Gotham Gazette Wed, 08 Jul 2020 05:17:05 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Queens Democrats Set to Vote for Next Borough President: What to Know About the Race and the Candidates queens borough president election

Left to right: Democrats Richards, Crowley, Constantinides, Yin, Miranda

This story was published in partnership with the Queens Daily Eagle

Early voting begins today -- Saturday, June 13 -- for the Democratic primary for Queens Borough President, a race that was triggered when the previous officeholder, Melinda Katz, was elected the borough’s district attorney last year and took office in January.

As much as borough presidents hold largely ceremonial roles, they do have important powers, healthy budgets, and a make-what-you-will-of-it bully pulpit -- they can have real world impact and the office-holder matters. This is especially true as the city faces a tough road to recovery from the devastating impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout.

In terms of nuts-and-bolts powers, the borough president makes advisory recommendations on land use issues, appoints members to the borough’s 14 community boards, and allocates funding from a $65 million discretionary capital budget.

In normal circumstances, the vacancy left by Katz would have been filled fairly quickly through a nonpartisan special election. But after COVID-19 struck and New York City became the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States, the state’s electoral calendar was disrupted. A special election scheduled for March 24 to name a borough president for the rest of the year was initially suspended by Mayor Bill de Blasio on March 15, just one day after early voting began.

Subsequently, Governor Andrew Cuomo delayed the special election to June 23 before outright cancelling it so it would not clash with the primary scheduled the same day, part of the election to determine the officeholder for all of 2021, when there will be yet another election in the city’s normal four-year election cycle. Interim Borough President Sharon Lee has wound up with a far longer tenure than anyone foresaw when she was sworn in just after Katz had to resign to take her new post.

There were six candidates running in the special election – sitting City Council Members Donovan Richards and Costa Constantinides; former City Council Member Elizabeth Crowley; retired NYPD Sergeant and police reform advocate Anthony Miranda; former Queens Assistant District Attorney Jim Quinn; and Dao Yin, a community activist with corporate experience. Quinn, who did not petition to get on the primary ballot, has since been forced to drop out of the race after a failed court challenge to restore the special election.

“While I strongly disagree and believe this decision disenfranchised Queens voters who have a right to an elected borough president before January 2021, at this point further legal action would be futile and we must accept the judge’s ruling,” he said in a May 29 statement.

The other five candidates -- a group with diverse backgrounds, viewpoints, and priorities for Queens -- are on this month’s Democratic primary ballot. Along with early voting June 13-21 and primary day, June 23, all eligible voters can utilize absentee balloting per a Cuomo order aimed at reducing the risk of coronavirus spread.

The pandemic has far-reaching implications for the election and its aftermath, particularly since Queens, with more than 2.3 million residents, contains some of the neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID-19. As of June 10, the city reported 205,011 confirmed cases of coronavirus, 53,369 hospitalizations and 21,960 confirmed and probable deaths. There have been 6,389 confirmed and probable COVID-19 deaths in Queens alone.

Neighborhoods in western and southeast Queens have borne the brunt of the outbreak, seeing more cases than most other zip codes across the city. That also raises the question of who will turn out to vote. There is no polling model for voter behavior in the middle of a pandemic and there have been no public polls at all to gauge the state of the race.

With most people sheltering at home and wary of casting their ballots in person at polling sites, and with the state hoping to avoid new clusters of infection, Governor Cuomo passed a series of executive orders that first allowed any voter to request an absentee ballot and then directing the State Board of Elections to mail a postage-paid absentee ballot application to all registered voters.   

Candidate Differentials
The candidates themselves have had to adapt to the new reality. Each of them abandoned on-the-ground canvassing efforts and turned to digital and social media to reach voters. They have continued to participate in town halls and debates, held virtually.

On the issues, the candidates largely express similarities, though they have taken varied stances on some important topics and have different focal points of their campaigns. All of them, save for Yin, have presented themselves as progressives who want criminal justice reform, economic development, more affordable housing, environment protections, and improved transit. They all supported the closure of the Rikers Island jail complex. Yin’s focus seems to be mostly on protecting small businesses, and he’s also tacked to the right on policing.

But there are degrees of difference and the candidates each have their areas of expertise. Constantinides, as chair of the Council’s environmental protection committee, can squarely declare himself the green candidate and has sought to claim ground as the most progressive candidate. Richards has spent years focused on police reform, including as chair of the Council’s public safety committee, and smart development, including of mixed-income affordable housing. Crowley is a more moderate liberal, focused on job growth and quality of life, with reform through steady, incremental change. Miranda declares himself the outsider with no ties to the current or former political establishment. And Yin is the longer longshot candidate, with a far less active campaign than the others.

For the undecideds, the voters who wait till the last minute to make their choice, the recent protests in the city spurred by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis could also be a determining factor. Queens voters could reject candidates who stand alongside the police rather than the protesters, or vice versa. Some voters may base their choice on who they’ve heard speak to them on issues related to police reform, the NYPD budget, and combating structural racism. Some voters may yearn for limited change -- while western Queens has become a hotbed of progressivism, the eastern part of the borough remains more moderate and conservative, and home to many in law enforcement.

Donovan Richards
Richards is among the frontrunners, having secured the backing of the Queens Democratic Party. But the county party is a shadow of what it once was and may no longer play the kingmaker of past elections.

But Richards, who is black and represents District 31 covering southeast Queens and Far Rockaway, isn’t relying on the party infrastructure to lift him to the top. He’s confident that he’s the most experienced and accomplished candidate in the race. “If you had a major surgery, do you want somebody to operate on you their first day on the job or do you want somebody who’s actually had the experience and record of getting you through a successful surgery?”

This isn’t the first time Richards has had to tailor his campaign to a major emergency, he said, noting that he was first elected to the City Council in a special election in 2013 just months after Hurricane Sandy. As he was working to deliver food and emergency supplies to those affected by the hurricane then, he’s been working to ensure that Queens residents have access to personal protective equipment, testing, and other necessities during the COVID-19 pandemic. And he has been a vocal proponent for reforming the NYPD and cutting the department’s budget amid the ongoing movement against police brutality during which the mayor has mostly dug in his heels.

“People want to see you out in the street. They want to know that during a time of crisis, you're going to respond and you're going to be on the ground,” he said. “A campaign shouldn't be about slogans and about who can get the best sound bite in a debate. It should be about, what is your record in a time of crisis.”

Richards proudly touts the resources and investments he’s brought back to his community: $1.5 billion for sewer infrastructure in Southeast Queens when he was chair of the environmental protection committee; $139 million under the Downtown Far Rockaway rezoning, which includes about 2,000 units of affordable housing, new libraries, parks and commercial space. He also played a role in creating the city’s OneNYC sustainability plan, aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change and had a hand in the final design of the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing affordable housing policy when he chaired a zoning subcommittee.

All the other candidates “have never lived that experience of bringing a community back after eight years from the devastation of a hurricane,” he said.

“There's no community in Queens that’s seen more investment than ours. So that's what people are looking for and I think I have the blueprint of how to achieve that for the entire borough,” he added. 

As the borough and the city at large struggle with an affordable housing crisis, Richards said he’s the only candidate “who actually understands housing policy” since he led the subcommittee on zoning and franchises. “In a community like mine, you can literally and physically come in and see 10,000 units of affordable housing being built,” he said. “While the rest of Queens’ economy is sort of stagnating and you're not seeing new commercial come into communities, in the Rockaways, there’s about 300,000 square feet of new retail coming in. New plazas, new streets, new infrastructure. That's the difference.”

Richards said he has broad support across the borough, not only in his district. He has been endorsed by several prominent labor unions including 1199 SEIU, DC37, the United Federation of Teachers, 32BJ SEIU and the Hotel Trades Council, along with nearly two dozen state, local and national elected officials including Reps. Hakeem Jeffries and Gregory Meeks (who leads the Queens County Democrats). “We’ve built out a broad enough coalition,” Richards said.

With the movement on police reform having gathered strong momentum leading up to the primary vote, Richards also believes his record on pushing for police accountability sets him apart. “My first vote coming into the City Council was on the Community Safety Act, which actually ended stop-and-frisk technically,” he noted of the 2013 legislation, passed over a Mayor Michael Bloomberg veto, that established an inspector general of the NYPD and strengthened protections against racial profiling in police stops.

He’s also sponsored several bills to reform the department including, most recently, one that would create a disciplinary matrix for officer misconduct. “There’s no one who’s been more entrenched in the work than me,” he said. The legislation, first introduced by former City Council Member Dan Garodnick last Council session, may be finally set to move, though while a hearing was recently held, chaired by Richards, a full Council vote has not been scheduled.

One area where Richards may lose progressives, however, is his willingness to accept contributions from real estate developers, which have become taboo for some over the course of several years as the city’s unaffordability crisis has worsened. Richards has insisted that he’s shown an ability to drive a hard bargain and that he wouldn’t be beholden to those donations. “I think it's going to be incumbent that we have a borough president who understands and knows how to work with development, and how to shepherd in benefits for local communities. It’s not just writing a blank check to developers,” he said.

His campaign fundraising and expenditure is second to Crowley. As of June 8, he has raised $295,382 in private donations, received $751,284 in public funds from the Campaign Finance Board and has spent about $826,312.

Costa Constantinides
City Council Member Costa Constantinides, who is white and represents District 22, covering Astoria, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and Woodside, has also been primarily focused on the response to the pandemic. “This is the challenge of our lifetimes and that’s not an understatement. This is life and death,” he said.

“My priority as a Council member and as a candidate is taking care of people, first and foremost...What sets me apart is that we have a real plan,” he said. He pointed out that the very issues he’s advocated for – a ‘Green jobs plan,’ reducing pollution and investing in renewable energy, environmental justice and public health – have all converged under this pandemic caused by a respiratory illness. Neighborhoods with more pollution tend to have higher rates of asthma, which in turn can put people at higher risk of dying from COVID-19, according to at least one study. The massive job loss and recession brought about by the coronavirus shutdown have also made the need for green jobs more urgent, Constantinides argues.

His advocacy for environmental causes has earned him the endorsement of the Sunrise Movement NYC and Sierra Club NYC. He has several labor backers including RWDSU, Teamsters Local 553, UFCW Local 1500, IUOE Local 94 and CWA Local 1106. And a number of Democratic clubs have also endorsed him including Stonewall Democrats, the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, New Queens Democrats, and Muslim Democratic Club of New York. He has the support of StreetsPAC, Our Revolution, and the Hispanic American Voters Association.

“We have built a progressive coalition that's focused on fighting for the future of Queens and what kind of world we want to live in,” he said.

