Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/63 Mon, 11 Nov 2019 22:03:36 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) How the City's New Jails Plan Accounts for Those with Serious Mental Illness https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8910-how-city-close-rikers-jails-plan-serious-mental-illness https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8910-how-city-close-rikers-jails-plan-serious-mental-illness Rikers Island inmate detainee

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


In an historic vote last month, the New York City Council approved the plan to close the Rikers Island jail complex and replace it with four borough-based jails by 2026. When the Council voted through the plan, estimated at $8.7 billion in new construction costs, it also announced, with Mayor Bill de Blasio, a $391-million package of citywide and community investments in criminal justice reforms and initiatives to responsibly accelerate the reduction of the city’s jail population.

For city officials, one of the most complex issues they face is ensuring that the new system is less punitive and more rehabilitative, particularly for the 43% of incarcerated individuals who suffer from some form of mental illness. Experts and advocates say the plan is taking an appropriate approach to that issue but also insist that it provides a novel opportunity to rethink how the criminal justice system deals with the mentally ill, especially those suffering from more acute problems.

Given that one of de Blasio’s signature programs as mayor is the ThriveNYC mental health “roadmap” spearheaded by his wife, Chirlane McCray, the mayor’s approach to services for those with severe mental illness, particularly those who wind up involved in the criminal justice system, has been the source of intense scrutiny, again heightened as the new jails plan was crafted.

With most major crimes at or near record lows in the city and recent shifts in law enforcement and prosecutorial policies, particularly around non-violent offenses, the number of people incarcerated in city jails has been consistently declining. That drop has been so sharp that the de Blasio administration projects the average daily jail population to fall to 3,300 by 2026, when Rikers is set to close, down from about 7,000 this year and aided by state bail reform that will go into effect in January.

The Rikers closure plan will involve building four new facilities in every borough except Staten Island, with roughly 885 beds each. The facilities are meant to be fairer and safer than the dilapidated jails on Rikers. Another 250 new beds will be created in existing public hospital facilities for those individuals who require continuing access to specialized medical services.

Mayor Bill de Blasio himself has acknowledged that the city has its work cut out for it when it comes to individuals with mental illness who are locked up in jails. The day after the Council’s vote, the mayor made his weekly appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show and a caller named Winston who was formerly incarcerated on Rikers prodded him on improving access to mental health services. De Blasio emphasized the decarceral aspects of the plan, which include greater investments in alternatives to incarceration, supervised release programs, and mental health initiatives.

“This thing is not in isolation. Six years of changing the approach to criminal justice and it’s all been consistent with reducing crime at the same time and I’m very convinced that this is the right approach,” said the second-term Democrat. “But you’re right, it will take some important adjustments and investments and getting people more access to mental health services, which is the whole concept behind the Thrive[NYC] initiative, is absolutely necessary going forward, and providing better and more consistent mental health for those who do happen to be incarcerated, which is also in this plan.”

One of the key elements of how things unfold will be the dichotomy of mental health services for those with serious mental illness who need treatment while serving jail time versus those who can be removed from or kept out of jail given appropriate treatment options and enrollment in such programming.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, in a statement to Gotham Gazette, said, “The time of locking people up because they're mentally ill has to come to an end. This is why we are creating new Intensive Mobile Treatment (IMT) teams to provide intensive treatment to adults with recent and frequent contact with the mental health, substance use, criminal justice, and homeless services systems. It is time to eliminate an unjust system that has criminalized mental illness and destroyed so many of our communities.” 

In a background briefing, an official from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, which took point on the jails plan, laid out the various pillars of the city’s approach. The official reemphasized what de Blasio said on the radio: that the administration’s focus is to minimize the number of people in jail with behavioral health, mental health, and substance misuse problems, and to prevent reincarceration by providing services that address their needs.

Correctional Health Services, an arm of NYC Health+Hospitals, is charged with providing medical services to the city’s jail system, from pre-arraignment through reentry. According to a H+H spokesperson, roughly one-third of the 43% of detainees who receive a mental illness diagnosis have severe mental illness – schizophrenia, bipolar or depressive disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder – making up about 16% of the total jail population. For a population of about 7,000 detainees, that means just over 1,100 people with serious mental illnesses at any given time.

Currently, each jail has what H+H says is the equivalent of an outpatient clinic. For detainees with serious mental illness, intellectual disabilities, or who might be more vulnerable in the general jail population, there are 18 so-called mental observation (MO) units across the 10 jails and Horizon Juvenile Center. There are also inpatient psychiatric beds at Bellevue Hospital for men and at Elmhurst Hospital for women, all of whom are considered part of the city’s jail population while being treated.

The community investments package that the City Council and mayor agreed to includes an expansion by Correctional Health Services of two programs that provide discharge and reentry services to the formerly incarcerated, the Community Reentry Assistance Network (CRAN) and Point of Reentry and Transition (PORT) programs.

Though the city is hoping for the best, it is planning for the worst. About 40% of the beds in the new borough jails will be therapeutic housing units to account for the percentage of the jail population that suffers at least some kind of mental illness.

The city plans to reduce the population through various efforts, including implementing recommendations from the city’s Crisis Prevention and Response Task Force announced last month, which will change how police respond to people experiencing mental health crises. The city is putting $23 million in total towards those recommendations by 2023, which includes adding four Health Engagement and Assessment (HEAT) teams of clinicians and peers who have experienced mental illness to handle non-emergency responses, and six more mobile crisis teams (mental health professionals who respond to calls to the NYC-WELL hotline) to conduct home visits and respond to urgent situations.

These programs aim to ensure that people suffering from mental illness do not wind up in jail, or back in jail as the case may be.

Additionally, the city is investing $11.2 million to add 380 beds of “justice-involved supporting housing,” for a total of 500 across the city, and is increasing the number of post-release transitional beds for those with mental health needs and a history of homelessness to 500 with a $25 million investment.

About $27 million in new funding will go to mental health services (for a total of $37 million) through various programs. And the Council also passed the Get Well And Get Out Act, which will allow those with serious mental illness to push for their release from custody if they improve with treatment.

But the official from MOCJ conceded that there will inevitably be individuals with serious mental illnesses in jails, despite the city’s best efforts to reduce that population, which has stubbornly hovered in the 10-15% range even as the overall numbers of detainees have fallen. Almost all of the people held in city jails are either awaiting trial, locked up due to a parole violation, or serving sentences of under one year.

The new borough facilities and the Rikers plan account for the fact that some detainees will suffer from serious mental illnesses by expanding two key programs that address this population: Clinical Alternative to Punitive Segregation (CAPS) and Program to Accelerate Clinical Effectiveness (PACE).

The Council’s agreement with the mayor includes $12.8 million to double the number of existing PACE units by the end of the current fiscal year. The city has yet to decide the breakdown of those units in the borough facilities, the MOCJ official said.

The 250 new Outposted Therapeutic Units outside the jail system, however, will be dedicated to those individuals who have some form of substance abuse disorder, mental health or behavioral health issue as well as a complex need for medical care. The MOCJ official said they had identified a gap in the current continuum of care for these detainees, who don’t necessarily require inpatient hospitalization but benefit from proximity to specialized care. They can spend hours going to and from hospitals for even the shortest of check ups with specialists. 

The city is currently in the process of identifying vacant sites for those units and has contracted Lothrop Associates to conduct a feasibility study that is expected to be concluded by the end of the year, the MOCJ official said. The study will help determine the costs and needs of the new facilities and the city will then put out solicitations for redesigning the new spaces to accommodate incarcerated individuals. The project is separate from the borough-based jails plan and the official said it would likely move much faster since it would not require approval through the city’s land use process.

Insha Rahman, director of Strategy and New Initiatives at the Vera Institute, said a larger goal of the Rikers closure plan should be to minimize the harm that jails do to inmates, not just those with mental illness.

“If we're going to say, ‘We are still going to have incarceration in this city,’ which we are, for the foreseeable future, 5, 10, maybe even 20, 30 years from now, we should be constructing these new facilities as buildings first, and then outfitting them to be places of incarceration so that they're not built with just incarceration and jail design front and center,” she said in a phone interview. 

She cited the example of jails in countries like Germany and Norway. “To the extent that we're thinking about how do we address people's underlying needs and how do we provide therapeutic care and counseling for those who are in custody, anything that looks fundamentally like a jail is going to inflict some amount of harm and trauma,” she added, insisting that the city should look not to prison architects but to behavioral and mental health experts for ideas for the new jails.

Rahman also urged the administration and Council to invest further at the community level in permanent affordable housing, community-based treatment and counselling that can preempt interactions with the criminal justice system.

A stark reality that the city faces is dealing with those individuals with serious mental illness who pose a threat to themselves and others, a concern that was brought to the fore last month when a mentally ill homeless man killed four men sleeping on the street in Chinatown. It prompted the city to review how it implements Kendra’s Law, which allows courts to mandate involuntary “assisted outpatient treatment” for such individuals. That review is meant to be completed by next week. The number of individuals ordered into treatment under the law was 2,476 in fiscal year 2018, down from 2,517 in fiscal year 2017 but up from 2,368 in fiscal year 2016 and 2,176 in fiscal year 2015, according to data provided by the de Blasio administration.

