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City Council Adjusts Its Digital Footprint


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CM Espinal, center, with Speaker Johnson (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


When Corey Johnson took over as Speaker of the New York City Council last year, he quickly took steps to shake up the way the legislative body does business. He created new issue-focused committees and leadership positions, including naming Council Member Rafael Espinal the new Deputy Leader for Digital Communication.

The position was intended to create a more coherent public face for the Council, easing communication with constituents, modernizing the Council’s digital operations, and spreading the gospel of legislative progress to all New Yorkers.

Espinal and Johnson quickly set about overhauling the Council’s digital communications, bringing in a new digital director and consolidating a separate public tech team -- created by the prior Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and reporting directly to her -- into the communications umbrella. In an interview earlier this year, Espinal boasted of the progress made in the first year, though it appears he’s no longer overseeing those efforts.

Over the course of a few weeks early in 2018, Johnson changed the structure and personnel of the Council’s communications team, bringing his own people in, and putting the imprint of his hyperkinetic style across the board.

Johnson and his team, headed by communications director Jennifer Fermino, took an active interest in cultivating the Council’s online presence, through social media, digital campaigns, and data analysis projects aimed at improving how New Yorkers access and interact with the City Council. They flooded the market with Johnson’s busy activities and outgoing personality.

Despite Espinal’s title, which doesn’t appear on his Council member page, he seems to have effectively ceded the role to Fermino, who oversees all aspects of the Council’s central communications. (Fermino was hired after Espinal was named to the position.)

In the 18 months since Johnson took the helm, the Council’s Instagram account has nearly doubled its followers to more than 5,200, the Council gained 13,000 new followers on Twitter, and the speaker’s own newly-created account has almost 18,000 followers. “The Council is proud of the work it has done to digitally reach New Yorkers and educate the public on what we are doing,” Fermino said in an email.

Early on, Johnson faced criticism when he fired several staffers from the Council’s public tech division, created by Mark-Viverito and headed by Erica Gonzalez, a Latina emblematic of Mark-Viverito’s efforts to make the Council more representative of and able to communicate with New Yorkers. The unit led communication efforts directed at communities of color, spreading the first Latina speaker’s message and Council’s work to a broader audience.

In April 2015, Mark-Viverito launched her own precursor effort to improve digital engagement, under a plan called Council 2.0. The Council partnered with Civic Hall, a civic tech business and venue, and redesigned its website, launched a new legislative tracking portal, and an initiative called ‘Council Labs’ meant to test new ideas. “The council must grow into a digitally agile institution that can easily adapt to emerging technology while remaining grounded in our communities," Mark-Viverito said at the time.

During his tenure, Johnson has moved that work along, launching new interactive tools, including maps, and surveys.

A few months into his term, Johnson displayed an ability to use social media to help get things done, launching an online campaign to push for funding the Fair Fares program, which provides half-priced MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers. Johnson and his fellow Council members hit the streets to talk to commuters outside subway stations, shooting videos and straight-to-camera testimonials to post to the Council’s Twitter account. Mayor Bill de Blasio, initially hesitant to pony up the funds for the program, eventually relented, giving Johnson an early legacy-making victory.  

The Council also took a data-analytic approach to its website, looking at the pages that New Yorkers tend to visit the most and highlighting them on the homepage, including links to city budget documents, hearing schedules and livestreams, and Council members’ individual pages. The Council central staff has also trained Council members to use Facebook, particularly those who don’t have staff running social media.

In an interview earlier this year, Espinal said he had pushed to create the digital communications position, working with Digital Director Kevin Groh to focus on the entire City Council membership rather than just the Speaker. (Somewhat ironically, Espinal also introduced a bill last year that would limit employers’ digital communications with employees after work hours).

“It was a new position that I wanted to create because I think now more than ever, it’s important for New Yorkers to be able to connect with local government,” Espinal said, citing his own proclivity for social media. 

In line with that effort, the Council’s communications team made tweaks and enhancements to all digital outreach. Every video posted to social media is now captioned and images are posted with alt-text, to make them more accessible to people with disabilities. 