Constantinides sees almost every issue, whether its infrastructure or economic development or even a criminal justice issue like closing the Rikers jails, from an environmental perspective. That’s the foundation of his green jobs plan, which he said would be essential in driving the borough’s recovery from COVID-19.

“We need 21st century middle-class jobs,” he said while also taking a shot at the failed Amazon deal that did not include a guarantee of union jobs. He envisions “rebuilding Rikers Island, when it closes, with green renewable energy. Looking to solarize and green roof every city building in Queens. Having public works projects that are going to invest in our borough, that’re going to lift people out of poverty and into middle class jobs and at the same time reduce the burden on environmental justice neighborhoods that are suffering from decades of environmental racism.”

While the city has suspended the land use review process during the pandemic, Constantinides has been pushing to restart it at least for the redesignation of Rikers as a public space.

He also seemed to express some displeasure with Katz’s tenure as the borough president. “I'm not the status quo. I'm not willing to go along with what's been going on for the last seven years,” he said.

The city’s matching funds program has also put him at largely an even footing with the other candidates. Constantinides has raised  $266,261, received $720,754 in public funds, and has spent $860,104 as of June 8.

Elizabeth Crowley
Former Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, who is white, has laid the groundwork for a run for borough president for several years — at least since her narrow defeat to Bob Holden in Queens’ District 30 in 2017.

She has outraised her opponents, raking in $505,614 in private contributions and $1,152,592 in matching funds as of June 8, and she has outspent them — making big TV ad buys ahead of the canceled March special election.

To Crowley, the office of borough president demands a leader who can unite the sprawling borough’s diverse communities in pursuit of common goals.

“I don’t look at the role as a cheerleader. I look at it as a master planner. Someone who understands how to properly grow communities,” she said. Crowley supported Amazon’s plan to establish a sprawling campus in Long Island City and has said that Queens will be “open for business” if she were elected. She has the support of various trade and transit unions, including Transit Workers Union 100 and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 9 — her own former union.

She has also has the backing of various firefighters unions, whom she worked with as chair of the Council’s Fire and Criminal Justice Services committee. Her cousin, former Queens Democratic boss and Congressional Representative Joe Crowley, has fundraised for her.

Crowley’s top priority is ensuring Queens gets its “fair share” in terms of public transit, school funding, and medical facilities. The fair share argument is a common complaint at community board meetings and town hall events in Queens, where parents decry sending their kids to the most overcrowded schools in the city. The COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted the borough’s inadequate number of hospital beds, exacerbated by the shutdown of three hospitals since 2008.

Transportation has remained the centerpiece of Crowley’s campaign. Before announcing her candidacy, she championed a plan to resuscitate a discontinued rail line linking Jamaica and Long Island City, with stops in Middle Village. She has also long called for free bus service, a de facto policy during the COVID-19 crisis that she said should remain in place.

Improved transit access and brand new routes would lead to more jobs and affordable housing, she said.

Crowley, who made nominations to Queens Community Board 5 during her time as a Council member, has raised eyebrows with her responses to questions about community boards during her campaign. In November 2019, she and Constantinides signed a pledge to defer to local boards on “any and all” recommendations  — a commitment she repeated during a candidate forum in Little Neck in February. Nevertheless, she has described community boards as “out of touch” with a need for more young voices.

She has squared the seemingly divergent perspectives by explaining that her board appointments would truly reflect each district, making their recommendations more representative of the community’s interests. As borough president, she would have the power to overhaul the make-up of Queens community boards.

Crowley has distinguished herself from her two former Council colleagues in the race, Constantinides and Richards, by tacking to the center-right on public safety. She proudly accepted the endorsement of the city’s Police Benevolent Association and stood by their support, even as other Queens elected officials publicly denounced the union and returned campaign contributions from the cops.

“I still stand by our police but I know that reform needs to happen,” she said. “While there is systemic and generational racism in the police department and other city agencies, and that’s something we need to combat, at the same time the vast majority of officers are going to work every day to protect and serve.”

She has pledged to form an office task force to examine and combat anti-Semitism and other hate crimes.

At the same time, she has pointed to her progressive record on criminal justice issues, citing her early advocacy for closing Rikers Island jails (which appeared to cost her significantly in her 2017 campaign versus Holden) and passing the Raise the Age measure, which finally moved children off Rikers in 2018. 

Crowley has also rejected contributions from developers — an issue she said is important for a potential borough president who makes advisory recommendations on land use issues. 

“I’ve seen firsthand how for-profit developers drive out communities,” she said. Ridgewood, located within her former Council district, has seen a surge in new development and rising rents, similar to other parts of the borough, especially in western Queens.

While Crowley, endorsed by the PBA and rated “A+” by the Presidents Co-Op and Condo Council, seeks to appeal to moderate voters, another candidate has emerged as the most conservative voice in the primary.

Dao Yin
Dao Yin, an entrepreneur and business consultant born and raised in China, has differentiated himself from the field by championing the NYPD’s response to Black Lives Matter demonstrations and the police crackdown following isolated looting incidents.

“We are all appalled by the looting across our city,” Yin said in an interview. “The chaos and anarchy on our streets screams for more officers in our streets to defend our working men and women.”

He said the looting was yet another assault on small businesses battered by exorbitant commercial rents and the COVID-19 economic lockdown. Fostering a business-friendly environment is one of his main focuses, he said.

“We must protect our businesses and residents across our city. The economy is already devastated by COVID,” said Yin, who has raised $122,915 in private contributions and $407,041 through the city’s matching funds program as of June 8.

A borough president has no formal role in creating law enforcement policy or ensuring public safety, but Yin said he would orient the office around establishing respect between communities and law enforcement. He said he would specifically set up a division within the borough president’s office to liaise with Queens police precincts and the Queens District Attorney’s Office.

“The police department in the community is more important than ever now. If I’m elected, the first thing I’ll do is collaborate with community leaders throughout Queens to promote respect,” he said.

He would also use the office to promote a plan for “reasonably priced prefabricated buildings” to foster cost-effective affordable housing development. The concept has begun to gain some traction, with a prefabricated modular affordable housing complex in the works in Brooklyn.

“It would ensure developers can make a profit while charging reasonable rent prices. The material cost is cheaper and building time is shorter,” Yin said.

Yin also touted his business credentials and said he would work to lure major corporations to the borough in the wake of Amazon’s decision to pull out of Long Island City. At a candidate forum hosted by the Queens Chamber of Commerce in February, Yin said he would have flown to Seattle to beg Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to change his mind. 

He doubled down on his support for Amazon in the recent interview.

“Queens is a borough of small businesses, we have thousands of small businesses, but we have to work with large corporations like Amazon,” he said. “Amazon would have invested in us.”

Yin said he would welcome other large corporations to the borough. “Amazon is the largest but Amazon has rivals,” he said.

Anthony Miranda
Like Yin, retired police sergeant Anthony Miranda has attempted to outflank his opponents. But in Miranda’s case, it’s from the left, framing himself as the most progressive candidate in the Democratic primary. He was the only candidate to endorse Bernie Sanders from the very beginning of Sanders’ campaign — Constantinides endorsed Sanders after Elizabeth Warren dropped out.

Miranda has specifically advocated for a moratorium on luxury development in the borough and said he would reject any land use plan that does not include 100 percent affordable housing.

“We’re in a housing crisis and again we’re giving away land,” Miranda told the Queens Eagle, while discussing his opposition to a rezoning proposal along the Flushing Creek Waterfront. “This is a pattern consistent all over Queens. We’re in an affordable housing crisis and our solution is to build luxury apartments?”

Reporting on Miranda’s past campaigns calls some of his current progressive messaging into question, however. In 2010, he ran against Assemblymember Jeff Aubry and criticized Aubry’s efforts to repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws, according to the Queens Chronicle and Queens Courier.

Miranda disputed that reporting on his 2010 campaign and said he has championed police reform as a leader of the National Latino Officers Association. He texted two Getty Images photos of himself standing with Sean Diddy Combs, Russell Simmons, and then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo at a press conference demanding the repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

“We were speaking about these issues before it was safe or popular,” he said, adding that he would have “representatives from every single community in the borough functioning in our office.”

Miranda, who has raised $82,915 in private contributions and $377,484 in public matching funds as of June 8, remains aligned with close friend and one-time boss Hiram Monserrate, a former state senator and City Council member convicted of both public corruption and a domestic violence-related misdemeanor. Miranda defended his ties to Monserrate, who is now running for Assembly against Aubry, and said justice reform means giving people new opportunities after they serve their sentences.

He also pointed out that Costantinides, Crowley, and Richards attended a forum at Monserrate’s East Elmhurst Corona Democratic Club in 2019.

Miranda has been sharply critical of the three current or former Council members in the race when it comes to affordable housing and police reform. He went on the offensive during a NY1 candidates’ forum in early June, calling out Richards for his votes to increase NYPD funding.

Miranda has also blamed them for the lack of diversity on Queens community boards.

“They have all been part of that process, and it is either direct neglect or inattentiveness to that fact that there has been this lack of representation,” Miranda told the Queens Eagle in December 2019.

He said that as borough president he would assist Council members and local community boards with conducting community outreach to ensure people from underrepresented communities, especially Latino residents, apply to the boards. All 14 Queens community boards have significant racial, gender and ethnic disparities compared to the districts they represent.

Miranda has the backing of the Voice of Pakistani Americans, The Bangladeshi American Advocacy Group, New York City Deputy Sheriffs Association and 100 Hispanic Men.

He acknowledged the limited role of the borough president in terms of crafting policy. The main function of the office is to coordinate the borough’s many elected officials to more effectively lobby for the borough, he said.

“A coordinated process would have brought better results for Queens in the past,” he said. “The Queens borough president is supposed to be the chief cheerleader and organizer of all the political leaders in Queens and I would ensure that happens.”

All Queens Democrats are eligible to vote in the Borough President primary, which is happening via early voting June 13-21, primary day June 23, and absentee balloting open to all voters due to the pandemic. The winner of the primary will advance to the fall general election and be favored to win, then take office January 1, 2021, before having to run for reelection in the June 2021 primary and, if successful, fall 2021 general in order to then serve a full four-year term from 2022 through 2025.

by Samar Khurshid of Gotham Gazette & David Brand of the Queens Daily Eagle

@samarkhurshid @GothamGazette
@DavidFBrand @QueensEagle

Note - this article has been updated.