Rahman warned against harsher enforcement of the law. “I think enforcing Kendra's Law more strongly is not necessarily going to get us fewer people in our jails that have serious mental health needs,” she said. “I think the most important initial response is more community-based treatments and figuring out how can we actually resource families and neighbors.”

There is some disagreement on that front, however. D.J. Jaffe, executive director of Mental Illness Policy Org, criticized the city’s ThriveNYC mental health initiative and called for an expansion of Kendra’s Law in an op-ed in the New York Daily News following the Chinatown murders.

Jaffe argues the City Council should require “the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to start evaluating all seriously mentally ill people being discharged from Rikers; all seriously mentally ill leaving shelters; and all mentally ill patients being discharged from city hospitals after an involuntary commitment. Those are the three highest risk groups; evaluate them all to see if they are eligible for Kendra’s Law and get them into it if they are.”

Minister, Dr. Victoria A. Phillips of the Urban Justice Center Mental Health Project echoed Rahman’s view, but also stressed that the new jails should prioritize interactions between detainees and health care workers, rather than with corrections officers.

“Behind correctional walls, it’s never the health staff that takes the lead, and I think the Department of Corrections has shown itself to be unable to change its culture of violence,” she said, pointing to the most recent report by a federal monitor with oversight of the city’s Department of Correction, which showed that use of force by corrections officers has risen dramatically while the jail population has dropped.

Former New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who led the independent commission that proposed the leading Rikers closure plan, praised the approach the city is taking, while acknowledging that the overarching objective is to keep people with mental illness out of jails. “If you have people who the system decides to incarcerate, then you have to deal with that,” he said in a phone interview. “In an ideal world...people who have serious problems with mental health should get help and not be incarcerated. But, you know, we don't live in the ideal world.”

[READ: 'No One Should Enter the Criminal Justice System for Something Related to Mental Illness']

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note - This article has been updated. 

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How the City's New Jails Plan Accounts for Those with Serious Mental Illness Thu, 07 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
First Deputy Mayor on Next Steps for Voter-Approved 'Rainy Day Fund' https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8905-first-deputy-mayor-on-next-steps-for-voter-approved-rainy-day-fund https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8905-first-deputy-mayor-on-next-steps-for-voter-approved-rainy-day-fund control board bdb

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photo Office)


With voter approval of a city charter amendment to pursue the creation of a budgetary “rainy day fund” in New York City, de Blasio administration officials are now looking to change state laws so that the city can actually start one.

“We’re going to have to work together to make this happen,” said First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan at a breakfast event hosted by the Citizens Budget Commission Wednesday morning, just a few hours after polls closed on Tuesday night.

Voters had overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the city charter that would allow the city to set aside revenue in a savings account meant to cushion the impact of a future economic downturn and city revenue dip — the inevitable rainy day. Until the charter amendment passed this week, provisions in both city and state law required the city to balance its budget every year, meaning savings cannot be carried over from one fiscal year to another. Now, only state law requires a balanced city budget.

While the city continues to enjoy a period of economic prosperity since the 2008-2009 fiscal crisis, economists say it must brace for potential dips, whether slowing growth or recession. In the last two national recessions, the city economy contracted significantly and took years to rebound, according to a Citizens Budget Commission report, “To Weather A Storm: Create a Rainy Day Fund.” According to the CBC analysis, the gross city product (GCP) fell 7.6 percent from 2000 to 2002 and took another three years to reach its pre-recession size; from 2007 to 2009 GCP fell 9 percent and did not reach its previous peak until 2013.

In situations like these, the city can quickly exhaust any reserves that may be available, and, in the absence of a rainy day fund, must cut services, raise taxes, and/or fall on short-term borrowing, all of which have consequences that are exacerbated in a recession.

Currently, the city is able to put public funds into “reserves,” which are created through budgetary maneuvers that, among other things, allow the city to prepay for certain resources, debt service, and retiree health benefits costs. But fiscal watchdogs say the reserves would not be sufficient to combat a serious dip in the economy or an emergency crisis, and are a fraction of what a rainy day fund could cover.

The city budget has grown tremendously since the last recession in 2008-2009. Since the beginning of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure in 2014, it has risen nearly $20 billion to $92.8 billion in the current fiscal year. About $6 billion of the total is currently in year-of reserves.

“It’s a historic level of reserves,” which the city has not previously achieved, said Fuleihan, a former director of the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget and a veteran fiscal policy advisor in the State Assembly. “But it is not a rainy day fund. It’s not a traditional way of doing that, and now we have the opportunity to do that.”

The rainy day fund amendment was one of 19 proposed changes to the city charter, which voters in New York City had an opportunity to approve or reject this fall based on the work of the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, to which the mayor had several appointees along with other citywide and boroughwide officials. The proposals came in the form of five questions covering elections, police oversight, ethics and governance, city budget, and land use. All five questions passed by wide margins.

The laws requiring New York City to balance its budget each year came out of the city’s 1975 fiscal crisis, in which the city’s debt obligations brought it close to bankruptcy. In response, the state enacted the Financial Emergency Act, which required a balanced budget and the use of generally accepted accounting principles as a way to ensure the city’s fiduciary obligations do not exceed its revenue. In 2005, those requirements were incorporated in the city charter.

With the charter amendments that remove those requirements, state laws are the only remaining statutes preventing New York City from adopting a rainy day fund. State Senator Brian Benjamin, a Manhattan Democrat who is considering a run for city comptroller, has introduced a bill that would authorize the city to create a rainy day fund (the fund is described in the bill as a “municipal contingency and tax stabilization reserve fund”). 

For the de Blasio administration, the issue at hand now is not simply a matter of changing the state law. Fuleihan says he hopes to work with the state to devise a partnership that gives the city ultimate control over its budget and rainy day funds. Budget watchdogs are also hoping state lawmakers include statutory restrictions on when the rainy day funds may be spent to ensure that they are used as intended during periods of economic hardship.

“The first step occurred [Tuesday] and now we need to talk about what that looks like,” Fuleihan told the CBC audience Wednesday, “and to make sure that the city is the determining factor in what this rainy day fund looks like.”

“I think we do have to be careful about that,” he added.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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First Deputy Mayor on Next Steps for Voter-Approved 'Rainy Day Fund' Wed, 06 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Securing Two More Years as Public Advocate, Williams to Keep Pushing De Blasio on Housing, Policing https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8902-reelected-public-advocate-williams-push-de-blasio-housing-policing https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8902-reelected-public-advocate-williams-push-de-blasio-housing-policing ee7tqcgxsaevmo6

Jumaane Williams (photo: @nycpa)


Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a Democrat, easily won his reelection bid on Tuesday, beating Republican Joseph Borelli, a City Council member from Staten Island, and Libertarian Party nominee Devin Balkind. With about 723,000 votes counted and 90% of election precincts reporting at midnight, Williams had received 78% of the vote (563,000 votes) to Borelli's 20% (144,400) and Balkind's 2% (14,500).

Williams previously represented Brooklyn in the New York City Council and was first elected to the public advocate’s office in a crowded February special election, replacing now-Attorney General Letitia James. Election law required him to defend his seat in the November election, and after emerging victorious, he will now serve out the remainder of the term which runs through 2021.

Though the public advocate’s office, with its annual budget of just under $4 million, has limited power, it is one of three citywide elected positions and gives its holder a bully pulpit to raise issues and to hold the mayoral administration to account. It is meant to act as an ombudsperson for the public, hearing and investigating complaints and advocating on New Yorkers’ behalf.

The public advocate can also introduce legislation in the City Council but cannot cast a vote on any bills. The office is also considered a launching pad to higher office. Before James was elected in 2013, the seat was held by de Blasio for one term. Williams, however, has repeatedly pledged that he will not run for mayor in 2021. If he chooses to, and barring any electoral setbacks, he could serve as public advocate for two full four-year terms through 2029.

As a community organizer before he joined the City Council, Williams touts his activist credentials and has been a frequent critic, as well as an ally at times, of Mayor Bill de Blasio and his administration. Williams has been particularly critical of de Blasio on the issues of housing affordability and police accountability.

"I know sometimes it feels like pushing the boulder up the hill. That the challenge is too great, the goals too difficult. At times like that, we need to think about the victories, and that's what we're recognizing here today," Williams said in his victory speech Tuesday night. "I've had the honor of serving as your Public Advocate for the last eight months, and as the people's advocate in City Government for the last ten years. In that time we've fought to end the abuses of stop question and frisk. We've passed affordable housing laws and tenant protections. We've put in place protections against discrimination based on military service and reproductive rights. We've given formerly incarcerated people a fair chance and many people a first chance. We've done all that because of the combined power of people inside and outside of government, demanding transformational change."

Considering Williams’ broad name recognition – he came close to winning the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor last year – and the overwhelming enrollment advantage that Democrats enjoy in the city, he had small odds of being deposed by Borelli or Balkind, both of whom readily acknowledged that fact.

Borelli’s rationale for the public advocate’s office was simple: either bolster its authority significantly or eliminate it entirely. He also cited the importance of having a public advocate from the opposite political party from the mayor, and said the city needed someone to pull de Blasio back toward the center. Balkind, a civic technologist who runs a nonprofit, ran on a five-point platform of technocratic solutions to improve city governance, provide better social services, and increase civic engagement.