“Now members feel as if they’re a part of the City Council digital communications outreach team,” Espinal said. “There have been more videos made of Council members in specific districts, videos focused on legislation that they’re working on or passing.”

Council members’ work is now highlighted on the Council’s website, linking to albums on the Council’s Flickr account. 

But the digital efforts go beyond fun and interesting photos, they’re used to inform policy, help people understand its effects, and move New Yorkers to get involved, as in the Fair Fares campaign. When tech giant Amazon was attempting to locate a major campus in the city, the Council wanted to know more about its plans and how it would affect the communities in Long Island City, Queens, and beyond.

Prior to holding hearings where Amazon executives testified, the Council solicited questions from the public through the hashtag #AmazonAnswersNYC on Twitter. Johnson posed some of those questions at the hearings, which were particularly tense, and later used Twitter to highlight key testimony. “Real New Yorkers are tweeting questions using #AmazonAnswersNYC and top Amazon executives are answering those questions right now at the @NYCCouncil. That’s accessible and modern government,” Groh tweeted at the first hearing in December.

There’s also a new Data Operations Unit, housed under the legislative division, which creates graphics and charts to make policy proposals more interesting and accessible, and which explores issues empirically to craft bills. A central dashboard of data, for instance, allows New Yorkers to delve into the number and type of 311 call requests made in each Council district. 

The Council has also used data to map out the misuse of city-issued parking placards, complete with 311 complaints, responses, and the bills under consideration to tackle it. They compiled data on lead paint in homes across the city, mapping violations and listing litigation and legislation related to it. When considering a bill to give the Parks Department authority over Hart Island, the potter’s field where the city’s indigent are buried, the data unit laid out its background, the age and location of death of people buried there since 1977, and, of course, the legislative package under discussion.

One can also find data and charts on city schools, school bus delays, physical education in schools, immigrant resources, and the Council’s participatory budgeting program.

“The overall aim and goal here was to make our social media presence a lot easier to digest, to access,” Espinal said, “and also to highlight Council members and make sure that members’ work is being recognized by New Yorkers but also folks like you in the press.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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20 Things Tiffany Cabán Promised To Do As Queens District Attorney


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Tiffany Cabán and supporters (photo: Working Families Party)


Public defender Tiffany Cabán, a self-described “31-year-old queer Latina” originally from Richmond Hill, appeared to pull off a stunning upset victory on Tuesday in the Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney. If the counting of a few thousand absentee and other final ballots stays true to her roughly 1.5% margin over apparent second-place finisher Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, Cabán will be the heavy favorite to win the general election and take over as District Attorney in January, the first newly-elected Queens DA in almost 30 years.

Cabán declared victory Tuesday night, while Katz declined to concede and said every vote must be counted. In her remarks to a packed and jubilant crowd -- chanting “Tiffany,” “Black Lives Matter,” “No new jails,” “AOC,” “DSA” and more -- at La Boom in Woodside, Cabán reiterated key planks of her insurgent campaign, in which she promised nothing short of a complete overhaul of the Queens District Attorney office and how criminal justice is meted out in the borough of more than 2 million people.

“We can’t have people sitting on Rikers simply because they cannot afford their bail, while the wealthy continue to be provided their constitutional right to the presumption of innocence,” she said Tuesday night. "We built a campaign to reduce recidivism, to decriminalize poverty, to end mass incarceration, to protect our immigrant communities and keep people rooted in their communities through access to services and support."

"We will need to build bridges with communities that have understandably been distrustful of the District Attorney’s office," Cabán said,  while also promising to be a DA for those who did not vote for her.

"I want to be very clear: nothing, nothing is more important to me than the safety of all people who call this borough home,” she said toward the end of her remarks. “We are going to center community solutions, and invest in healing and stabilizing lives. The changes that we are fighting for will be a fairer, more equitable, more efficient criminal justice system. And that doesn’t come at the cost of our safety, that is the source of safety."