Queens Democrats Set to Vote for Next Borough President: What to Know About the Race and the Candidates Fri, 12 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
‘Defund the NYPD’? What’s Really in the New York City Police Department Budget lebanon hosp res

The NYPD budget is in the spotlight, but what's in it (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

The daily protests in New York City over police brutality and racism bore fruit this weekend as Mayor Bill de Blasio reversed course, announcing that he would cut police department funding and institute other reforms at the NYPD. The State Legislature also took notice and expedited a long list of police accountability and transparency measures that had languished for years.

Over the last ten days, as the protests swelled across the city and the NYPD responded with force, calls to “Defund the NYPD” reached a crescendo. Also against the backdrop of a severe city fiscal crisis brought about by the coronavirus shutdown, several City Council members vowed to vote against a budget that does not include major cuts to the police department, many of them insisting on at least a $1 billion reduction as the Council and mayor must deliver a spending plan by the July 1 start of the new fiscal year.

At $5.9 billion in the current fiscal year, the NYPD has the third-largest budget of all city agencies after the Department of Education and Department of Social Services. It comprised about 6% of the city’s total $92.8 billion adopted budget for the current fiscal year (FY2020). Most of that police department funding comes from the city, with a few hundred million from state and federal grants. 

The $5.9 billion in direct operating funding for the department doesn’t nearly cover what the police cost in New York City. Pension contributions and fringe benefits cost about another $5 billion in the 2020 fiscal year. There are capital funds allocated to policing infrastructure, including roughly $411 million in city funds in the 2021 fiscal year for cars and precincts, and another $211 million in expense funding spent on debt service for police-related capital costs that is not factored into the NYPD’s budget. 

Added to that are the costs to the city from settlements of claims against the NYPD. The latest annual report from Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office, from April 2019, showed that the city paid $230 million in the 2018 fiscal year for settlements and judgements stemming from 6,472 lawsuits.

The mayor’s executive budget proposal for the 2021 fiscal year, released in April, estimated that the NYPD will spend $5.92 billion by the end of the 2020 fiscal year and allocated $5.64 billion to the department (without state and federal funds) for the next fiscal year. Though the mayor’s budget included significant planned cuts at many city agencies, the NYPD emerged relatively unscathed, with only $23.8 million in planned reductions. And unlike other agencies that had to find large savings under the mayor’s $2.1 billion Program to Eliminate the Gap, the NYPD only found about $25 million in FY2020 and $16 million in FY2021. 

At the same time, the mayor slashed planned funding for education, youth employment, and after school programs. The Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) saw a 32% cut in its proposed budget, entirely eliminating the Summer Youth Employment Program that provided summer jobs to 70,000 young people, many from low-income communities of color, last year. After immense outcry, de Blaso has since indicated he is working with the Council and employers to create a version of the program, but has not announced details as June moves along.

The mayor promised on Sunday that he would shift funding from the NYPD towards “youth initiatives and social services,” though he did not provide specific numbers. “The details will be worked out in the budget process in the weeks ahead, but I want people to understand that we are committed to shifting resources to ensure that the focus is on our young people,” he said at a press briefing. “And I also will affirm while doing that, we will only do it in a way that we are certain continues to ensure that this city will be safe.”

The mayor’s announcement was welcomed by many of his fellow Democrats and by activists, though they noted it remains to be seen how far those cuts will go. Even NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea expressed public support, tweeting, "To help the kids of our city, I’m 1,000% behind shifting some funding from the police to youth programs. It’s incumbent upon all of us to dig down and do what’s needed." He too said in interviews that he still wants to see exactly what the mayor and City Council have in mind, though.

“I am happy that the Mayor had been listening to the Council’s calls to make substantial cuts to the NYPD and reinvest that money in communities of color and our young New Yorkers,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “I commend the Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus for its strong leadership in this discussion. The devil is in the details, but we are fighting hard for a budget that reflects our values and our priorities. As we have said, a less than one percent cut to the NYPD and a 32% cut to DYCD is not representative of our values.”

It would be hard to significantly cut the NYPD’s budget without severely reducing its headcount. The city in 2015 added nearly 1,800 employees to the NYPD, including 1,300 new officers at the behest of the City Council. 

According to an analysis by the Independent Budget Office, about 88.8% of the department’s adopted budget in Fiscal Year 2019 covered personnel services (salaries, wages and overtime) while 11.2% went to “Other than Personal Services” (OTPS) to fund purchase of supplies and equipment. Salaries and overtime for full-time employees – more than 36,000 uniformed personnel and about 15,500 civilian employees – covered nearly 75% of the budget. Planned overtime alone accounted for about 10% (or nearly $600 million) of spending that year while actual overtime spending was $730 million by the end of the fiscal year. 

City Comptroller Scott Stringer has recommended that the NYPD cut $1.1 billion in spending over four years -- roughly $265 million per year -- by reducing the number of uniformed officers through attrition, cutting down overtime, and lowering OTPS costs.

Stringer, who like Johnson is a Democrat running for mayor in next year’s election, called for those savings to be reinvested in communities that have been particularly hurt by structural racism and police violence. “Breaking down structural racism in New York City will require long-term, lasting change — and that must include reducing the NYPD’s budget,” Stringer said, in part, in a statement.

Stringer’s office says the comptroller is calling for a 5% cut in the NYPD’s planned fiscal year 2021 operating budget, while “the mayor is proposing a mere 0.31 percent cut” from the $5.9 billion sum.

Queens City Council Member Donovan Richards, who chairs the public safety committee that has oversight of the NYPD, said the Council is “finally gaining a lot of momentum” to make cuts in areas that they have looked at for years. He particularly noted that police overtime costs – which were as high as the $730 million – should be cut since crime is at or near historic lows and the city is mostly shut down because of the pandemic, and major public events, parades, and sports games have all been cancelled. Overtime use and abuse has long been a focus of the Council and fiscal watchdogs, particularly because the department does not report on overtime spending in a transparent manner. 

Even before the protests of this last week, the Council had been pushing for reallocating funds from the NYPD to youth programs as part of its vision for how to respond to the massive drop in tax revenue brought on by the coronavirus crisis. At a budget hearing, Richards said the city should cancel an incoming NYPD class, which he estimated could save $25 million. The city had delayed the class to July, saving about $6 million. 

“What is the city’s priority? To lock people up or find young people a job in the summer so they can in a lot of cases help their parents pay the bills and also be self-sufficient?,” he wondered. “Idle time is the devil’s playground. We don’t want our young people ending up in the justice system, especially in the hardest hit communities…during this pandemic.”

Richards also raised a concern that the mayor himself acknowledged on Sunday. There are functions that the NYPD shouldn’t necessarily play, Richards noted, such as community development and school safety. “Is this the message that we want to send to our children? That when they go to get their education, that they should be policed?” he said. 

In his announcement on Sunday, de Blasio said his recently created Task Force on Racial Inclusion and Equity would examine roles in city governance where the NYPD can be removed. He also said the police would no longer conduct enforcement over street vendors and instead that function would be given to a civilian agency.

The “NYC Budget Justice Campaign,” which is led by police reform groups and has been organizing around defunding the NYPD, writes that “While a cut of over $1 billion may sound dramatic, it would simply return the NYPD’s budget to roughly 2014 levels — a moment when crime rates had already plummeted in New York City.” The police department’s current roughly $6 billion budget, the campaign notes, “is larger than what we spend on health, homeless services, youth development, and workforce development combined.”

Money earmarked for the police should be shifted to summer youth employment, “education, homeless services, mental health services, programs for the aging, community-based organizations, and provide direct support to frontline and essential workers, and undocumented New Yorkers,” the campaign says. The funding to be shifted can be found through an NYPD hiring freeze; cancelling new cadet classes; shifting social service work from the police department to more appropriate agencies; firing “many” of the “220 NYPD officers currently on modified duty,” and more.

Richards also predicted that once state Civil Rights Law section 50-a is repealed or reformed and disciplinary records of police officers are made public, the department will be quicker to dismiss officers with records of misconduct and, therefore, will automatically reduce the amount of money that goes to settling lawsuits. In response to the recent protests, de Blasio has pledged to speed up the NYPD’s notoriously slow and secretive disciplinary process.

Ana Champeny, director of city studies at Citizens Budget Commission, a fiscal watchdog, said it’s hard to figure out how the NYPD spends its funds because its budget is opaque to the public.

“Looking at the budget doesn’t actually tell you why overtime is going up or what it’s even being spent on,” she said. The Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget does publish a “budget function analysis” that outlines different functions of NYPD spending but they are broad lumped categories with brief descriptions that cover hundreds of millions in allocations. 

They include categories such as administration ($637 million), chief of department ($943 million), patrol ($1.6 billion), school safety ($331 million), transit ($246 million), transportation ($227 million), intelligence and counterterrorism ($189 million), and allocations to different bureaus such as the detective bureau ($572 million), criminal justice bureau ($63 million), and housing bureau ($204 million). 

The budget function analysis is also separate from “units of appropriation,” which show the purpose for which funds are allocated to a certain agency. According to the annual Mayor’s Management Report, there are only eight units of appropriation under NYPD personnel services and six units of appropriation under OTPS. In FY 2019, for instance, the “operations” unit of appropriation under personnel services covered $3.5 billion of the department’s budget for nine of the functions included in the budget function analysis.

“Whenever we’re asked, what’s driving the growth, it’s really hard to say because we don’t have the disaggregated spending data being published,” she added, “and that should be publicly available in a machine-readable format so that people can really see what was it that you thought you were going to spend on each of these areas at the beginning in your budget and what did you actually spend.” 

Champeny echoed Richards’ and Stringer’s prescriptions on cutting overtime and reducing the NYPD’s headcount. CBC released a report in 2017 that noted that uniformed agencies’ overtime costs over the previous nine years exceeded projections in the adopted budget by an average of 42%. Uniformed NYPD officers earned an average of 19% in overtime pay each year, CBC estimated at the time. The nonprofit recommended several measures to cut down on overtime, though some would require bargaining with police unions to change work rules.

“We’re in the middle of what we think is going to be the biggest fiscal and economic crisis of our generation so the city really needs to be taking a close look at everything,” Champeny said. “Everyone really should be trying to see where they can tighten their belt especially given that we don’t know how this recovery will play out and whether the projections that we have right now will end up being accurate.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

‘Defund the NYPD’? What’s Really in the New York City Police Department Budget Tue, 09 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Privilege Trumps Priority in Black and Brown Communities, Again Donovan Richards

Council Member Donovan Richards, the author (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)

The lack of coronavirus testing sites in poor communities and particularly communities of color is costing black and brown New Yorkers their lives. There is no clearer example of institutional racism than the different infection and mortality rates during this crisis. It is a scar on our nation and our city. In areas of New York City that already experience the highest rates of asthma, diabetes, and other underlying conditions, this virus has already proven to be a death sentence.