Williams’ predecessor, James, was an experienced litigator and used the public advocate’s office to regularly take legal action – to varying degrees of success – against the de Blasio administration. But Williams has taken a different tact and is seeking to pull the mayor to the left on various issues where he believes the city has failed. Shortly after being elected in February, he restructured the office and appointed five new deputy public advocates with specific portfolios that cover housing, criminal justice, health, public safety, education, civic engagement, and more.

Over the last few months, he has increased his criticism of the city’s protocols for handling people with severe mental illnesses, several of whom have been killed in interactions with police officers. Williams has instead called for a comprehensive approach that eschews police involvement and emphasizes treatment and services.

Williams was one of the few City Council Members who opposed the de Blasio administration’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy, approved by the Council in 2016. MIH is meant to mandate that private developers build affordable housing in new developments that receive rezonings to allow more density. But it has proved controversial and critics say it does not go far enough to build housing for the lowest income New Yorkers who need it most.

Williams has called for a moratorium on all proposed neighborhood rezonings, and has also sponsored legislation that would mandate a racial impact study of rezonings prior to approval.

[WATCH: Public Advocate Jumaane Williams on his vision for the office and city.]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Securing Two More Years as Public Advocate, Williams to Keep Pushing De Blasio on Housing, Policing Tue, 05 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
NYPD Publishes Long-Sought Body Camera Footage Policy https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8896-nypd-releases-body-camera-footage-policy https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8896-nypd-releases-body-camera-footage-policy com james body

Mayor de Blasio with an NYPD body camera (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


The New York Police Department quietly issued its long-sought policy on the public release of body-worn camera footage earlier this month, detailing how the department must respond to requests for footage from the public and the various exemptions that determine its release.

The policy was published to the NYPD website on October 18, one day after Gotham Gazette reported on the long delay in formulating the policy and seven months after the department finished its yearslong rollout of body-worn cameras to all uniformed patrol officers on the force. No public notice appears to have gone out from the NYPD, but a link to the policy was provided to Gotham Gazette upon follow-up inquiry on Thursday -- an NYPD spokesperson had previously said the policy would be out by the end of the month.

The policy and release of video are meant to create transparency into police interactions with members of the public, including but not limited to high-profile and controversial events – including fatal shootings – which the department refers to as “critical incidents.” It outlines how the department will provide access to members of the public, news media, and investigating authorities.

While there have been calls for a public policy for years, the issuance of one by the department will not fully quell concerns from reformers, including those who believe the NYPD should not be in charge of the footage in the first place. Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly called the institution of body cameras a major step forward in NYPD transparency and accountability and argued it is leading to better policing and police-community relationships.

“The Department’s policy regarding the public release of Body-Worn Camera (BWC) footage of a critical incident enhances Departmental transparency, while balancing privacy concerns and the need to comply with federal, state and local public disclosure laws,” the two-page "operations order" policy reads.

The policy details the NYPD’s obligations for turning over footage to federal and state prosecutors investigating incidents of use of force. Within 24 hours of being informed that an investigation is underway, the department must turn over footage, it has decided. For release to the public, the policy states that the department “will decide” within 30 days, “provided that the force investigation review is completed.”

It does allow prosecutors to request, in writing, an additional 30-day delay in releasing footage to the public, which would be decided by the police commissioner. The department will also release samples of the incident and relevant footage of events that lead up to an incident, it states, likely leading to further questions about selected samples and how they may or may not provide an accurate or full picture of an incident.

Before releasing any footage, the department will take into account several factors, the policy says. For instance, whether the footage captured the inside of a home where individuals can expect privacy, any intimate images, images of injuries or dead bodies, location of a domestic violence program, or images that show an individual or officer receiving medical attention.

Bearing in mind privacy concerns, the policy states that individuals’ faces will be blurred and release may be delayed or portions of the footage may be edited or withheld to comply with state, federal, or city laws, to protect witnesses and informants, to protect a person’s right to a fair trial, to protect the identity of sex crime victims, domestic violence survivors and juveniles, to protect the privacy, life or safety of a person or to avoid undue trauma from explicit or graphic content.

The policy does note that unredacted footage may be shared for full transparency to the news media after taking those factors into consideration.

It defines a “critical incident” as one that involves use of force by officers that results in death or serious physical injury to another person or an incident where the police commissioner decides that releasing the footage will “address vast public attention, or concern, or will help enforce the law, preserve peace, and/or maintain public order.”

Recent incidents of alleged police misconduct and fatal shootings by officers have reignited concerns about how the NYPD handles and releases body-worn camera footage. Just this past weekend, two separate incidents involving policing the subway system were caught on cellphone cameras by bystanders and raised questions about when the public might see officers’ body camera footage.

In one, officers aggressively arrested a young man they believed possessed a gun. Though the man was not resisting and was seated in a subway car with his hands up, multiple officers rushed in and forcefully pulled him to the ground before arresting him. The second incident involved what officers said they stepped in to separate two groups of teenagers fighting on a subway platform. In video of that case, one officer can be seen punching teenagers unprovoked. He has been placed on modified duty pending an investigation of the incident, according to city officials.

Elected officials and police reform advocates have been in an uproar and have called for the speedy release of any footage that the officers involved may have captured on their body-worn cameras.

Meanwhile, Governor Andrew Cuomo recently ordered the addition of 500 new MTA police officers to reduce fare evasion, crack down on homelessness in the subways, and protect transit officers, but those officers are not required to be fitted with body-worn cameras, unlike their counterparts in the NYPD. As some have questioned the need for the officers, State Senator Jessica Ramos announced plans to introduce legislation to require MTA officers to wear body cameras.

Kesi Foster, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition of advocacy groups, said the new NYPD footage release policy is “a sham, designed to protect abusive officers and the reputation of the NYPD instead of the public.”

“The purpose of the policy is to be able to control the narrative related to interactions between residents and officers, not to deter or prevent abusive policing,” he said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “While other municipalities release body camera footage within days of an incident, the NYPD plans to drag out the timeline and continue to cement police secrecy and impunity as NYC's defacto policy. The new policy makes clear that the NYPD will continue to unilaterally decide what selective footage will be released, how it will be edited and when it will be released.”

Foster cited the “selectively edited photos and footage” released by the NYPD after officers shot and killed Brooklyn resident Saheed Vassell last year. The footage, from security cameras, shows Vassell, who suffered from mental illness, holding a metal pipe and pointing it at people on the street. But it does not clearly show the officers shooting Vassell, which they did within seconds of arriving at the scene. None of those officers were equipped with body cameras, according to the NYPD. Foster said that case “is a perfect preview of how the department will use release of edited footage and photos to justify unjustifiable police action and criminalize those killed and brutalized by police.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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NYPD Publishes Long-Sought Body Camera Footage Policy Thu, 31 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Dodges Questions About His Stance on Ballot Proposals https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8886-de-blasio-dodges-questions-stance-ballot-proposals-charter-revision https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8886-de-blasio-dodges-questions-stance-ballot-proposals-charter-revision first day voting

Mayor de Blasio & First Lady McCray vote (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio is dodging questions about his position on a series of ballot referenda that propose changes to city elections and governance. In two interviews Friday and Monday, the mayor avoided giving any specifics when asked repeatedly to discuss the proposed amendments to the city charter, all of which impact city services and administration, and he refused to say how he voted on them.

The ballot this year has five “yes” or “no” questions containing 19 distinct changes to the city’s core body of laws, which voters have the opportunity to approve or reject in the final stage of a unique amendment process in New York City. The proposals were placed on the ballot by a commission created by City Council legislation and appointed by a spread of city elected officials, including the mayor. The goal was to identify areas of reform in the charter that could not be easily addressed through the typical legislative process, and put them directly to voters.

De Blasio cast his ballot in Brooklyn on Saturday, the first day of the new nine-day period of early voting. (Registered voters have until November 3 to vote early; Election Day is on November 5.) Along with just a few candidate races, the ballot contains significant potential reforms, including to how some elections are run, how police oversight is carried out, how budgeting is done, and more.

“On the 19 separate questions, I’m not going to get into parsing what I feel on each one. I can give you a broad answer which is my team, my administration fully participated in this commission,” de Blasio said during his usual Friday morning interview on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, inaccurately describing the ballot proposals, which come in five questions.

The 15-member charter revision commission was designed to give no one entity a majority of appointments. Council Speaker Corey Johnson and de Blasio each selected four commissioners, with one appointee made by each of the comptroller, public advocate, and five borough presidents (Johnson selected the chair from his appointees).

When pressed by Lehrer to give more details on how he feels about -- and would vote on -- the potentially impactful provisions, de Blasio repeated his stance about the charter revision process while evading questions about how he intended to vote.

“I am comfortable with the overall result of this commission and my main point to people is I think they did good work and I think everyone should vote,” he said.

He maintained his posture about the charter revision process and questions when asked again by Errol Louis on NY1’s Inside City Hall Monday evening. Having voted over the weekend, he wanted to keep his ballot secret. “I have a blanket rule, I mean obviously everyone’s vote is personal, and I respect that in everyone else,” de Blasio said.

The five ballot questions cover general categories, each outlining more granular measures. Voters can weigh-in on charter changes to the city’s elections, Civilian Complaint Review Board, ethics and governance, budget, and land use.