But what exactly did Cabán promise throughout her campaign? What were the planks of her platform that energized thousands of volunteers and tens of thousands of voters?

“For me, my decision to run in this race very much so feels like the natural progression of my advocacy for my clients,” Cabán said in a February interview with Gotham Gazette. Below are 20 more specific things she promised to do if elected Queens District Attorney:

1. Decline to prosecute many non-violent crimes.
-“Decline to prosecute cases that pose little or no threat to public safety” and “Decline to prosecute crimes of poverty and instead go after wage theft and bad landlords,” according to her campaign website, and force bad landlords to provide decent housing.
-“Not only decline to prosecute individuals who engage in sex work, but...partner with sex workers to push for legislative reform,” according to her Jim Owles Club survey.
-“Decline [to prosecute] transit offenses, trespasses, gravity knives,” she said at a May 3 Players Coalition forum.

Her full decline-to-prosecute list of offenses, per her survey for an Accountability coalition including 5Boro Defenders, Vocal New York, and others : marijuana, theft of services, unlicensed massage parlors, airport taxi (1220B), unlicensed driving and other minor driving offenses, turnstile jumping, petit larceny/shoplifting for amounts under $250, trespassing, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest,“bump up” burglary in the third degree felonies (would charge them as petit larceny misdemeanors), possession of gravity knives, “bump up” felony gravity knife cases, loitering, drug possession, welfare fraud, prostitution.

2. For misdemeanors, raise charge standard from “probable cause” to “beyond a reasonable doubt,” according to her campaign website. And analyze racial, economic, and immigration impacts of charges filed, according to her campaign website and debate appearances.

3. Hold police officers accountable for breaking the law, including for lying under oath. She told the Queens Daily Eagle she would publish the DA office's list of officers who have credibility and misconduct problems, and may be liabilities if put on the stand in a case.

4. Decriminalize drug use “that does not pose a threat to others,” including but not limited to marijuana. “We’re going to decriminalize marijuana and invest in services for substance use disorder, not fight a failed war on drugs,” she said in a June 19 tweet.”

5. Support the creation of supervised injection sites, according to her Jim Owles Club survey. Provide naloxone, overdose training, and outreach to reduce overdose deaths, according to her campaign website, and bring companies that deliberately overprescribe drugs to court.

6.Bail reform.
-End cash bail for all offenses. “Cash bail is wrong—period. We can’t have two systems of justice: one for the poor and one for the wealthy,” she tweeted. And implement prompt automatic bail reviews.
-Cease use of risk score algorithms which are “based in...racist and classist ideas,” as she said in a May 3 candidate forum. 

7. Fight for open file discovery – “it speeds up cases, it’s what’s fair, it provides closure for survivors and victims of crime much earlier, ” she said in a tweet from February.

8. Pursue shorter felony sentences and never pursue life without parole.
-Advocate for legislation to review sentences of those over 55 who have been incarcerated for over 15 years – a “top priority in my office,” according to her survey for the Jim Owles Club, which endorsed her. “The goal should be on rehabilitation and safety – not on punitive, overly-lengthy sentences that do little to safeguard community stability,” she wrote.
-Presume shortest possible sentence, exceptions are to raise length of sentence – not the other way around, she said at a May 3 Players Coalition forum.

9. End civil asset forfeiture, and refuse to profit from prosecution decisions. In February, she called civil asset forfeiture “a terrible practice where money is seized from people who haven’t even been convicted of a crime.”

10. Consider defendant’s ability to pay in imposing fees and fines, according to her campaign website.

11. Give money obtained from legal proceedings to housing, job, and education services, which “evidence shows actually reduce crime,” according to her campaign website.

12. Create a Conviction Integrity Unit to review cases. “Part of what [it] will do is not just look at the quote on quote typical innocent cases but looking at cases that involved officers who have histories of misconduct, looking at cases that involve prosecutorial misconduct, looking at cases that relied on bad science to get convictions,” she said in a June interview with PIX11.