Furthermore, it is people of color who are the essential workers keeping society going in this incredibly challenging time. But as the state and city grapple in the near future with restarting the economy, communities of color already starved for capital because of institutional insidiousness will rebound at a slower pace and face greater challenges.

Proactive measures such as identifying those who have the coronavirus but are asymptomatic and those who are free of the virus will prove critical in flattening the curve in the hardest hit areas of our city and giving us a fighting chance. Every country that has managed this crisis has done so with mass testing. This is step one in rebounding. We must contain the virus to stop the spread, and monitor the virus to turn the corner.

This is why leaders throughout our city are calling on the de Blasio administration to immediately ramp up testing, and it must be done in communities of color first given that so many of our neighbors are those who’ve been commuting to work while so many others stay home.

How is it that neighborhoods from Corona to Southeast Queens to the Rockaways have not one testing site?

We know who has found it is easy to get tested. The wealthy and well-connected, professional athletes, TV personalities, and many others, but sadly average Americans risk their health waiting in line for the limited testing available to less powerful New Yorkers.

We live in the epicenter and we are not testing. The outrage has no words. It is a scandal and it is costing us lives. Imagine if the epicenter were only in Manhattan? We would be testing door-to-door, with federal, state, and city focus unlike what we’ve seen.

Your socio-economic status shouldn’t determine whether you have access to a COVID-19 test. Frankly it shouldn’t determine the quality of your health care. But the reality right now is the difference between life and death.

And while I won’t pretend to be an expert who knows all the solutions for how to defeat COVID-19, I don’t have to be to look at the places that have successfully contained the virus and know what essential steps seem clear. New York should look to Taiwan and Germany, for example, and move quickly to emulate them.

Their successes have largely hinged on effective testing and tracking strategies. The more micro-data we have as a city, the better our chances of defeating COVID-19.

This is why universal testing for all must be taken more seriously by the de Blasio administration. So far the mayor has been reluctant to expand testing, because of a limited supply coupled with his belief that more testing will increase the spread of the virus in neighborhoods due to more symptomatic people traveling outside the home. The argument doesn’t hold up well when hospitals are being overwhelmed by people rightfully showing up at their doors begging to be tested. If you don’t believe me try visiting Elmhurst, Jamaica, or St. John’s Hospitals, among others.

The administration’s wishful thinking and calls for social distancing won’t stem the tide for black and brown communities, who often don’t have the luxury of isolating in a separate bedroom from other family members.

For those of us who grew up or are growing up now in a one-bedroom apartment with several family members in limited space, it isn’t hard to understand that everyone in many households have been compromised when an infected person is instructed to just go or stay home.

This especially endangers our vulnerable seniors, and this is why we must know who is infected but asymptomatic immediately. This can only be achieved through testing.

The bottom line is that without universal testing for all, this pandemic will be slow to recede tremendously in the most vulnerable corners of our city. And while I recognize that the federal government has been a complete failure, I want to see the city and the state do more. It’s good to hear the mayor and governor say widespread testing will be key to reopening schools and businesses, but we need more testing now in our communities of color.

The racial and ethnic data finally released by the de Blasio administration this week showed terrible if unsurprising disproportionate impact in communities of color, and the response from the mayor was welcome but late and short of what is needed. Black and brown communities need testing now.

In the face of the damning racial and ethnic data released by the city and state on Wednesday, the governor’s Thursday announcement that new testing sites in communities of color, including two in Queens, will open next week is welcome, though they will be by appointment only.

Resources such as access to food and rental assistance must also be concentrated in underserved communities. Anything less is not an option, if we want to successfully flatten the curve and save the lives of every New Yorker in our city.

Eventually, when the smoke clears and our city returns to any semblance of normalcy, there will be no shortage of public hearings and legislative packages passed at all levels of government. The government must be focused on demographic data and increase spending to improve the quality of life in low-income communities now and in the aftermath of this crisis.

Otherwise, the city will be incapable of ever stopping the spread of any virus that finds itself in the so-called progressive capital of the world. Because as the old saying goes, when America gets a cold, communities of color get pneumonia.

City Council Member Donovan Richards represents parts of Queens. On Twitter @DRichards13.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Privilege Trumps Priority in Black and Brown Communities, Again Thu, 09 Apr 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New Queens Borough President Special Election Date - Same as Party Primaries - Causes Confusion for Candidates, Officials mashup six

(l-r top) Richards, Crowley, Constantinides, (bottom) Quinn, Yin, Miranda

After being postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak, the Queens Borough president special election was rescheduled to take place on June 23, causing broad confusion among the candidates running for the seat and likely a logistical headache for election administrators since a separate primary for the position is also set for the same day.

The special election, which was triggered when Queens Borough President Melinda Katz was elected the borough’s district attorney, was originally scheduled for March 24, with an early voting period preceding it. But the winner of the election would only have served till the end of this year. Party primary elections would be held in June, followed by the general election in November, which would determine who serves the remainder of the term, which ends December 31, 2021.

Now, both the special election and the primary are scheduled for the same June date, coinciding with New York’s primary election for congressional and state legislative seats, according to an executive order signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo. The governor also moved the state’s presidential primary from April 28 to June 23. The June election will also have the required early voting period (June 13 through June 21).

Special elections are nonpartisan, which means any registered voter can cast a ballot, and candidates do not run on established party lines but must create their own. Primary elections, on the other hand, are “closed” and only allow voters registered with the relevant political party to cast a vote.

But officials have now scheduled for the same day the special election to see who will be Queens Borough President for the rest of the year and the primaries to determine nominees for the November general election that will determine the officeholder for 2021. According to New York City Board of Elections general counsel Steven Richman, this means that voters will receive different ballots depending on their party affiliation, with some eligible to vote in both the special election and the Democratic primary, and some only eligible for the special election. It is unclear if there will be any other party primaries for the seat.

There are six candidates on the special election ballot for Queens Borough President, while the primary ballot has yet to be set. The candidates include City Council Members Donovan Richards and Costa Constantinides; former City Council Member Elizabeth Crowley; retired NYPD Sergeant and police reform advocate Anthony Miranda; former Queens Assistant District Attorney Jim Quinn; and Dao Yin, a community activist. They are all registered Democrats. [Read about their visions for Queens and the role of borough president.]

It’s an unprecedented situation, and the candidates themselves have received little clarity from election authorities. At the same time, the candidates also worry that by June, the coronavirus pandemic will have yet to subside and that voters need easier ways to vote while still staying safe from exposure.

“There’s some ambiguity still,” said Crowley, in a brief phone interview. “I'm confident in my electability as both a candidate in the special and the primary, but I want to know about the rules of fundraising and how you keep two elections separate.”

Crowley said she wants the New York City Board of Elections to make it easier for people to vote, particularly if they’re continuing to mostly shelter at home in June. “I would like to see the Board of Elections give every voter an absentee ballot. They already pay money to send voters information about where they should vote and where their early voting sites are. With that, they should also send them the ballot in case they're not able to go, they can vote by mail.”

In a statement on Tuesday, Constantinides said that votes cast in early voting, which had briefly begun in mid-March before the election was cancelled, should still be counted. He also called on the BOE to automatically mail absentee ballots to every registered Queens voter, rather than have people apply for them as is currently required by law.

Currently, state election law only allows absentee ballots by mail for specific circumstances, and none of them account for the situation currently facing the state. State legislators have proposed expanding the criteria, but their proposals have yet to advance in the Legislature.

Constantinides also called for a new cycle of public matching funds administered by the New York City Campaign Finance Board. The CFB administers the city’s campaign finance programs and candidates are required to file separate spending and fundraising disclosures for each election. It’s unclear how the CFB will be able to monitor campaigns for separate elections held the same day.

In a letter to city and state leaders last week, CFB executive director Amy Loprest recommended that the special election be scheduled for June 23, but with the winner serving the remainder of the term through December 2021. She insisted that the administration of two elections set for the same day would be a nightmare and would also confuse voters. “The recordkeeping that will be required of candidates, and the subsequent CFB audit of expenditures, will be borderline unmanageable,” she said.

Miranda echoed those concerns. “They're going to have to relax the absentee ballot process and ensure that everybody is getting an absentee ballot at home,” he said. He also criticized the “lack of clarity” from election officials about the rules governing two simultaneous elections. “You cut down the ability for candidates to communicate with the constituents, and you have no clarity in the message of health or the rules and regulations that govern this particular campaign,” he said.

“The health of voters and poll workers remains our primary concern, and moving the election is a way that will help us accomplish that,” said Council Member Richards, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “But we also need to educate voters on the process for this election, which requires guidance from the Board of Elections and the Campaign Finance Board. Elections are a crucial component of our democracy, and we must ensure that they are conducted properly.”

Quinn praised the governor’s decision to reschedule the election. “This is an incredibly trying time for our nation, our city, and in particular, our home borough of Queens, which continues to be a hot spot in the Coronavirus outbreak,” he said. “More than 10,000 of our friends, family and neighbors have contracted COVID-19 and more than 200 Queens residents have lost their lives. Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected by this virus. As we navigate this ‘new normal,’ we will continue to make the health and safety of New Yorkers our top priority and do our part to stop the spread. I have no doubt that we will emerge from this stronger than ever and more united in support of a strong, safe and healthy New York.”

[Read: In Special Election, Borough President Candidates Offer Different Visions for Queens]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

New Queens Borough President Special Election Date - Same as Party Primaries - Causes Confusion for Candidates, Officials Tue, 31 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Offering Different Visions for Queens, Borough President Candidates Face New June Special Election Constantinides Richards City Council Queens

Council Members Constantinides, left, & Richards (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases skyrocketed in the city this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio decided to cancel the special election for Queens Borough President that was scheduled to conclude March 24.

Early voting had already begun in the special election to fill a vacancy that was created when the former officeholder, Melinda Katz, was elected Queens District Attorney. A spokesperson for the mayor said that “pending state approval,” the city will reschedule the election – along with another special election for the City Council’s District 37 seat, which was set for late April, – for June 23, when state and congressional primaries are slated to take place.

The winning candidate in each of the two special elections would serve the remainder of the term, through December 2021, rather than having to run for reelection in a primary and general this year, as had been required before the coronavirus outbreak.

On Saturday, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he is postponing the April 28 presidential primary election and special elections set for that date, including the Council District 37 election, to all coincide with the June 23 primaries, though the executive order did not mention the Queens Borough President election. Then on Sunday, Cuomo signed another executive order moving the Queens Borough President special eleciton to June 23 as well, and clarifying candidate eligibility.