De Blasio was asked directly about his positions on Questions 1 and 2, which have received the vast majority of public attention on the ballot proposals.

Question 1 on the ballot asks voters if they support for primary and special elections a system of ranked-choice voting, a balloting method that lets voters list candidates by preference rather selecting one in an all-or-nothing fashion. It would eliminate costly party primary run-off elections and help show broader support for the winner of crowded primaries and special elections. That proposed change has the backing of a coalition of election reform advocates and elected officials who have been promoting a “yes” vote on the question since September. There is no evident organized opposition to the proposal.

When asked directly by Louis, de Blasio expressed interest in ranked-choice voting but raised questions about what impact it would have on political participation and representation.

“We do know an advantage is it doesn’t require a runoff and therefore saves money and saves time and energy, and it’s true that a lot of those runoffs have been lower turnout,” the mayor said Monday. (De Blasio, himself, won a runoff for the Democratic nomination for public advocate in 2009.)

“I don’t think it’s 100 percent clear what it will yield but I’m certainly hopeful about it,” he added, giving an inkling of support.

Question 2, related to strengthening the police oversight function of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, has emerged as the most controversial piece of the proposed charter revisions. Among other things, the amendment would allow the CCRB to examine officers suspected of giving false testimony while under investigation for misconduct. If those suspicions are substantiated the agency could then bring charges in an administrative trial setting.

The CCRB recently led the high-profile prosecution of Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who placed Eric Garner in a deadly chokehold on Staten Island in 2014. The prosecution and conviction in an NYPD administrative trial led Police Commissioner James O’Neill to dismiss Pantaleo from the force in August.

CCRB officials say Question 2, if passed by voters, would also streamline the civilian agency’s operations by giving the executive director subpoena power and providing a baseline for its annual budget. Other provisions in Question 2 would codify existing practices, expand the number of appointments to the board and slightly alter who makes them (currently all the Board members go through the mayor).

The proposal has raised the ire of the Police Benevolent Association, the city’s largest law enforcement union, which last week launched a campaign urging its members and allies to vote “no.” The PBA on its website and in posts to social media has described Question 2 as a “power grab” by an agency with a “rampant anti-police bias.” In response, the CCRB released a “fact sheet” aimed at debunking what it describes as “myth” propagated by the police officers union.

Both Lehrer and Louis directly asked the mayor about his position on Question 2. In both instances he refused to discuss any particulars on the proposal and responded generally about the charter revision process.

“Because it’s 19 different subset questions I’m going to stay broad but say, yeah, we participated. In the end, again, I think the broad product of that charter commission was good. I think a lot of good work went into it. But again I’m not going to get into parsing on each of the questions,” he told Louis Monday.

Despite the mayor taking no public position, Gotham Gazette reported in June that administration representatives sought to secretly influence the charter revision commissioners in an attempt to kill the controversial proposal to allow the CCRB to pursue officers found to be lying to misconduct investigators.

De Blasio was not specifically asked about Questions 3, 4, and 5, which include an extended moratorium on former elected officials lobbying city government; a provision allowing the city to create a “rainy day” savings fund; and changes to the land use review process.

On October 17, nine days before the start of early voting, administration spokesperson Will Baskin-Gerwitz told Gotham Gazette, “Mayor de Blasio continues to review the Charter revision questions that will be on the ballot.”

Other top elected officials who appointed members of the 2019 Charter Revision Commission have taken positions on the proposals, mostly in response to Gotham Gazette inquiries: Comptroller Scott Stringer and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer both said they support all five ballot questions. Johnson and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams support Question 1 (ranked-choice voting) but have not expressed opinions on the others. Public Advocate Jumaane Williams also said he supports all five questions, though he did not make an appointment to the commission (that was his predecessor, Letitia James).

Meanwhile, James, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., and Staten Island Borough President James Oddo did not respond to Gotham Gazette inquiries about their positions on the proposals. Queens Borough President Melinda Katz declined to comment.

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

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De Blasio Dodges Questions About His Stance on Ballot Proposals Tue, 29 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
'It's Critical We Get the Planning Right': Council Examines City's Initial Preparations for 2020 Census Count https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8887-council-examines-city-s-initial-preparations-for-2020-census-count https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8887-council-examines-city-s-initial-preparations-for-2020-census-count cm carlina riv carlos m press

(photo: John McCarten/City Council)


With the launch of the 2020 Census barely five months away, the New York City Council on Tuesday summoned officials from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration for a progress report on the city’s preparations for the decennial population count. It is a count that has a great deal riding on it, from billions of dollars in federal funding to representation in Congress, and more.

Convening a joint hearing of the Committees on Governmental Operations, Immigration, and State and Federal Legislation, City Council members sought answers from the administration on how it is spending $40 million allocated together by the mayor and the Council to ensure a complete count of the city’s residents and how city agencies are dealing with the various challenges presented by this particular census.

New York City houses various hard-to-count populations – for whom the rate of self-response to the Census is 73% or below – which include children under the age of 5, seniors, immigrants, non-English speakers, homeless people, public housing residents, and predominantly black communities. That’s why in 2010, the city’s self-response rate was only 62%, about 14 points below the national average.

“It is critical that we get the planning right so that come spring 2020, our networks are activated to respond to the [Census] questionnaire,” said Council Member Carlos Menchaca, who chairs the Council’s immigration committee and is also co-chair of the Council’s 2020 Census Task Force along with Council Member Carlina Rivera.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of countless state and city programs, political representation, and even our democracy rely on a complete and accurate census count,” Rivera said in her opening remarks.

The census count indeed has broad reaching ramifications for the people of New York. It is used to determine the state’s congressional representation (New York could lose two seats in an undercount) and is used to draw electoral lines for local and state elections. It also affects the distributions of roughly $650 billion in federal funds to states and localities, and determines everything from where businesses invest their money and the level and funding of services for the most vulnerable residents of the city, including programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

This time around, city officials are hoping to boost the city’s self-response rate even as they face several new challenges. The U.S. Census Bureau has been underfunded at the federal level, which means there will be fewer enumerators that can count residents who do not respond to the Census on their own. The Bureau is also focusing primarily on digital methodology, urging people to fill out the census online through their phones and computers, which has raised concerns about data privacy and security as well as the lack of digital literacy among certain sections of the population.
But for New York City, a particularly pressing issue is the heightened sense of apprehension and mistrust among immigrant communities about the federal government, which has been exacerbated for years by the Trump administration’s unsuccessful effort to place a citizenship question on the census questionnaire.

At the hearing, NYC Census Director Julie Menin reassured the Council members that the city’s endeavors are well underway and are split up into four pillars – a $19-million Complete Count Fund to give grants to community-based organizations; a field program involving Neighborhood Organizing Census Committees that will include 2,500 volunteers in 245 neighborhoods; partnerships with city agencies and businesses; and a multilingual mass media campaign with messages tailored to specific communities.

“Given that there is significant overlap between those populations that have been historically undercounted and populations that have been forced to live on the political or socioeconomic margins of society, achieving a complete and accurate count in every census is critical to ensure that every person in the United States has full access to the representation that they deserve,” Menin said in her opening statement.

She said the administration has already received more than 500 applications for grants from the Complete Count Fund and that those would be awarded by December. More than 500 people have also volunteered for the NOCCs and the city has been conducting trainings so that they can recruit more volunteers at the local level.

Menin’s office is also coordinating with more than 50 city agencies, particularly public facing ones such as the library system, to expand outreach. The mass media campaign, she said, will be focused on ethnic and community media and will be announced in the coming weeks, though advertisements will appear by the start of 2020.

The question of state funding loomed large over the hearing, as Governor Andrew Cuomo has yet to release $20 million allocated for census outreach in the state budget earlier this year. A state commission that was supposed to recommend an implementation plan for those funds issued its report on October 8, recognizing many of the issues that were already apparent to city Census officials. But it punted the funding decision back to the governor’s administration.

“The Complete Count Commission released its report just a few weeks ago that was based on several months of research and public hearings,” said Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the state Division of the Budget, in an email to Gotham Gazette. “We are using it as a basis to develop a plan for how the State can best work with local governments and our partners to properly distribute resources so that every New Yorker is counted in the 2020 Census.”

[Read: State Census Commission Releases Report, with Funding Decisions Kicked Back to Cuomo Administration]

City officials had no clue at Tuesday’s hearing as to how those funds would be distributed, however. “I don’t know,” said Bitta Mostofi, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, when Council Member Andrew Cohen asked about the proportion of state funds that would be directed to the city. She did say she was aware that state agencies were “activated” and in various stages of planning as they await funds from the governor’s team.

Mostofi, Menin, and other officials did outline for the Council members how the administration is tackling the other challenging aspects of the census.

To count New Yorkers experiencing homelessness, the Department of Social Services is coordinating with the U.S. Census Bureau, which also does its own “group quarter” operation to find and count unhoused individuals. DSS will also spend three days counting the street homeless population in the spring, Menin said.

Kathleen Daniel, field director for NYC Census, said CUNY would recruit and pay 200 students to assist in the census campaign as leaders of NOCCs, campaign organizers, and to work with the office’s data operation. Amit Bagga, NYC Census’ deputy director, said the office is in talks with agencies that can make computers available to New Yorkers and is negotiating software contracts to provide digital training materials to CBOs.