13. Create a Retroactive Release Unit “so that we are making sure that we are not unnecessarily keeping people incarcerated for offenses that we recognize really should be treated with treatment or supportive services,” she said in a June interview with PIX11.

14. Create a Record Review Unit to clear the record of those in prison for no-longer-prosecuted offenses, according to her campaign website.

15. Create a Reentry Services Unit to help the recently-released and reduce recidivism, according to her campaign website, “because 97 to 98 percent of people who are removed from their community reenter their communities no better than what they were, [and] in fact oftentimes worse,” as she said in an interview with New York Magazine.

16. Create units for corporate crime, consumer protection, wage theft, and antitrust investigations, according to her campaign website.

17. Prosecute ICE agents who engage in abusive conduct, according to her campaign website, and “Ban ICE from our courtrooms, not let them terrorize our neighbors,” she tweeted on June 19.

18. Help close Rikers Island jails, “faster than the proposed timeline,” with no new jails built in its place. “Every time new jails are built throughout this country's history, they are filled, she’s said. She promised to fight instead for “significantly smaller, better equipped community based jails next to court houses,” according to her Accountability survey.

19. Hold quarterly town halls, per her Accountability survey, and create a Community Advisory Board, according to her website. 

20. Exit the District Attorney Association of New York. “I will exit DAASNY & work instead with DAs who share our values,” she said, due to DAASNY’s opposition to open discovery. “These associations tend to have regressive, racist, and classist “tough on crime” mentalities,” she wrote in an Accountability survey.

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by Joey Fox, Gotham Gazette

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Council Takes Stock of City's Efforts to Help Victims of Domestic Violence


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Annual Gladys Ricard and Victims of Domestic Violence Memorial Walk/Brides' March (2016) (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


The City Council held an oversight hearing Monday to discuss an annual report on domestic violence in New York City, including city initiatives to help victims. The hearing featured testimony from Cecile Noel, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence (ENDGBV), and advocacy groups.

“As more survivors come forward to report abuse we must make sure the city is capturing the demand for services,” said City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, chair of the Council’s Committee on Women and Gender Equity, at the hearing. Indicators continue to show that reports of domestic violence are on the rise in the city, though it’s unclear if that is more a result of victims reporting the abuse than more incidents actually taking place.

ENDGBV was re-launched in 2018 by Mayor Bill de Blasio to develop policies, organize training, and operate the New York City Family Justice Centers, among other responsibilities. With one located in each borough, Family Justice Centers connect survivors of domestic and gender-based violence with organizations that provide case management, economic empowerment, counseling, civil legal, and criminal legal assistance. Many of these services are located within the Family Justice Center, so survivors only need to go to one location.

In 2018, 25,222 different clients visited a Family Justice Center, according to ENDGVB statistics, and made a total of over 65,000 visits to the centers.

The new report - the first of its kind mandated by a recent city law - and the Council hearing, come at a time of higher reporting of domestic violence in the city. While the “Me Too Movement” and associated cultural awareness has brought more attention over the last few years to domestic violence and sexual assault, after spiking, NYPD “radio runs” responding to alleged or suspected domestic violence decreased slightly last year.

Police officers responded to 241,584 domestic violence calls in 2018, down from 245,577 in 2017, according to an NYPD spokesperson. Police officers received 287,549 domestic violence incident reports in 2017, a number that dropped by about 5,000 in 2018, according to the spokesperson. More domestic violence incident reports were received by the NYPD in 2017 than in any year since 2014.

However, the number of felony assault complaints related to domestic violence increased from 7,800 in 2017 to 8,200 in 2018, according to data from the NYPD’s website.

A dozen years ago, in 2007, 4.8 percent of all major crimes in the city were related to domestic violence. In 2016, domestic violence constituted 11.6 percent -- a function of both most other major crimes continuing to drop and reporting of domestic violence increasing.

Domestic violence was a factor in 17.5 percent of homicides and 20 percent of assaults in the city in 2017, according to ENDGVB’s annual report. The number of homicides related to domestic violence increased from 51 in 2017 to 54 in 2018, according to NYPD statistics. There were just under 300 total murders in the city in each of those years, meaning roughly one in six murders in the city are related to domestic violence.