"The special election in the City of New York to fill the vacancy in the Office of Borough President of Queens is rescheduled for June 23, 2020," the executive order states. "Only candidates who were eligible to appear on the ballot for the March 24, 2020 special election shall appear on the ballot for the June 23, 2020 special election."

Like other elections set for June 23, there will be an early voting period from Saturday June 13 through Sunday June 21, with a day of no voting on Monday June 22, followed by the election day of June 23. There is some discussion in Albany of allowing all voters to vote by mail, but nothing has advanced yet. But there's a catch: as of now, on those same June dates, there will be both the special election for Queens Borough President to see who holds the seat for the rest of 2020 and the party primaries to nominate candidates for the November general election that will determine the officeholder for 2021.

The Queens Borough President Race
The election is a six-way contest among sitting City Council Members Donovan Richards and Costa Constantinides; former City Council Member Elizabeth Crowley; retired NYPD Sergeant and police reform advocate Anthony Miranda; former Queens Assistant District Attorney Jim Quinn; and Dao Yin, a community activist with corporate experience.

The special election scheduled for March was to be nonpartisan, with any registered voter in the borough able to cast a ballot; candidates were not running on established party lines and each created their own party name to appear on the ballot. Whichever candidate received the most votes was to win, no matter the percentage -- there is no run-off and ranked-choice voting, which was approved by voters by ballot referenda last year, does not go into effect until 2021.

These rules will be recreated for June, so all Queens voters would be able to participate in the borough president special election. But if officials keep the party primaries for Queens Borough President at the same time, only party-affiliated voters will be able to participate in that one of the two concurrent borough president elections.

One factor that none of the candidates could have accounted for is the disruption currently rippling across the city because of the coronavirus pandemic. Before the election was suspended, candidates were already reeling and drastically altering their campaigning strategies. On March 14, Governor Cuomo did sign an executive order suspending the ballot petitioning process while also cutting the signature requirement to 30% of the threshold.

The six candidates in the special election are seeking to represent a borough of more than 2 million people, nearly half of whom were born outside the United States. Gotham Gazette interviewed five of the six candidates over the phone – Dao Yin’s campaign did not respond to inquiries – and they mostly agreed that the main issues that Queens voters care about are affordable housing, transit, environmental protection, public safety and criminal justice, and job growth.

Queens, as is the case with the entire city, is struggling with an affordability crisis that threatens to drive out low-income residents, particularly in communities of color, as gentrification continues in a number of neighborhoods. About 85% of the borough has limited if any access to subway lines, with large portions considered public transit deserts. Parts of the borough continue to feel the devastating impact of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, with homeowners facing rising ocean water and flood insurance rates. The borough will also eventually house a new jail, approved as part of the Rikers Island closure plan, which was part of what brought criminal justice and pre-trial justice issues to the forefront in last year’s Queens District Attorney race. The massive Sunnyside Yard development plan is beginning to gain steam and will be a key project for the next borough president to monitor and influence.

The borough president does not hold the same power as an elected legislator on all those issues but the office offers a prominent bully pulpit, depending on how it’s wielded, among other defined and fungible resources. Borough presidents play a significant role in influencing land use decisions but do not have a binding vote. They control millions of dollars in capital funding every year for infrastructure projects like schools, parks, libraries, and bike lanes. They appoint members of community boards, who also play an advisory role in local land use decisions. And they have the ability to sponsor legislation before the City Council, though they cannot vote on that either. The borough president sits on the Pension Board of Trustees and appoints a member to the citywide Panel for Educational Policy, as well as members to local Community Education Councils and a member to the City Planning Commission. Mostly, the borough president is the borough’s community liaison, advocate, defender, ombudsperson, and cheerleader, all wrapped in one.

The candidates Gotham Gazette spoke with -- interviews that occurred just before the coronavirus outbreak took over the city and postponed the special election -- outlined different visions for the role and how they’d use it to help Queens residents.

Richards: “I’ve led on each one of these issues.”
Though there’s been no public polling in the race, some consider City Council Member Richards the frontrunner after he was endorsed by the Queens County Democratic Party and many Queens elected officials at various levels of government. He has since been backed by leaders of the Brooklyn Democratic Party as well and prominent unions including the United Federation of Teachers and the Hotel Trades Council.

Richards has represented District 31, which covers Southeast Queens and Far Rockaway, in the Council since 2013. His borough president campaign pitch is not so much about what he would do for the borough but rather what he has already done as a member of the City Council.

In his seven years in the Council, he has served as chair of the environmental protection committee, the zoning and franchises committee, and the public safety committee. “Everybody will talk about climate change. They'll talk about the need for housing, they talk about safety. And over the course of the last six years, I've led on each one of these issues,” he said. He ticked off pieces of his record: helping coauthor the city’s OneNYC sustainability plan to fight climate change, spearheading the Downtown Far Rockaway rezoning, which he worked with the de Blasio administration on and is already bearing fruit, and the Peninsula Hospital rezoning (a private plan yet to be approved), and securing $2 billion in funding for infrastructure in his community.

“We've shown over the course of the last six years that we are ready to make sure every corner of Queens feels represented,” he said.

Richards prides himself on being able to meet people in the middle on issues. It’s what defines his approach to public safety and policing. He’s played a prominent role in the Council’s efforts to reform the NYPD and drastically reduce marijuana summonses, while also negotiating with the administration to build a new $94 million police precinct in his district. He asks pointed questions of NYPD officials while chairing oversight and legislative hearings, but always appears ready to find common ground with department leaders. At the same time, he has been outspoken about wanting to see more accountability for officers who unjustly harm civilians, particularly in instances where black men have been killed or injured by police.

Somewhat controversially, Richards hasn’t shied away from real estate donations, which some of the other candidates have eschewed as have progressive Democrats more broadly in recent elections. He insists that real estate developers need to be at the table as the city seeks to build more affordable housing. He also noted that he’s been a strong supporter of Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, the change in land use policy that mandated that developers create affordable housing when they receive allowances from the city to build more densely. Richards says he’d never be beholden to campaign contributions  and pointed out that he’s the only candidate who turned in people who actually tried to bribe him. “We can't be bought,” he said.

“My integrity can never be compromised. Every developer knows when they come to my desk that we're going to drive a hard bargain,” he added.

With land use being one of the main areas where the borough president can play a prominent role, Richards says he will create a zoning task force and ramp up the land use division at Queens Borough Hall to look at corridors of the borough to create more density, infrastructure, retail development, and wraparound services. “One of the things that's held city planning back from moving more aggressively is the belief of community opposition everywhere. So if the community comes up with the plan...we can lead the conversation,” he said. 

Richards is also among the candidates who lament the failure of the short-lived deal to bring an Amazon satellite campus and a promised 25,000 jobs to Queens. The deal caused a rift among elected officials and among labor unions – those who supported it pointed to the jobs and revenue it would have created, while those that opposed it criticized the billions in subsidies offered by the city and state and Amazon’s anti-union record, among other things. “The subsidy is a hook for accountability,” Richards said. “It’s no different than when we do affordable housing and a developer comes and says I want a 40-year tax abatement. That’s a hook. They need my approval.”

Constantinides: “I really believe that we can transform how the borough president can interact with the residents of Queens.”
City Council Member Constantinides represents District 22, which includes Astoria, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and Woodside.

Environmental issues are top of mind for Constantinides, who has been the chair of the Council’s environmental protection committee since 2015. He has sponsored and passed 35 environmental protection bills in six years, a record that earned him the endorsement of the Sunrise Movement NYC. His achievements include the landmark Climate Mobilization Act, a version of a “Green New Deal” for New York City, passed by the City Council and signed by the mayor last year, that mandates massive greenhouse gas emissions reductions, particularly from the largest buildings that contribute about 70% of all emissions in the city, and retrofitting for environmentally-friendly energy use.

His borough president platform reflects that priority – he has proposed a “Green New Queens” plan that would create 50,000 new green jobs and double green spaces in ten years; utilize capital funding to install green roofs and solar panels on city buildings; close dirty power plants in the borough by 2025; and also appoint a resiliency czar as a new Deputy Borough President for Sustainability. 

He also wants to transform Rikers Island into a “renewable energy island” as the city debates uses for the site after the jail complex eventually shuts down. As a supporter of the state’s recent criminal justice reforms (limiting cash bail, enhancing speedy trial, and discovery reforms), he also linked the closure of Rikers to the plague of environmental injustice. “The same communities that have been over-policed have also had power plants put in their backyard,” he said, noting that fixing one would help to fix the other.

Constantinides wants to expand the borough president’s constituent reach by following Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s lead in reforming the community board appointments process and creating satellite offices across the borough. “We’re the largest borough and yet we are still using an antiquated system to appoint our community board members and an antiquated system to reach out by only having one office of 60 employees on Queens Boulevard. We could look to Gale Brewer’s model as a better one,” he said.

Constantinides’ support for organized labor – he said he would oppose any land use application that lacks a union labor component – is among the reasons he opposed the Amazon deal. “I believe Amazon was a bad deal, from start to finish,” he said. “They tried to come in by not using ULURP. They tried to come in and not have any of their employees unionized. They tried to come in and overwhelm our transit system and gentrify our families out of our neighborhoods. They came with no plan for resiliency.” The powerful Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which had similarly opposed Amazon, endorsed Constantinides for borough president.

Though he insisted he was not criticizing Melinda Katz’s record as borough president, he said the office has too often taken a “backseat” on land use issues. In particular, though he was one of the Council members to approve the de Blasio administration rent-restricted housing policies (mandatory inclusionary housing), he was critical of how MIH has played out.

“I voted for MIH and I believed at the time that MIH was going to be a good step forward. But in practice, it hasn't worked,” he said, noting that the policy gives City Council members the ability to choose one of three affordable housing options and that it hamstrings them from making harder bargains with developers. “It's definitely a plan that needs to be tweaked,” he said. Of note, he has rejected donations from the real estate industry and he also supports Public Advocate Jumaane Williams’ proposal to mandate a racial impact study of proposed rezonings.

Constantinides has proposed giving each of the five borough presidents an appointment on the MTA Board, to vociferously advocate for the borough’s transit needs. His opponents have embraced the idea and, shortly after he proposed it, Queens Assemblymember Aravella Simotas and Brooklyn State Senator Andrew Gounardes introduced a bill to that effect before the state Legislature.