The city’s 219 libraries will also be pressed into service, with more than 1,000 employees trained to assist New Yorkers in filling out the census online. There will also be hundreds of pop-up centers across the city, in places such as houses of worship, community centers, and elected officials’ offices, where residents can access computers to fill out the questionnaire.

Peter Lobo, director of the population division at the Department of City Planning, said the city has been working since 2016 to update the Census Bureau’s Master Address File (MAF), which includes addresses for every resident of the city. “If a person’s address is not on the MAF, that person cannot be counted in the census,” he said. Last year, he said DCP submitted 123,000 addresses, 59,000 corrections, and 3,200 deletions to the Census Bureau. Only six of the new addresses were rejected and 1,602 of the deletions were accepted. Lobo said the department will also send a list of more than 100,000 newly-constructed housing units to the Bureau on October 30.

Bagga and Menin also noted that the city is helping the Census Bureau recruit enumerators and employees, particularly after the Bureau obtained a waiver to hire noncitizens, who are seen as important in helping achieve a complete count among certain communities.

A major concern for many of the Council members, however, was how the city could overcome the wariness among immigrant communities and urge them to respond to the federal government. Mostofi emphasized that the divide would be best bridged by enlisting the various community groups that are trusted voices in their neighborhoods. “We recognize that the federal government’s efforts to sow fear and confusion must be countered with easy-to-understand information and outreach, including language access for our immigrant population,” she said earlier.

Menin said combating “misinformation and disinformation” is one of the biggest challenges for the city. Menin and Bagga emphasized that the mass media campaign would also account for different communities through culturally competent messages and translations. “We know that slightly different messages are going to resonate slightly differently in different places. So we need to be prepared for that,” Bagga said.

Menin pointed out that in 2010, the federal government was largely in charge of the broad media outreach and the message was uniform. “The messaging being, ‘Fill out the census, it's your civic duty.’...It wasn't micro-targeted. We're completely flipping that model. We want to micro-target our messaging to various communities so that people really understand what's at stake.”

Several data experts, civil rights groups, immigrant rights organizations, business groups, and government reform advocates also testified at Tuesday’s hearing. They included the New York Immigration Coalition, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Taiwanese American Association of New York, the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Association for a Better New York, the Digital Equity Laboratory at The New School, Citizens Union, the Arab-American Family Support Center, the Asian American Federation, Community Resource Exchange, and the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College.

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

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'It's Critical We Get the Planning Right': Council Examines City's Initial Preparations for 2020 Census Count Tue, 29 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Where Top City Officials Who Appointed the 2019 Charter Revision Commission Stand on Its Proposals https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8876-top-city-officials-who-appointed-the-2019-charter-revision-commission-stand-proposals-de-blasio-johnson https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8876-top-city-officials-who-appointed-the-2019-charter-revision-commission-stand-proposals-de-blasio-johnson council finance dromm johnson mbdblasio fiscal budget

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photo Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio and other top city officials have remained mostly quiet about their positions on a set of proposed changes to city government and elections, which are set to go before voters when early voting begins on Saturday. The five “yes” or “no” ballot questions include 19 distinct proposals from the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, whose members were appointed by the mayor, comptroller, public advocate, City Council speaker, and five borough presidents. Yet those same elected officials have been hesitant to say whether they approve of the commission’s recommendations.

While some of the city’s top elected officials, namely City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, have when prodded expressed their thoughts on some or all of the proposed charter amendments, Mayor de Blasio is said to still be reviewing the proposals and other top officials have been reluctant to opine on the potentially consequential changes.

The ballot proposals include instituting ranked-choice voting for some city elections, strengthening the city’s civilian police oversight body, and making various other changes to city governance, budgeting, and land use processes.

Gotham Gazette surveyed the city’s most powerful elected officials to find out how they plan to vote on the proposals and whether they have taken positions on any provisions in particular. Almost all of the elected officials contacted had at least one appointment to the body that created the proposed amendments (Williams is the exception given that he took over as public advocate after his predecessor, Attorney General Letitia James, had made the office’s one appointment to the charter commision).

Williams, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer have all indicated they support a “yes” vote on all five ballot questions. (Johnson had initially expressed enthusiastic support for a “yes” vote on question one, which includes instituting ranked-choice voting, and on the land use question, number five, then said he supports all five sets of proposals in an October 31 tweet to Gotham Gazette).

The commission was conceived by James and Brewer, and created through City Council legislation with the support of Johnson, who wound up with the power to appoint several members and the commission chair. Appointments were apportioned so that no one official or entity held a majority. Gotham Gazette contacted each of the appointing offices and received varying degrees of response, while Johnson and Williams made some of their thoughts known during a recent radio and podcast interview, respectively, as well as Johnson's subsequent tweet.

To amend the Charter, the city’s central governing document, the proposed changes must be approved by voters, who can weigh in either during the new nine-day early voting period October 26 through November 3, or on Election Day, November 5.

The commission developed the five questions, which encompass 19 individual measures to change city governance. As captured by the commission, each question covers a different category of potential reform: elections, Civilian Complaint Review Board, ethics and governance, city budget, and land use.

Question one, which mainly deals with ranked-choice voting, has garnered widespread support and almost no opposition, and could have a major impact on how party primaries and special elections work.

Together, the changes in questions two through five amount to a relatively minor retailoring of certain aspects of city government, not a large-scale overhaul. But, some of the provisions are considered important by various officials, experts, and interest groups.

Perhaps the most controversial changes voters will decide on related to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the city’s civilian police oversight agency that investigates certain allegations of police misconduct. One provision within question two would expand the jurisdiction of the CCRB to include prosecuting officers who lie while they are under investigation. That provision is being supported by many police reformers and opposed by the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), the state’s largest law enforcement union.

Another proposal, found within question four, to allow the city to use a “rainy day fund” for savings during times of prosperity is being supported by the Citizens Budget Commission and other fiscal watchdogs.

Mayor de Blasio has not taken a public position on any of the five questions or the specific proposed amendments they contain.

“Mayor de Blasio continues to review the Charter revision questions that will be on the ballot,” wrote administration spokesperson Will Baskin-Gerwitz in an email to Gotham Gazette. De Blasio appointed four of the 15 members of the Charter Revision Commission that devised the proposals, two of whom currently serve as top officials in his administration.

While still avoiding a public position, Baskin-Gerwitz says the mayor “encourages every New Yorker to do their civic duty and have their say on their city’s Charter after early voting begins on October 26 or on Election Day November 5.”

De Blasio’s non-position on this year’s proposed charter amendments contrasts with his push last fall to secure a “yes” vote on the three ballot questions last year, placed on the ballot by a charter revision commission created and appointed entirely by the mayor.

Four of the officials contacted by Gotham Gazette have publicly expressed support for all five of this year’s ballot questions.

Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokesperson for Comptroller Scott Stringer, said he supports all five proposals but would not comment on any specific proposal nor whether he is urging New Yorkers to vote in favor of the amendments. Some of that hesitancy may be related to questions about whether elected officials are allowed to in their official capacities discuss items on an election ballot.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is “100% supportive of all five ballot questions and is urging New Yorkers to vote for them all,” according to her press secretary, Courtney McGee. McGee did not elaborate on any of the positions or what outreach Brewer has done. There are major questions about how many New Yorkers actually know about the ballot questions and the ability of the Charter Revision Commission to get the word out, especially with limited help from top elected officials.

On the Max & Murphy podcast, Public Advocate Williams said, “I am in favor of voting ‘yes’ on all of the ballot initiatives, including ranked-choice voting.” A number of the proposals deal directly with the office of the public advocate. Two of the provisions would give the public advocate an appointment to the Conflicts of Interest Board and Civilian Complaint Review Board, and another would guarantee the public advocate’s budget at a set minimum calculated based on the size of the overall city budget.

“If people come out and vote, [we] may have an independent budget, which I think is critical. It sucks if you have to go ask the people for money that you are supposed to hold accountable,” Williams said.

Johnson, who appointed four charter revision commissioners including the chair, spoke about two of the measures -- ranked-choice voting, and changes to the city’s land use process -- on The Brian Lehrer Show on Monday. He said he supported both -- which are parts of question one and five, respectively -- but did not discuss any of the other proposals. Johnson’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article, but the speaker then made his opinion clear in the October 31 tweet.

Other officials have either weighed in on specific aspects of the ballot questions, did not respond to requests for comment, or declined to comment.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams “supports ranked-choice voting, and encourages New Yorkers to support it,” wrote Jonah Allon, an Adams spokesperson, in an email.

“He has also been a strong champion of police accountability and transparency dating back to his days serving in the NYPD, and supports any proposal that would further the goal of making police more accountable, while upholding the public safety gains we’ve made in recent decades,” Allon wrote, apparently referring to the amendments related to the Civilian Complaint Review Board. He did not clarify whether the borough president explicitly supports that ballot question or others.

“We are closely reviewing the other questions, and encourage a robust debate in the weeks ahead to ensure all New Yorkers are informed and make their voices heard on these important proposals,” added Allon.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., and Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, the lone Republican with an appointment to the charter commission, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A spokesperson for Queens Borough President Melinda Katz declined to comment. Katz is the Democratic nominee for Queens District Attorney, appearing on the ballot in her borough along with the charter questions, and expected to win that election easily.

