to have a very high jail population or always be sending people to jail in order to you know, quote-unquote, be safe,” said Marie Ndiaye, supervising attorney of the Decarceration Project at the Legal Aid Society.

Ndiaye said the city should still be releasing as many people as possible, considering the pandemic is far from over. “You can't go inside and eat in a restaurant but you can be held in a congregate setting that's a jail,” she said.

[Read: Little Support for De Blasio's Claim that Court Shutdown is Driving Gun Violence Surge]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Under New Body Camera Policy, NYPD Still Controls the Video and the Narrative

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Mayor de Blasio reviews NYPD video (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

In June, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new policy for automatically publishing body camera footage within 30 days when police officers kill or seriously injure someone. The step, he said, would give the public more assurances that they would actually see video captured in serious cases of police force, an implicit but often unrealized aim of the transparency program. But more than two months since the policy was implemented, old questions remain about who controls what footage is released, how it is edited and, ultimately, the narrative it creates.

De Blasio said the police department would start to publish "all video and audio footage" when officers fire their guns, or when they inflict serious or deadly injury with a taser or other force. Civilians involved and their family members would have an opportunity to view the video before release, according to the mayor. Since the announcement, 11 videos have been published to the NYPD’s YouTube account, including at least three fatal events, each one edited and narrated by a department spokesperson with on-screen prompts.

"We recognize the power of body-worn cameras, but body-worn cameras are only as powerful as the transparency that comes with them," de Blasio said at a June 16 press briefing amid weeks of protest against police brutality and a series of police reform announcements. "It only works if people see accountability, see results from the presence of those cameras."

The announcement was a far cry from the unilateral discretion the police commissioner had held in the initial policy, which was only adopted this past November, five years after the department first began using body cameras, and which gave the commissioner 30 days to decide whether or not to release the footage. But police reformers say the new policy contains too much of the old: they want the footage to come out in complete, unredacted form and for the release to be controlled by an independent body. Though some family members of people killed by NYPD officers are still seeking body-camera footage from months or years ago, well before the policy was amended, de Blasio said it will not apply retroactively.

They are concerned that a tool intended to give the public an eye-witness perspective into police-civilian confrontations still leaves the NYPD with all the power.

"We need to ask to what extent does the NYPD need to edit the videos, what they are editing for -- and the way they are narrating it, whether or not it is a true and accurate representation of the events that happened," said Jennvine Wong, a public defender with Legal Aid Society and coordinator of its Cop Accountability Project, by phone.

The police department has long maintained that state and federal privacy laws require it to edit footage, even when sharing it with other government agencies. The NYPD has cited requirements to redact depictions of minors, victims of sex crimes, people with sealed arrests, and medical scenes as a reason for limiting what body camera footage is released. Editing for privacy takes time, according to NYPD spokespeople who say it is also the primary contributor to a backlog of video requests from the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), a watchdog agency with jurisdiction over certain types of police misconduct.

According to an NYPD spokesperson, no privacy statutes have changed so the department is still editing footage for privacy purposes. In some videos, the faces of bystanders or license plates are blurred out.

Ethan Teicher, a spokesperson for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, said the new policy has no bearing on footage sharing between the NYPD and CCRB, which are still operating under a separate agreement from December promising to provide more direct access to the oversight agency. The backlog of requested body camera videos has fallen drastically since June -- from over 1,000 to under 300 by August 28.

Advocates are concerned that there is a lack of objectivity in the stories crafted in body camera videos published by the NYPD. Without changing the editing procedures and the publisher, they say the policy creates only limited accountability.

“While on paper, the revised NYPD policy is an improvement, the NYPD's overall approach to its body camera program remains at odds with the stated purpose of these cameras as tools for police transparency and accountability," wrote Michael Sisitzky, a policing expert at New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). "The more control the NYPD exercises over the cameras and their footage and the more the NYPD continues to punt on accountability for officers who break the rules, the less the body camera program serves that purpose.”

"Of course they are going to seek to escape liability as much as they can," Wong said.

Reformers like Wong and Sisitzky believe an agency with independence from the police department should be in charge of releasing footage of police using critical force. Otherwise, the risk remains that some footage may be withheld from the public, delayed, or spun to support the NYPD's narrative of events.

"In the few [videos] we've seen, they're not releasing unedited and undoctored or uncut footage, they're releasing cuts of footage that they narrate," said Joo-Hyun Kang, executive director of the coalition known as Communities United for Police Reform.

"I think we can all view an event and understand what we are seeing for ourselves and analyze it for ourselves," Wong said.

On June 2, Tyquan Graves, a Black man suspected of a shooting, was killed by police in Weeksville, Brooklyn, allegedly holding an unloaded pistol. Ten officers fired a total of 62 rounds at Graves, according to Sgt. Carlos Nieves, an NYPD spokesperson who appears at the beginning of all recently released videos and provides frequent narration. In the 30-minute video posted to YouTube nearly two months after the incident, on July 31, footage from nine officers' body cameras is presented back to back, with each video cutting off almost immediately after the last shot is heard. No video shows Graves holding a gun, nor his body after the barrage of bullets, but Nieves tells the viewer, "he began to raise the firearm, at which point 10 officers fired 62 shots at the subject."

The video includes an evidence photograph of Graves' alleged weapon and a still photo of his dead body holding a gun, his face digitally blurred and the visible boots of an officer standing over him. A caption on the photo says it was taken from "Officer Melendez's BWC" but footage from Melendez's camera is not among the nine published clips.

Unlike the videos published to its YouTube page for general public viewing, the NYPD routinely shares complete and largely unedited footage to prosecutors and defense attorneys. As Gotham Gazette has previously reported, prosecutors received body camera evidence within a matter of hours and, according to Wong, defenders typically receive it in a matter of days to a couple of weeks.

Of the 11 videos released since the June 16 policy amendment, only three were released within 30 days. The median release time for all 11 was 55 days.

"Additional videos will be released in the coming days and weeks," wrote an unidentified NYPD spokesperson through the department's public information email account.

The families of people killed by police have traditionally struggled to get access to see complete body camera video of the incident, if footage was released at all. The new policy requires the NYPD to give family members, as well as civilians involved in the relevant event, an opportunity to see the footage before it is released.

The NYPD spokesperson said family members of people killed by police in three of the 11 recently released videos had been given the opportunity to view footage, but didn't say whether that footage was edited. The department did not say whether other civilians captured on video were contacted or shown footage before it was posted.

In some cases, there are very specific questions police reformers and the families of victims of police violence believe can be answered by body camera footage. In the case of Antonio Williams, a Black man who was killed by police gunfire that also killed a police officer, Brian Mulkeen, in September 2019, his family says they are still seeking complete body camera footage, including of the aftermath of his shooting, to find out if appropriate steps were made to save his life and how long officers waited to call an ambulance. Like other recently-released videos, the footage of Williams' death -- released December 2019 -- is cut immediately after shots are fired and audio is unavailable leading up to the start of the encounter (attributed to a buffer time when activating the cameras).

“It's been almost a year since our son Antonio was gunned down in a hail of 15 bullets while he was waiting for a cab, and we still haven't been allowed to see the full footage," wrote Shawn and Gladys Williams, Antonio's parents, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

"Mayor de Blasio's pronouncements mean nothing while the officers who murdered our son are still being paid as NYPD and the NYPD has the power to cut and edit footage before public release," they wrote.

"What they released [in Antonio Williams' case] was just partial footage, and that is part of the overall danger about the NYPD controlling all body-worn camera footage anyway," Kang said. "They can not only edit, but even if they don't edit if they don't show full footage that's an editorial decision."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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