Crowley: “Queens needs a borough president who fights for the borough’s fair share, and that's something I've been doing my whole life.”
In 2009, Elizabeth Crowley became the first woman and first Democrat to represent City Council District 30, which includes the neighborhoods of Glendale, Maspeth, Middle Village, Ridgewood, Woodhaven, and Woodside. She served for nine years on the Council, and was chair of the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services and co-chair of the Women’s Caucus. In 2017, she narrowly lost her seat to Bob Holden, a registered Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged her in the Democratic primary and then defeated her in the general election running on the Republican line.

Crowley’s top campaign priority has been advocating for improving the city’s mass transit system. She’s among the many elected officials to oppose the Queens bus network overhaul that the MTA has proposed (and said it is going back to the drawing board to redo). “Queens, if it was its own city, would be the fourth largest city in the country and we are growing fast, and that infrastructure need has not been met with the growth,” she said. Crowley is advocating for a new commuter train line on the existing freight routes running through Glendale and Maspeth, and wants to expand ferry service to Northeast Queens. Her advocacy for transit was behind the endorsement she received from the Transport Workers Union Local 100.

She also promises to extend that advocacy to land use. The city needs to pursue “transit-oriented development,” which she said was missing from the Downtown Far Rockaway rezoning. “That area of Queens is completely underserved, no transit improvements were [made] with this development,” she said. Crowley’s refused donations from real estate developers, though she has accepted them from members of construction unions. “I'm a trades person first. I was a union member,” she said, referring to her time as a member of D.C. 9 International Union of Painters and Allied Trades.

As a City Council member, Crowley repeatedly and successfully fought back the closure of firehouses in the borough. She’s also promised to create an anti-Semitism task force to tackle rising hate crimes in the borough. She’s been endorsed by uniformed workers unions including the Uniformed Firefighters Association, the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association of the NYPD, among others.

But that doesn’t mean she has a more moderate stance on criminal justice – she supported the closure of the Rikers jails and reopening the Queens House of Detention; she was also a proponent for raising the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18 years old, to prevent 16- and 17-year-olds from being jailed at Rikers and other outcomes.

Since leaving the Council, Crowley has helped lead the 21 in ‘21 initiative, which aims to elect 21 women to the City Council in the 2021 elections, when the entire elected city government will be on the ballot and dozens of Council members are facing term limits, thus opening up their seats. There are currently 12 women in the Council, down from 18 in 2009, and that number could fall even further. There are also no citywide positions held by women; and of the five borough presidents, Gale Brewer also can’t run for reelection (though she plans to pursue her old City Council seat, currently held by Helen Rosenthal, who is running for Comptroller).

That underrepresentation also exists in Queens community boards, an issue that Crowley pledges to fix. “Here we are in the most progressive city, at least we like to think that, in the entire country, and when it comes to women's representation on community boards and legislative bodies, we don't even have a critical mass...Our most local level of government is not reflective of the population it represents,” she said.

As with other candidates, Crowley said she would use the borough president’s pulpit to advocate for more capital dollars to invest in resiliency infrastructure, besides using the funds at her disposal to make improvements to city buildings. “We can be the first county in the state to go carbon neutral...We also need to be more proactive about protecting our shorelines and greening our infrastructure that is already built,” she said.

She added, “I think that there's only $60 million, roughly, in the borough president's budget and if you want to make a larger impact with climate, then you have to partner with the mayor and the governor to bring back sizable resources.”

One issue that other candidates besides Crowley seem to have overlooked is veterans affairs. Queens is home to 58,815 veterans, the most of any borough, and Crowley believes the city has failed them. “The city's not doing enough and our veterans are suffering,” she said. If elected, she intends to re-appoint a veterans’ affairs liaison at Borough Hall to expand access to services. She’ll also factor in veteran status when making community board appointments, she has pledged.

Crowley was also a supporter of the Amazon deal, though she did concede that the company should have worked harder to engage with community residents before attempting to plant its flag in Queens.

Miranda: “I'm the only independent candidate that’s not county-run. I'm not compromised by any special interest.”
“I'm running for Queens Borough President to be able to change the conversation,” said Miranda, a retired NYPD sergeant who is founder and chair of the National Latino Officers Association.

Miranda’s could easily be described as an anti-establishment campaign. “I believe that most of Queens’ residents are fed up with politics as usual,” he said. He emphasized that problems that plague Queens aren’t new and that they can’t be solved by the very people in office who have overseen them for years. “Everything you look at has been an ongoing problem,” he said, whether it’s the lack of affordable housing, a dysfunctional transit system or an unequal criminal justice system. But his biggest gripe was that Queens residents are being left out of the key discussions about their borough on everything, from housing to transit, public safety, criminal justice, and more.

“The borough president is one of the most vocal positions that you can have. You represent all of Queens. You can hold public hearings, you can bring attention to issues, you can organize around issues, so you don't have to be left out of the conversation,” he said.

On the major issues that Queens has faced in the last few years, he said the de Blasio administration and local electeds have ignored the desires of the community while failing to fix the problems that already exist, whether it concerns the borough-based jails plan, the Rockaway rezoning, the Sunnyside Yards proposal, or the Amazon deal.

“We have current crises in all of our borough but we have proposals for billion-dollar projects without fixing the basic things that are still broken,” he said.

He said the Far Rockaway rezoning didn’t do enough to address resiliency infrastructure or transit. “We're going to build the Downtown Rockaway area and then have the rest of the homes float away? We still have families that have not been back in their home since the hurricane. How is that possible? We still have houses that get flooded every time there's a significant rainfall in Far Rockaway. How is that not fixable? We still have transportation deserts where the buses or trains don't even get to. How was that not part of our plan, but we're gonna invest millions in downtown?”

His critical stance on the “luxury development” rampant across the borough, exacerbating the existing displacement pressures that Queens residents feel, is why he is refusing donations from the real estate industry as well. “I think every average person will know that there's a conflict of interest in that kind of taking of money,” he said.

And he criticized the elected officials that approved the mayor’s housing program and have facilitated, in his opinion, the overdevelopment of Queens. “Everybody running for office right now, the elected officials running for office were the cause of the problem,” he said. “Many of them speak to little projects that they did in their communities, in their particular districts, but they're the same people that signed off and approved all the other displacement that's going on, the disenfranchisement, the gentrification of the communities that are all over Queens.”

Quinn: “The prime concern of any public official in New York City should be the safety of the citizens of New York City.”
It’s not surprising that for Quinn public safety is the prime issue in the borough president race. Quinn is the former senior executive assistant district attorney in the Queens DA’s office, where he was second-in-command to the late DA Richard Brown. After Brown’s death, Quinn led the office in the interim.

Quinn separates himself from the field by his positions on criminal justice. A “tough-on-crime” prosecutor, he was the chief spokesperson for the DA’s office in opposing the “terrible idea” to close Rikers Island jails and replace them with borough-based jails – as borough president, he’s vowed to fight “tooth and nail” to try and halt that plan in Queens. Instead, he would like to see the Rikers facilities reformed and rebuilt.

“They could have started this three years ago and rebuilt all the jails on Rikers Island and they'd be done by now,” he said. “Because they don't have to fight communities. They don't have to fight the community boards. They don't have to go through the ULURP system. They don't have to go through all these other machinations that they now have to do.” Quinn has also advocated against what he calls the recent “irresponsible and reckless” criminal justice reforms adopted by the state, like on bail.

“I decided to run because I wanted to make a difference in this race and I wanted to make sure that these issues were addressed, and that they're addressed intelligently, not just in chants and slogans,” he said.

He cited the uptick in crime numbers reported by the NYPD early this year after the state’s bail reform took effect as a major cause of concern. However, there has been some debate about whether the numbers can be fairly judged in such a short time frame. Quinn brushed that aside. “There was no debate about the numbers when it showed crime going down,” he said.

Though he is a registered Democrat, he has been endorsed by the Queens County Republican Party and the Conservative Party. The New York City Correction Officers Benevolent Association backed him, as did the aforementioned City Council Member Holden, who unseated Crowley in 2017.

Whether on housing, transit, or economic development, Quinn said the conversations tend to be derailed by politicians pandering to interest groups and by a lack of reasonable debate. “I don't think we have realistic, rational discussions about issues in New York City anymore. It's all fighting and yelling at one another,” he said.

One example he cited is the Amazon deal, which he supported. “New York City and that raucous, loud group was able to drive out a business that would have created 25,000 high-paying jobs,” he said, referring to the elected officials, community groups, and advocates who opposed the proposed campus.

Though he said a key role of the borough president is to convene public hearings on everything from the proposed development of Sunnyside Yard or the MTA’s bus redesign proposal, he argued the limits of the office in effecting broader change, on climate change, for instance. “The notion that the Queen's County Borough President is going to have a substantial effect on climate change is fanciful to put it mildly,” he said.

A former robotics company executive and community activist, Yin worked as a corporate comptroller for 11 years for two fortune 500 companies, according to his campaign website.

Yin’s platform is focused on creating jobs for the borough, while preparing Queens residents for the future of employment. “Technology jobs play a larger role in our lives but maintaining an educated and trained workforce outside of the Technology Industry will be just as important,” his website reads. “We need to plan for the future of work and jobs, and we need a borough led effort to respond to advancements, in a way that protects and honors the role of workers within the work they do.”

Citing the rising costs of living in Queens, Yin pledges to work for the improvement of working families in the borough. He particularly noted that the loss of the 25,000 jobs that the Amazon deal would have brought with it “should not have happened.”

“Dao Yin is determined to work with the large corporations to bring back those jobs to Queens by working with its communities and showing its residents how they would benefit from such windfalls. Dao believes that if the public understands the benefit they would support the job creation,” his platform reads.

He also says he tackle the borough’s transit and homelessness issues, though he seems more focused on so-called “quality of life” problems. “Quality of Life issues should take precedence and homeless people living on our streets and corners should not be an issue that residents should have to settle for in their everyday lives,” his platform states. He would push for a 10% City Rent Tax Credit for households under a certain income threshold and promote homeownership programs.

He would also push for improvement to the borough’s bus and subway systems, and supports the proposed LaGuardia AirTrain project as a key job creator.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

This article has been updated to reflect the June election set by the governor.

Offering Different Visions for Queens, Borough President Candidates Face New June Special Election Sun, 29 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Ballot Set for Queens Borough President Special Election After Unprecedented 'Lottery' 1 flushing meadow

Queens BP special election is March 24 (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

In low-turnout and low-information elections, like the typical special election in New York City, the prominence of a candidate’s name on the ballot can go a long way -- and that depends largely on the order in which the candidates are listed. Traditionally the subject of gaming by campaigns, for the March special election to name a new Queens Borough President, the order was determined by an unprecedented method: random draw.