Attorney General Letitia James, who as public advocate co-sponsored the legislation creating the charter commission and appointed one of its members, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Some officials or their representatives expressed trepidation about whether they were allowed under the city’s conflicts of interest law to promote their positions on ballot questions at all. During his conversation with Lehrer, Johnson made sure to indicate he was talking about his personal, not official, positions on ranked-choice voting and other measures.

A Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB) representative said they could not comment on general policy matters related to elected official conduct, but added in an email, “To the extent that elected officials may not understand the scope of the application of the conflicts of interest law to their conduct you should feel free to refer them to us.” The spokesperson said they could not respond to a question asking whether any officials had sought clarity from COIB on publicly promoting their positions on the referenda.

Johnson, Adams, Stringer, and Diaz, Jr. are all Democrats expected to run for mayor in 2021, what would be the first city election to use ranked-choice voting should it pass.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Note: this article has been updated with Johnson's Oct. 31 tweet.

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Where Top City Officials Who Appointed the 2019 Charter Revision Commission Stand on Its Proposals Thu, 24 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Do New Yorkers Know About the Ballot Questions They Can Answer This Fall? https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8874-do-new-yorkers-know-about-the-ballot-questions-charter-revision https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8874-do-new-yorkers-know-about-the-ballot-questions-charter-revision jack hts bus

(photo: @Charter2019NYC)


Just seven people trickled in from the rain to attend the information session in the Lower Gallery of the Bronx Museum of the Arts last Wednesday night. Despite the low turnout, the small group has the potential to reach dozens or even hundreds more people because most of those who attended represented organizations. They had come to the museum that night to gather information to bring back to their members about the proposals that will be on this year’s ballot, whereby voters will approve or disapprove 19 changes to New York City governance and elections.

The event was part of the outreach strategy of the 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission, which has held an information session in each borough to educate the public on the five ballot questions -- containing the 19 suggested city charter amendments -- that are about to go before voters across the five boroughs.

The commission was created through City Council legislation to explore the charter and propose amendments for New Yorkers to approve or reject, and its work is now coming to fruition -- early voting begins Saturday, October 26, and runs through Sunday, November 3; Election Day is Tuesday, November 5.

In the end, the commission put forth various proposals that amount to significant changes, though not an upheaval of how city government works. But for the amount of change contained in the five ballot questions and the granular detail of each one, the commission faces an uphill battle to get the word out, and its partners in city government are not doing much to help. Meanwhile, the commission did its work during the one year of the four-year election cycle with the fewest political races on the ballot to help drum up interest and participation.

“I wanted to come because I had heard about some of the prior sessions but have not had the opportunity to come to one,” said Kerry McLean of Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation, who had braved the weather to find out how the amendments could impact her constituents.

“We’re getting a lot of information now, but there was not a lot of information,” she told Gotham Gazette.

The Bronx outreach session came after others in Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens, and just before the Manhattan session the next night. An initial round of info sessions in each borough took place in September. (There were a series of other open meetings and public hearings leading up to the commission issuing its proposals that also offered the public opportunities to learn about the process and participate in it. The commission received hundreds of recommendations from civic leaders, good government groups, and everyday New Yorkers, eventually winnowing them down to the 19 in five categories, from elections to police oversight to city budget, and others.)

On Wednesday night, the Charter Revision Commission’s staff gave an initial overview of the scope of the commission’s work and how it functioned.

There was a bit of an echo in the room where the four commission staff, in commission-branded t-shirts, spoke and answered questions. Tables were set up along the walls on either side of the room, each dedicated to a different ballot question, where the seven members of the audience would stop and listen or ask questions. Rows of empty foldable chairs stood between the tables.

Following the opening remarks, the group began the more intimate discussion of each ballot question where they took advantage of the opportunity to probe for more details.

The Charter Revision Commission is now in the final weeks of outreach to inform voters about what they will see on the ballot and the implications of each proposal. The proposed amendments deal with a wider range of issues than charter commissions in recent decades. They fall into five categories, each with its own ballot question: elections, Civilian Complaint Review Board, ethics and governance, city budget, and land use.

The question getting the most public attention is number one, which would institute ranked-choice voting for party primary and special elections. The change would allow voters to select candidates on the ballot by preference rather than choosing just one and is backed by a coalition of advocates. It would eliminate run-off elections and is intended to ensure more inclusive, positive campaigning where winners of crowded races are chosen with a wide base of support.

Perhaps the most controversial proposal is one that would give the Civilian Complaint Review Board the ability to prosecute officers who lie under investigation, which is one of the planks under Question 2. That provision initially failed during a vote of the Charter Revision Commission, but was later approved after some commissioners sought a revote. Along with four other pieces, approval of Question 2 would strengthen the CCRB’s oversight of the NYPD and alter its structure slightly. While many police reformers want to see it passed, the largest police officers union is mounting a campaign to defeat it.

Other significant pieces of Questions 3, 4, and 5 include extending the prohibition on former government officials lobbying city government from one year to two years; creating independent budgeting for the public advocate and borough presidents; a significant step toward the city being able to create a “rainy day fund” for budget savings; and giving more notice to community boards getting about land-use applications.

The commission was created by the City Council in partnership with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and then-Public Advocate Letitia James. Appointees came from Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Mayor Bill de Blasio, as well as James, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and the five borough presidents. No single office held a majority of the appointments, but Johnson selected the chair.

According to representatives, the commission has reached approximately 1,500 people at in-person info sessions, panels, and fairs and has shared its educational materials with over 3,000 civic and community groups throughout the city. There are roughly 5.2 million active registered voters across the city, a very small percentage of which are expected to turn out this fall.

“A major strategy of the outreach team has been to try to reach as many leaders as possible because we can only do so much with our small team,” said Marissa Solomon, a spokesperson for the Charter Revision Commission, in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

Commissioners and the Charter Revision Commission’s staff have presented at meetings of community boards, political clubs, and unions; civic groups like the Association for Better New York and the League of Women Voters; professional networks like the New York City Bar Association; at public libraries and in college classrooms. They have done radio, television, and podcast appearances. Subway and bus ads are running in English, Spanish, Bengali, Korean, and Traditional Chinese, according to Solomon.

Despite its efforts, the public likely remains uninformed about the content of the ballot proposals and even what role an appointed commission plays within the branches and auspices of city government. Several attendees at Wednesday night’s info session came into the meeting with the belief that the city’s Charter Revision Commission was involved in state efforts to deal with public campaign financing and fusion voting, which are being addressed in a separate commission created by Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature.

According to Solomon, the commission had a budget of between $1 million and $1.4 million for the full ad campaign, which is comprised of television, radio, print, transit, and social media ads, including a commercial hosted by the stars of Comedy Central’s “Broad City.”

She said to get the word out about the five-borough information sessions, the commission advertised on social media and sent information to news bulletins like the ones published by City & State, NY1, Politico New York, and the Associated Press. The commission has just 1,118 Twitter followers.

The info sessions held last week are the last scheduled before voters go to the polls, but Solomon believes the number of individuals engaged “will grow exponentially as Election Day draws closer.” She says this will be done largely through additional speaking engagements being organized with specific groups where the demand for information or the potential for broad reach is high.

The city’s Campaign Finance Board has been leading its own parallel outreach through its civic engagement initiative, NYC Votes. Throughout the month the CFB has been conducting an email campaign dedicated to each ballot proposal in the lead-up to the early voting period beginning October 26, though it is not clear how many subscribers those e-blasts have.

Information on each proposal is also part of the CFB’s voter guide, which is mailed to voters and available on its website, including statements from advocates for and against each proposal. NYC Votes has rolled out a paid social media campaign about the new early voting format with ad placements on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and a video directing voters to its website where they can access the Voter Guide.

"This year’s election is an opportunity for New Yorkers to start their early voting habit now--before we vote for president in 2020, and for mayor in 2021. With five important questions on the ballot, there isn't a better time to take advantage of New York's new early voting law," said Eric Friedman, Assistant Executive Director for Public Affairs at the CFB, in a statement.

But outside of the Charter Revision Commission and the Campaign Finance Board, few if any other city entities appear to be reaching out to voters.

Mayor de Blasio’s relatively new DemocracyNYC initiative, headed by Chief Democracy Officer Ayirini Fonseca-Sabune, is geared toward civic engagement and has been more focused on educating the public on the early voting system, according to administration spokesperson Jose Bayona.

“We work to complement the outreach of other agencies, including those doing outreach on the ballot questions,” Bayona wrote in an email, without providing specifics other than saying that the office has been directing voters to the CFB’s NYC Votes website.

A representative of City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who was instrumental in creating the charter commission, pointed to examples of tweets and a radio appearance in which Johnson directed voters to learn more about the proposed amendments.

“As a sponsor of the legislation that created this historic Charter Commission, Speaker Johnson has been vocal about urging New Yorkers to make their voices heard on our city’s constitution. The Speaker will continue educating the public about this opportunity through Election Day,” wrote the spokesperson.

Neither Johnson nor the larger Council that he heads nor other top elected officials appear to have made much, if any, effort to get the word out about the existence of the ballot measures, much less urging voters to turn out to approve or disapprove them.