Vulnerable New Yorkers are disproportionately affected by domestic violence, especially low-income New Yorkers and people of color, Council Member Rosenthal pointed out at the hearing.

While Family Justice Centers provide integral services to often underserved communities, they are still in need of improvements, said Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat. Rosenthal highlighted the significant number of New Yorkers that speak a language other than English, and the challenges posed to them by using a contracted interpretation service to communicate at Family Justice Centers.

To communicate with clients who do not speak English, Family Justice Centers employ Voiance, a telephonic interpretation contractor. Rosenthal pressed Noel on the sensitivity of the subject requiring interpretation, suggesting that interpreters should receive training on how to discuss trauma with survivors.

“Given the inherently sensitive nature of this work and what we’ve learned about the implications for people who are not trained for survivors, it would be of the interest of the committee and the counsel to find out how that’s working out,” Rosenthal said at the hearing. “Perhaps there should be more preventative training for these workers,” she said.

“To every degree possible we make sure the contractor understands both the Family Justice Center and our issues,” Noel said. “We don’t provide direct training to Voiance but if issues come up that present any problem to the contractor those are immediately addressed.”

The language barrier has not gotten in the way of the Family Justice Centers doing the work, Noel said. Every one of the unique clients who visited a Family Justice Center in 2018 filled out a client intake form, the first step in receiving services.

Rosenthal encouraged the Family Justice Centers to bolster their economic empowerment initiatives. ENDGVB operates a learning lab at the Manhattan Family Justice Center, increasing the capacity of ENDGVB’s existing four-month career training program by 50 percent. Learning labs do not exist at Family Justice Centers in any other borough.

“We are aware of no public investments specifically allocated to workforce programming for gender-based violence survivors,” said Sarah Hayes, Deputy Director of Economic Empowerment Program at Sanctuary for Families, a group providing services for survivors of domestic and gender-based violence.

While the Family Justice Centers track their visitors and the services they use, they do not track from where the clients are referred.

“A tracking mechanism is essential because it will tell us where the bulk of our constituents are coming from and will allow us to better engage with them,” Council Member Diana Ayala said at the hearing.

De Blasio has taken several steps to address domestic violence as incident reports have grown, introducing in 2017 the Domestic Violence Task Force, which invested nearly $11 million in programs to enhance legal protections for survivors of domestic violence and improve education on the issue, according to a press release from that year.

“This report sends a loud and clear message – we will not tolerate domestic violence, survivors have the City’s full support, and abusers must be held accountable. We will do everything we can to ensure that New York City is safer for everyone, everywhere, at all times,” de Blasio said in a May 2017 press release announcing the results of the task force’s report. As the city saw increased domestic violence reporting, de Blasio and other city officials were pushed to take action.

In 2018, de Blasio signed bills to combat workplace sexual harassment, expand the city’s paid leave laws to employees who are survivors of domestic violence, and enacted ENDGBV by executive order, mandating the city to address and coordinate a response to domestic violence.

First Lady Chirlane McCray has taken a primary role in the city’s efforts to combat domestic violence, announcing in 2018 Interrupting Violence At Home, a citywide program to address domestic violence through services, training, and intervention for abusive partners who are not involved in the criminal justice system.

“Any kind of violence is unacceptable. But as we keep survivors and families safe, we must also do everything we can to intervene directly with their abusive partners,” McCray said in a 2018 press release announcing the initiative. “Hurt people hurt people.”

The Council committee also discussed on Monday a resolution to encourage the federal passage of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019. The Violence Against Women Act was first passed under President Bill Clinton in 1994, but must be renewed by Congress. The bill has been renewed in every subsequent administration and was last renewed in 2013.

The bill passed in the House of Representatives in April, but has stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. Opposition to the bill has focused on a provision, known as the “boyfriend loophole,” that would make it easier for law enforcement to strip perpetrators of domestic violence of their guns.

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by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

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