“Three candidates filed simultaneously so the order of the ballot is going to be determined, by rule of our commissioners this past Tuesday, for the first three candidates that filed, via the lottery,” said Tom Satte, the ballot coordinator at the New York City Board of Elections, as he announced the outcome like the host of a lottery drawing. He was sitting in the BOE offices in Lower Manhattan in front of a large bingo wheel as another staff member turned, pulled, and read numbers off the colored balls inside.

Normally, ballot order is determined on a first-come, first-serve basis, where candidates are listed in the order in which they submit the requisite number of qualifying petition signatures starting on the submission date set by the BOE. But in the special election to replace former Queens Borough President Melina Katz, which has already seen its share of ballot-access wrangling among nearly a dozen potential candidates, three prominent campaigns -- those of Elizabeth Crowley, Donovan Richards, and Jimmy Van Bramer -- turned in their petitions within two minutes of one another, a margin narrow enough to lead elections administrators to consider using the novel approach for what they say is the first time.

On January 6, the third day to file petition signatures, Crowley, Richards, and Van Bramer, all current or former Democrats in the City Council, each delivered more than the required number of valid signatures and accompanying documentation between 9 a.m. and 9:02 a.m. Following a recommendation by the board’s legal staff and in compliance with state rules, the BOE voted to hold a random drawing among the three candidates to determine who’s name would appear first on the ballot.

“This is the first time that this specific issue happened,” said BOE General Counsel Steve Richman in a presentation to commissioners last Tuesday. “A fourth candidate filed at 9:06, Costa Constantinides, so I guess he’s not applicable [under our rules] because it’s four minutes later.”

The final order on the ballot will be Richards, Crowley, Van Bramer, then Constantinides (another Democratic Council Member), followed by Jim Quinn, Dao Yin, and Anthony Miranda. Van Bramer had dropped out of the race, citing his mother’s health, before the bingo drawing, but since he submitted valid signatures in time, his name will appear on the ballot.

Miranda, a former police sergeant who initially did not qualify because of a technical error on his cover sheet, was added to the ballot following a rare successful appeal. Quinn is a prosecutor and 42-year veteran of the Queens District Attorney’s Office and Yin is a businessman from Flushing.

In order to get on the ballot, candidates must obtain a set number of signatures from eligible voters, which varies depending on the office sought. For the Queens Borough President special election candidates needed to submit 2,000 valid signatures of registered Queens voters by the January 14 filing deadline. In partisan elections, like party primaries, the signatures must come from voters registered with the given party, but city special elections are non-partisan meaning candidates don’t run on traditional party lines, and any registered voter in the district could provide a valid signature. All Queens voters are eligible to vote on March 24, the special election day, and the nine days of early voting beforehand.

Candidates usually seek more than the minimum signature threshold -- often by a factor of three -- because once petitions have been submitted, campaigns try to challenge the validity of their rivals’ signatures in an effort to knock them off the ballot. The ability to submit enough signatures early and to challenge the signatures on an opponents’ petition is usually the sign of a well-organized and well-resourced campaign, and is part of the election calculus of campaign strategists.

The Queens Borough President special election was officially declared by Mayor de Blasio at the beginning of the year, when Katz took office as Queens County District Attorney after winning a crowded and closely-watched race in 2019.

Nine candidates, two of whom failed to get on the ballot, filed with the New York City Campaign Finance Board. In the first filing period all the candidates reported raising a collective $1.4 million in private contributions.

Of the roughly $858,000 spent in the race as of the January 16 filing, the biggest spenders remaining -- Crowley and Constantinides -- are also the only two thus far receiving public matching funds through the city’s campaign financing program. Crowley has spent about $232,000 and received $498,000 in public matches. Constantinides trails slightly, having spent $213,000 and received $477,000.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ballot Set for Queens Borough President Special Election After Unprecedented 'Lottery' Tue, 04 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
De Blasio's Answer to Garner Death, NYPD Deescalation Training Slowly Evolves Toward Meeting Mayor’s Rhetoric police academy graduation

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

In the five years following Eric Garner’s death at the hands of then-NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly fallen back on the same argument to defend the police department when questions are raised about apparent incidents of excessive force or other misconduct by officers: deescalation training.

“[T]he goal is always to de-escalate,” the mayor said at a news conference on crime statistics on November 6, addressing a recent “chaotic” incident on a Brooklyn subway platform where an officer was caught on video punching two teenagers in the face amid a crowded brawl. The officer was later placed on desk duty while the department investigates the incident.

“That officer's obviously been modified, there's obviously a concern there being investigated, but we want our officers to engage members of the public in a way that de-escalates conflict,” the mayor continued. “That's what they're being trained to do.”

It’s what Pantaleo had failed to do before he decided to try to take Garner into custody back in 2014. The encounter, caught on cellphone video, showed Garner objecting to what he said was repeated and unnecessary harassment by police as Pantaleo and his partner told him they were responding to complaints that Garner was illegally selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. When Garner refused to cooperate with the arrest and be handcuffed, Pantaleo placed him in a chokehold – banned by department policy – from behind and pulled him to the ground instead of attempting to reason with him to get him to comply. Multiple officers then restrained Garner who said “I can’t breathe” 11 times before losing consciousness. He was later pronounced dead at a hospital.

When then-NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill fired Pantaleo in August of this year, in carefully worded remarks he stressed how difficult the decision had been for him. “I served for nearly 34 years as a uniformed New York City cop before becoming Police Commissioner. I can tell you that had I been in Officer Pantaleo’s situation, I may have made similar mistakes,” he said. “And had I made those mistakes, I would have wished I had used the arrival of back-up officers to give the situation more time to make the arrest. And I would have wished that I had released my grip before it became a chokehold. Every time I watched the video, I say to myself, as probably all of you do, to Mr. Garner: ‘Don’t do it. Comply.’ To Officer Pantaleo: ‘Don’t do it.’ I said that about the decisions made by both Officer Pantaleo and Mr. Garner.”

In December 2014, on the heels of a Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict Pantaleo for Garner’s death, de Blasio announced that the NYPD would begin retraining all of its tens of thousands of officers in de-escalation techniques.

“[T]he training that’s going to happen here in this building will change the future of this city,” the mayor promised at the time, speaking from the Police Academy in Queens. “It will have not just an impact on thousands of people, it will have an impact on millions of people, because every interaction that every officer has with their fellow New Yorkers after they are trained again will be different. And that will multiply many times over, for years and years to come and a whole new generation of officers will be trained with a new approach.”

But it has taken more than five years for the department to slowly adopt best practices and recommendations from outside watchdogs who say its training curriculum must be strengthened. And major questions remain about how effective the training has been, whether officers who don’t follow department protocols are held accountable, and whether the NYPD has truly been transformed to the extent the mayor claims.

Incidents like the one on the Brooklyn subway platform, where full details remain murky, have also led to some public outcry that the mayor’s and departmental rhetoric often does not match the actions of officers, and that retraining cannot ameliorate the effects of the broken windows policing paradigm that, even if modified, disproportionately targets and criminalizes people of color.

De Blasio and NYPD officials repeatedly stress that incidents where officers escalate or fail to de-escalate situations are aberrations for a department that employs 36,000 uniformed officers and that the department as a whole has been transformed, in large part by the new training regime. Even after the latest NYPD report showed that incidents of use of force by officers had increased, particularly the deploying of tasers, de Blasio defended the department.

“De-escalation is the dominant approach now. It has been for years,” he said at a December 5 news conference on crime statistics. “The retraining of the entire police force...the meaning of that was not fully felt because there are so many other things happening. But if you really stop and think about it and look around this country, retraining an entire police force and then continually reinforcing that training in the name of de-escalation, is a seismic change.”

But there are significant questions about whether de Blasio is right.

In October 2015, the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD, an independent watchdog under the Department of Investigation, issued a lengthy report that critiqued the department’s use-of-force policy and made sweeping recommendations for reforms to policy, reporting on incidents, disciplinary measures, and training. Based on its review of the NYPD patrol guide procedures, Police Academy curriculum, and in-service training, the report “identified little to no substantive focus on de-escalation in NYPD’s training programs.”

The report made five specific recommendations on deescalation training: create specific Police Academy and in‐service courses that involve classroom and scenario‐based training; create a formal evaluation system for all scenario‐based trainings on the use of force; increase funding and personnel at the Police Academy to train recruits and in‐service officers; train officers to intervene when other officers escalate a situation; and review use‐of‐force trends to identify and retrain the serving officers that most need deescalation and use‐of‐force training.

Almost immediately after the report, the NYPD issued new use-of-force guidelines that it had been crafting. The new policies mandated documentation of each use-of-force incident, created a new division to investigate those incidents, and included instructions for officers to de-escalate situations.

For instance, it outlined that if an individual refuses to answer questions or walks away during a Level 1 encounter (the lowest level, where officers are simply asking for information), that does not constitute escalation.

The new policy has yielded three annual reports on use of force, with the long-delayed latest released on December 3, for data on 2018. In total, there were 7,879 NYPD use-of-force incidents reported last year, an increase of 500 from 2017.

Meanwhile, for this year there have been 1,911 arrests for resisting arrest as of September 30, compared with 1,891 in the same time period last year.

"The use of force by a police officer is often the result of a subject resisting arrest,” the report reads, though it does not indicate how often. “Resisting arrest is a crime under New York State law."

Similar to the use-of-force guidelines, the department’s new deescalation training methods have evolved and grown from the early stages where it simply involved a three-day retraining course.

According to the NYPD, deescalation has been incorporated into the curriculum for recruits and is reinforced over an officer’s career. Training involves academic teaching as well as lessons taught by a Scenario Based Training Unit, which, as the Department of Investigation report shows, was slow to be adopted.

The department also conducts workshops on interacting with people experiencing mental health crises and, as of October, more than 15,000 officers have received Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) to respond to situations involving such individuals. Part of the CIT instruction, which includes uniformed instructors and mental health clinicians, involves scenarios by professional improvisational actors. Recruits are also taught to review actual body-camera footage from incidents involving tense encounters. (The mayor’s office and NYPD also recently released a long-delayed new set of protocols for officers responding to people experiencing a mental health crisis).

The NYPD did not make Chief of Training Bureau Theresa Shortell available for an interview despite multiple requests.

The mayor and NYPD leadership have emphasized the results of the new training paradigm along with the shift towards so-called neighborhood policing, which involves cops working the same beats and attempting to forge relationships in communities. They point out that arrests and summonses have dropped precipitously in the last few years, as have use-of-force incidents, all while major felony crimes have mostly continued to drop as well.