The city Board of Elections has little on its website about the ballot questions other than a sample ballot that includes them, but there is nothing greeting visitors to the site that indicates all New York City voters will have the five questions to answer when turning up to the polls.

Vivian Carter, a Bronx-resident who attended Wednesday night’s info session, heard about it from City & State’s calendar of public events. “Well, I know about ranked-choice voting because there’s been a lot of discussion about it and, to be honest with you, I really haven’t seen too much in the media about what the four other proposals are,” she told Gotham Gazette.

“It’s just good to hear from these people that were involved and put this together. The fact that the Charter Revision Commission staff are here made me more interested in coming,” she added.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Do New Yorkers Know About the Ballot Questions They Can Answer This Fall? Tue, 22 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
A Closer Look at the Costs, and Savings, of Closing Rikers and Building Four New Jails https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8857-cost-closing-rikers-building-four-new-jails https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8857-cost-closing-rikers-building-four-new-jails rikers island jails via lippman report

Rikers Island (photo via Lippman Commission report)


Late last week, the New York City Council approved the de Blasio administration’s plan to build four new borough-based jails to replace the detention complex on Rikers Island. The plan hinges on a continued reduction in the city jail population, in large part brought on by state and city criminal justice reforms and changes in city policing. Various aspects of the costs, and potential savings, involved in shuttering the Rikers jails and opening the four new ones – from construction to Department of Correction personnel to transportation of detainees to social services – were part of the larger debate over the plan that intensified to a fever pitch just ahead of the Council’s definitive vote.

But nowhere have all the latest figures and projections been brought together in one place to truly examine what the jails plan, and its many connected pieces, like changes to treatment for some people with serious mental illnesses, might cost and save the city. As with many other city projects and plans, there are capital costs related to physical infrastructure and operational costs related to people and programs.

The cost of the construction of the four new jails was initially pegged at $11 billion, a number that has since been revised down to $8.7 billion and could see further projected reductions based on last-minute changes made to the plan through negotiations that will reduce the height of each new planned facility. That number could also increase, of course, as construction projects, especially larger ones, often come in over projections. But as much as those projected costs were used in arguing against the new jails plan, they do not factor in the money that would be needed to repair and upgrade facilities on Rikers or the several borough-based jails that are currently operational but antiquated.

The jails plan also comes with a spate of additional community investments and funding for citywide initiatives aimed at further reducing the number of individuals caught up in the criminal legal system and incarcerated in city jails, and recidivism among those who spend any time in jail and thus become more likely to return.

Also on the operational side are projected savings from an eventual reduction in Department of Correction officers and the far more limited transportation costs as detainees will be jailed closer to courthouses.

The Rikers Island closure plan was proposed in April 2017 by the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, led by former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippmann. The commission was convened by former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at a time when Mayor Bill de Blasio was hesitant to support such a plan. The mayor had initially called the closure of the 400-acre jail complex a “noble idea” but dismissed it as impractical. He later changed his tune, with Mark-Viverito, Lippman, and other criminal justice reform advocates all but making it impossible for him to oppose it.

The Lippman Commission estimated in its initial report that building five borough-based facilities would cost about $11 billion in capital funding. In the city’s 10-year capital budget, adopted earlier this year, the de Blasio administration allocated $8.7 billion over ten years for the four borough-based jails, one in each borough other than Staten Island. The jails in the boroughs other than the Bronx will replace existing jail facilities, including two operational and a defunct complex in Queens. The Bronx jail will help close “the barge” in that borough.

The $8.7 billion allocation marked a $7.7 billion increase in ten-year capital costs for the Department of Correction, with the administration reducing the timeline for construction by one year. “We feel confident looking at everything we know for sure that we can get the entire building effort done nine years from day one – so that will be 2026,” de Blasio said at a news conference on the release of his executive budget proposal in April of this year.

Those costs are preliminary estimates and relatively fluid. Ultimately, according to the mayor’s office, the cost of the new facilities will be determined on the basis of a competitive procurement process for design and construction. In final negotiations with the administration, the City Council also reduced the planned heights for the new buildings – the facilities in the Bronx and Queens will rise to 195 feet (about 19 floors) and the ones in Manhattan and Brooklyn will be 295 feet tall (about 29 floors) – which could further reduce the cost.

The city has yet to estimate the operational costs for the new facilities, though the smaller footprint compared to the eight jails currently operating on Rikers along with existing facilities in the boroughs is likely to lead to lower expenses. The current cost of running 11 jails across the city is about $2.7 billion for fiscal year 2020, which includes $1.36 billion in expense funding for the Department of Correction, $681 million in fringe benefits for DOC employees, $500 million for pensions, and $168 million for debt service.

The Lippman Commission approximated in a report put out this month that the new facilities could cut as much as $1.8 billion in annual operating costs from that number. Much of that is simple math. It costs about $247,000 to house an individual in a city jail for a year, according to the commission. The DOC also spends about $31 million each year to transport defendants between Rikers Island and courthouses and other appointments.

The new detention centers will be built to house around 3,300 total detainees and will hold 3,795 beds, down from the current jail population of around 7,200 and 14,000 beds across the system. The city will also reduce the number of correction officers at DOC, which the mayor has said will happen through attrition and not layoffs. That process may already be underway. According to the mayor’s office, there are currently no new incoming correction officer classes.

The 2020 fiscal year budget includes 11,816 full-time budgeted positions at DOC, down from 12,377 in the previous year. Expense funding for the agency, however was projected to increase in the outyears of the budget plan passed in June. In the 2021 fiscal year, the city estimates spending $47 million more on DOC operations and personnel (in city, state and federal funds), with that number dropping only marginally in 2022 and 2023.

The commission also looked at alternate uses for Rikers Island, including a potential expansion of LaGuardia Airport, new energy infrastructure, waste management facilities, and even a water treatment plant. Together, those could lead to about $7.5 billion in annual economic activity and create 50,000 jobs, the commission estimated, even bringing in revenue or reducing costs for other city agencies to the tune of millions. The cost to the city to develop those types of next-generation infrastructure projects would range from $15 billion to $22 billion.

The building of four new jails alone will directly create about 7,800 construction jobs over seven years, according to the Lippman Commission.

As part of the final deal ahead of the City Council vote, the city will also be putting an additional $391 million towards citywide and local investments at the insistence of the Council. “This is not just about making the facilities better, though that is important,” Council Speaker Corey Johnson said at a news conference prior to the Council’s vote on the jails plan. “It's about getting to the root of the problem of mass incarceration, and ensuring that people coming off of Rikers Island or other state prisons are able to reintegrate back into society and get the support they need.”

City Council Member Adrienne Adams, chair of a subcommittee that first voted through the jails plan, had announced that the investments would be about $470 million but that number was later amended. “Originally we included council initiatives for [Fiscal Year 2020] and one-shots by the administration, but the revised numbers only reflect the Points of Agreement,” said a Council spokesperson in an email. The points of agreement, formalized in a letter to the Council, include a range of new initiatives and expanded funding for current ones, and will ramp up till the 2023 fiscal year. 

Those initiatives include $66 million in the 2021 fiscal year (of which $54 million is new funding) to fund the supervised release program and other pre-trial services; $30.6 million in 2021 for alternatives to incarceration programs; and $34 million in 2021 for reentry and discharge programs.

The jails plan estimates, especially on the construction side, do not account for delays and cost overruns, of course, for which the city’s capital planning and execution are notorious. “It's a giant, complex infrastructure project,” said Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “I mean, realistically, we're at the end of 2019, so they have five years to demolish three jails, mitigate the sites and build four new jails that they still haven't done design specifications for.”

“I think it would be miraculous really if the city were to achieve this on time and on budget,” she added. She also noted that the $8.7 billion for the jails plan doesn’t account for other facilities the city is building to house severely mentally ill detainees currently at Rikers. In March, as first reported by THE CITY, Health + Hospitals put out a request for proposals for consulting services on building Outposted Therapeutic Housing Units that would be attached to existing hospital facilities. There have been few details of how many beds those facilities would include and at what cost. “You could easily see that costing well above a billion dollars just to do that, and that's completely off the budget right now,” Gelinas said.

Gelinas predicted that the jails plan will face legal delays as well, which are prompted by even the simplest infrastructure projects like bus lanes. And, she said, the city has a lackluster record of capital project construction. “We just built the [Hunters Point library in Queens] that was half a decade late and basically twice its budget and it doesn't have facilities for the handicapped...I mean, even when these things are pretty straightforward, we're not all that good at it.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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A Closer Look at the Costs, and Savings, of Closing Rikers and Building Four New Jails Mon, 21 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
NYPD Pledges Release of Body Camera Footage Policy This Month https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8847-nypd-pledges-release-of-body-camera-footage-policy-this-month https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8847-nypd-pledges-release-of-body-camera-footage-policy-this-month mayor hosts press conf cam

De Blasio with a body camera (photo: Rob Bennett/Mayor's Office)


The New York City police department is set to finally publish its formal policy regarding the release of body-worn camera footage, nearly seven months after every uniformed patrol officer was equipped with a body camera. While the signature reform has been touted by Mayor Bill de Blasio as a means to improve policing and to provide transparency and accountability to the public, there have been no clear guidelines on how the department determines when to release footage to the public and the press.

Indication of the impending announcement, given to Gotham Gazette by an NYPD spokesperson, comes amid questions about the death of NYPD Officer Brian Mulkeen in a ‘friendly fire’ incident last month – including when the city will make public the body-camera footage of officers involved in the shooting, which apparently occurred as Mulkeen wrestled with a suspect who was also killed by responding officers.

In March, the NYPD completed the roll out of body-worn cameras to every uniformed officer on patrol, roughly 20,000 in total, and began assigning another 4,000 to officers in specialized units. In the Mulkeen incident, all of the officers were equipped with cameras and had them activated, except for Mulkeen, according to news reports. While there are detailed guidelines on how officers must use those cameras, there is no formal policy on how footage is released to the public or the press.

NYPD spokesperson Devora Kaye told Gotham Gazette that policy will be posted to the department’s website by the end of the month. Kaye did not provide any further details about what the policy will include or who was consulted on creating it.

The NYPD first began a pilot program to equip a limited number of officers with body-worn cameras in April 2017, after the settlement of a lawsuit over the department’s policing tactics, specifically the unconstitutional manner in which officers employed street stops known as stop-and-frisk. The camera program was launched under the supervision of a court-appointed special monitor, Peter Zimroth, who has continued to assess its efficacy. In July 2018, a federal judge ordered the police department to begin recording all encounters, not just the more serious ones that officers had been recording thus far.

The body-worn camera program was to be fully implemented by the end of 2019 but was expedited last year by de Blasio and Police Commissioner James O’Neill. But, while the two have repeatedly said they support greater transparency in how the police operate, critics say they have been hesitant to act unless pushed to do so or become more secretive, as has been the case with the city’s narrowed interpretation of a state law related to the public release of officer personnel records.

As early as December 2014, Mayor de Blasio emphasized the need to balance privacy and legal concerns as the city sought to implement a pilot body camera program. “I think part of this is seeing how it works in practice and helping us refine that balance...We're dealing with a lot of unexplored territory in this issue that the public...the media, and we in the police profession, and the courts for that matter, don't fully understand. We're going to all learn together,” he said, quickly noting that an early issue that emerged was the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).

In April 2017, the mayor noted that the program continued to be a “work in progress” for the police department. “It will build out over time. We are reserving the right to make adjustments in the policy as we go along,” he said.

At a January 2018 news conference, when the city announced the accelerated implementation of the body camera program, police officials were reluctant to commit to time-bound policies for release of footage or a policy around doing so, emphasizing again that they believed it was too early to make such decisions. “I think what we are trying to do is gather the experience to inform that policy,” said Assistant Deputy Commissioner Nancy Hoppock.

In the wake of several high-profile officer-involved shootings, police reform advocates and the families of individuals killed by officers have repeatedly raised alarms about the department’s culture of secrecy and the apparent absence of a universal standard for releasing body-worn camera footage, and no public indication as to when such a policy would be forthcoming.

Such concerns were again raised last month, after Officer Mulkeen and a civilian, Antonio Williams, were killed in the Bronx in an attempted arrest gone wrong. Mulkeen had chased Williams after a street stop, and when the two struggled as the officer tried to restrain him, several fellow officers showed up and opened fire, killing them both.

At an October 8 news conference on the latest crime statistics, Commissioner O’Neill said the department would release some footage of the incident. “We’re in discussions, this is an active investigation with the Bronx DA’s office,” he said, adding that the department was “going to end up releasing some of it but certainly not to the point where right before Detective Mulkeen gets shot, just to what led up to it.” (Mulkeen was posthumously promoted to Detective by the NYPD.)

The previous week, the mayor defended his administration’s “consistent” approach in terms of working with district attorneys first and noted the complexities of releasing body camera footage.

“[T]his is what we said from the beginning about body cameras, that we have to, in each instance, make sure that the release is appropriate and that begins with dealing with the District Attorney’s Office,” he said, in his weekly appearance on NY1’s Inside City Hall on September 30. “And as you see, the release of footage has happened consistently in the days after an incident. But there are...legal considerations that have to be accounted for and then we proceed to release the footage.”

But the police department has not always been forthcoming or consistent, as the mayor claims. In a June ruling in a lawsuit brought by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, a judge ordered the department to release all relevant footage from the 2017 shooting death of an unarmed, mentally ill Bronx resident at the hands of police. An earlier collection of footage the department had made public excluded certain officers who were at the scene.

The NYPD had initially sought to prevent releasing the body-camera footage under the protection of Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights law, which the department and city lawyers have argued prohibits officers’ personnel records from public disclosure. But the department later reversed its position, indicating it would release the footage. That did not, however, stop the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the largest police officers union, from filing a lawsuit on those grounds. The suit was struck down by a state appeals court in February this year.

Advocates continue to deride the fact that the NYPD itself is creating the policies around disclosure. Kesi Foster, an organizer with Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition of advocacy groups, said the department’s current policies are “substandard and are designed to protect abusive officers instead of the public.”

“We have no faith that the NYPD's expected revision of their policies will change this since body cameras can never be a tool for transparency or accountability while the NYPD owns the footage, controls release of footage and unilaterally dictates related policy,” Foster said in a statement. “Despite promises from elected officials that body cameras will create stronger accountability or reform policing, it’s clear in NYC and across the country they are another tool for officials to protect police departments from transparency and control the narrative around interactions between residents and police officers.”

There is broad agreement that the department needs to have a detailed formal policy on handling the release of footage to the public and the news media. Before the initial launch of the body-worn camera program, the NYPD in 2016 conducted a survey of police officers and the public, and commissioned a subsequent report on the public feedback received by the New York University School of Law’s Policing Project.

“A majority of respondents (57%) either agreed or strongly agreed that the NYPD should be required to show footage of a person’s interaction with an officer to a news or advocacy organization upon request, noting that recordings were public documents, and that making footage available would promote transparency and accountability,” the report noted. Those who believed footage should not be released pointed to privacy concerns or the effect it could have on police investigations.

Groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and more than a dozen media organizations urged the department to formulate a written policy and to ensure that exemptions to the city’s Freedom of Information Law are only applied narrowly for maximum access. Additionally, the report noted, 51% of respondents said the police department should release footage of high-profile incidents – including a serious use of force or custodial death – “as soon as possible” while 25% said footage should be released after an internal department investigation.

Even a report from the Police Executive Research Forum, published in 2014 and commissioned by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice, notes that “Agencies should have clear and consistent protocols for releasing recorded data externally to the public and the news media.” The report is linked on the NYPD’s website.

The NYPD patrol guide minimally addresses these issues. Its eight-page body-worn camera policy details when and how officers should use their cameras, protocols for activating them, and circumstances when doing so would adversely affect their duties. It specifies which activities, individuals, and locations officers may not record – protests and other forms of political activity, victims of sex crimes, the inside of a medical facility, to name a few. And it outlines how the footage must be stored, maintained, and reviewed.

But it only briefly refers to how the footage can be made accessible to outside parties, including oversight and investigation agencies and the public. For instance, the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau handles requests for footage from the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which monitors and probes abuse of power and misconduct by officers. Those requests are not always handled in a timely manner, however.

For instance, in December 2018, about 8% of CCRB investigations had pending requests for body-worn camera footage (the number was never higher than 12% for any month last year). In September of this year, however, that number was at 30%, after hitting a high of 37% in June, according to the CCRB’s latest monthly statistical reports.

“Oversight agency access to body-worn camera footage has the potential to revolutionize civilian oversight of police across the country,” said Ethan Teicher, a CCRB spokesperson, in an email. “Currently, the CCRB requests body-worn camera footage from the NYPD in order to use it in agency investigations, and does so because this evidence is crucial to the CCRB’s oversight function.”

The patrol guide explicitly provides instructions to refuse access to body camera footage when initially requested. “Requests by a witness or victim to view a BWC recording must be declined and referred to the appropriate prosecutor handling the case. Requests by civilians to view a BWC recording that is not related to a criminal case must be declined and referred to the Legal Bureau’s Document Production Unit,” it reads.

City Council Member Donovan Richards, who chairs the Council’s public safety committee, is hoping the upcoming policy will provide greater transparency and access to body camera footage.

“In a perfect world, they would be much more transparent – which they are not as of now – in terms of releasing body camera footage immediately after events, as fast and expedient as possible,” he said in a brief interview at City Hall. He cited the recent police-involved shooting in Fort Worth, Texas, where an officer fatally shot a woman inside her own home. The shooting occurred on Saturday and the body camera footage was released quickly after, forcing the officer’s resignation within two days of the shooting. (He was charged with murder just hours later.)

Richards said he wants to see a policy that details time-bound releases of footage. “Things are always going to be under investigation and it needs to be a policy that enables us to get access to body camera footage much faster. So we're going to look for timelines. That's what I'm most interested in seeing,” he said. He is also pushing for an oversight hearing in November on the issue of body camera footage where the new policy would likely be up for discussion. 

Richards did not commit to advancing legislation mandating timeframes should the policy not include any. “We will always use the power of the committee to push the NYPD to be more transparent and more accountable to the public. And we will use the full weight of our committee to do that,” he said.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated. 

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NYPD Pledges Release of Body Camera Footage Policy This Month Wed, 16 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000