The new policing model has its critics on both sides. Many conservative voices and elected officials say the mayor has tied officers’ hands and deprived them of the ability to safely do their jobs, including in incidents when use of force could be necessary. They say that no one wants to be the next Pantaleo, vilified for using force to arrest a non-compliant suspect, and that this puts cops and the public at greater risk because officers often don’t have time to think twice. They point to incidents like an arrest in the Bronx in August caught on video, where officers clearly seem hesitant to force a man in handcuffs into a police car despite his repeated resistance. Then there were the multiple instances of officers being doused with water over the summer, none of which prompted immediate action on the scene by the officers. Some praised these officers for their restraint.

On the other hand, some progressives say that the city’s policing and police department are inherently broken, racially biased, and harmful, with officers enjoying far too much leeway and experiencing little accountability for wrongdoing. They say that despite talk of deescalation, officers still abuse their power with impunity and in fact escalate encounters with civilians, especially in communities of color. Repeated instances caught on video demonstrate their point.

In its fifth annual report of investigations by the NYPD Inspector General’s Office, issued in April of this year, DOI noted that out of the five recommendations made in 2015 on deescalation training, three were implemented while two were “accepted” by the NYPD but remained “unchanged.” (DOI’s recommendations are not mandatory and an agency can either choose to accept or reject them. Accepting a recommendation does not necessarily mean it can or will be implemented.)

The report acknowledged that one of those recommendations, on adding courses on deescalation with classroom and scenario‐based training, has been partially implemented by the NYPD.

The second recommendation, to review use‐of‐force trends to identify officers for retraining, was accepted in principle but not yet implemented. The department reported to DOI that it was adjusting its early intervention system for officers.

“While NYPD’s early intervention system may be able to identify at-risk officers based on their involvement in force incidents, NYPD has not commented on whether such officers will receive de-escalation and/or use-of- force training, as recommended,” the report read.

“DOI continues its oversight in this area, including the two recommendations from our 2015 report that remain open,” said DOI spokesperson Dianne Struzzi, in an email.

NYPD spokesperson Al Baker said in a statement that recruits and officers “actively participate in always evolving scenario-based training exercises that amplify our emphasis on deescalating what are often the most difficult encounters in policing.”

“For recruits, these scenarios hone their communication skills in answering domestic violence calls or aiding those in emotional distress…Later, officers who receive our Crisis Intervention Team training work to sharpen their de-escalation proficiency by immersing themselves in realistic jobs that are play-acted by professional actors and members of various city communities,” he said.

For elected officials seeking to see a more just police department, particularly when it comes to treatment of New Yorkers of color, the answers around training haven’t been satisfactory.

“Each situation obviously is unique, but we still have some ways ago,” said City Council Member Donovan Richards, a Queens Democrat who chairs the Council’s public safety committee with NYPD oversight.

“In a department with 36,000 people, there will be individuals who, no matter how much training you give them, will still unfortunately use excessive force...So until there's accountability, you can't train your way out of this,” he added, echoing an ongoing concern of the de Blasio years, that a mayor elected in large part on policing reform has made some significant strides but done little on officer accountability.

Part of the problem, Richards pointed out, is officers enforcing so-called quality-of-life violations and creating situations that can then escalate further. He cited two examples: Garner’s death, which happened when the officers involved attempted to arrest him for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes and Garner resisted; and the incident at an HRA benefits office when two officers violently tried to rip a child from his mother’s arms as they sought to arrest Jazmine Headley, the mother.

He also noted that the culture of the department needs to reflect the diversity and lived experience of the city, without which systemic issues will continue to persist. He pointed to the recent elevation of Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea, who is white, as the new NYPD Commissioner, over First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker, the top African-American officer in the department.

“How could you train a department of 36,000 people to really understand what that feeling is about stop and frisk, about excessive force, if the people at the top and the executive office have not necessarily had that lived experience,” Richards said.

He did end the interview on an optimistic note, however, noting that new officers coming into the department, which is now the most diverse it has been in generations, maybe ever, are receiving training at the start. “I would hope that in a decade or two decades from now – god willing before then but I'm just being cautiously optimistic – that as the department diversifies, as individuals come into the department from these newer classes with certainly much more training and much more of a lived experience around these issues, that things will get better.”

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a former NYPD officer himself, conceded that officers may be slow to change even with the new training. “In policing, it's called mental muscle,” he said in a phone interview. “When you're changing the culture of policing, it's not about what you do in one course.”

“Not only must we do it when an officer is in the Police Academy, but every time he or she goes through in-service training, we must do role-plays of what do you do when you respond to the job,” he added. “We need to put a greater level of repeated training on deescalation. Half of the madness you get involved in in policing is because we don't know how to deescalate, we escalate.” He said the recent subway incident presents a crucial teachable moment for the department and should be used in subsequent trainings to show officers exactly what not to do.

Adams did say there should be mutual understanding, that the NYPD should be training people on how to interact with police officers, something he recently held a workshop on for Brooklyn youth that also incorporated a “know your rights” theme. “When my lights go off on the car, and I'm pulling you over, I need to understand I'm approaching a person who's already dealing with a high level of anxiety,” he said, “because they're being stopped by the symbol of authority.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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De Blasio's Answer to Garner Death, NYPD Deescalation Training Slowly Evolves Toward Meeting Mayor’s Rhetoric Mon, 09 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Facing Criticism, NYPD Reps Tell City Council Body Camera Program 'A Work in Progress' finance comm hearing

(photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

The NYPD’s body-worn camera policies are a “work in progress,” a police official said at a hearing of the New York City Council’s public safety committee on Monday, seeking to allay concerns expressed by Council members about the program that now includes more than 20,000 uniformed officers. At the hearing, Council members had questions and criticisms about transparency and accountability taking a back seat to surveillance and police authority, particularly with regard to the NYPD’s control over body camera footage.

The NYPD rolled out cameras to every uniformed patrol officer by March of this year and more recently completed equipping 4,000 specialized team officers with cameras as well. It’s a major potential step towards transparency and accountability for a department that has not had a reputation for either. But the implementation of the program has been accompanied by a slew of questions about the footage collected and when, and in what manner, it is released to the public, press, prosecutors, and external watchdogs.

The department only published its “operations order” on public release of footage last month, and that too without a public announcement (Gotham Gazette first reported the order’s existence after repeatedly checking in with the NYPD until a link was provided). The order shows how much sway over the footage the NYPD is retaining, providing several sources of criticism for Council members and other stakeholders.

The policy also makes no reference to releasing footage to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates police misconduct and abuse of power complaints. CCRB requests for footage are often delayed, some for months at a time. Meanwhile, the department turns unedited footage of all arrests over to district attorney offices almost immediately.

“Basic transparency requires someone other than the NYPD to be the gatekeeper of this footage when a member of the public makes a complaint,” said Council Member Donovan Richards, chair of the public safety committee, in his opening statement. “When an oversight agency is dependent on the discretion of the very agency it is overseeing, what you end up with is the wolf guarding the henhouse. We need to do better.”

Richards, a Queens Democrat, is also troubled by the amount of discretion built into the policy on public release, which allows the police commissioner to decide within 30 days to release footage of “critical incidents” when an individual may be killed or severely injured by a police officer, or other incidents of intense public interest.

“The policy reads as a series of vague considerations, not a standard for the commissioner to follow,” he said. “The result is that many people are rightly concerned that the department can decide to release footage only when it looks good for them, and that body worn cameras are in fact being used as another surveillance tool, rather than for the purpose they were intended: for accountability, transparency, and to encourage civil interactions between officers and members of the public.”

Richards’ worries were echoed by several Council members as they peppered NYPD Assistant Deputy Commissioner of Legal Matters Oleg Chernyavsky and Assistant Chief Matthew Pontillo to clarify and improve the department’s body-worn camera policies.

“It's a work in progress,” Chernyavsky said. “We're always learning. I mean, the idea here is to be transparent, and to give the public this vital information with as little delay as possible. If there's ways to do it better, we're certainly open to that.”

Pontillo said body camera policies have been routinely adjusted since the first pilot program in 2015, and they continue to change. “We anticipate in the near future, we will revise the policy again. We’ll probably add a couple of more categories of events that police officers get involved in, like responding to disputes,” he said. “Department policies are always under review. No policy is ever written with the idea that it will exist in perpetuity, but rather, it's an evolution and this whole thing has been an evolution since early 2014 when we began the research.”

Chernyavsky detailed the department’s efforts to balance transparency with privacy as it faces a deluge of requests for footage. Since the launch of body cameras, the department has collected about 8 million videos, he said. On average, each video is about 8 minutes long and 130,000 new videos are uploaded to the department’s cloud video storage each week. These are then accessible to prosecutors automatically.

For the CCRB’s disciplinary investigations, however, the department edits and redacts videos as it deems necessary under state laws. This year, the CCRB has made about 3,700 requests, which generated almost 14,500 responsive videos, Chernyavsky said, up from 2,080 requests in 2018, which led to 6,134 responsive videos. Another 870 request for footage were made this year under the Freedom of Information Law, with roughly 3,000 videos provided in response.

He also emphasized the department’s internal quality control and random auditing process, and said the most recent 28-day audit showed 92% compliance by officers with guidelines in the NYPD Patrol Guide, which include when to turn the cameras on and off.

Another topic of discussion at the hearing was a bill proposed by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams that would place detailed reporting requirements for the NYPD’s body-camera program. Though Chernyavsky said the department was open to collaborating with the City Council to create some form of reporting mechanism, he said Williams’ bill as written was far too onerous.

“The bill would require us to report on data which could not be captured without a trained analyst watching and listening to every recording in its entirety, then conducting an investigation to gather additional data points,” he said in his testimony, noting that the department would need to hire and train about 800 new analysts and investigators to meet that need.

Richards pointed out, as Gotham Gazette has reported, that the CCRB experiences delays in receiving footage, which can be heavily edited, and sometimes has its requests denied outright. “Why do you have to be the gatekeeper? Can't you just give access to the CCRB so they can look for the footage they need to investigate their cases?” he asked.

But Chernyavsky argued that the CCRB does not have the same authority as district attorneys and so is subject to certain restrictions that stem from state laws on privacy. He did say the department is trying to reduce delays as far as possible. “We've been working collaboratively with [the CCRB] to streamline the process even further, and to reduce the turnaround times even more, and we're anticipating that will be able to do that, especially in the near future to hopefully almost eliminate any kind of delay and turnaround time,” he said.

That explanation wasn’t adequate for Council Member Rory Lancman, another Queens Democrat and a longtime critic of certain NYPD practices, who questioned why the operations order on public release did not include a time-bound mechanism for releasing footage to the CCRB. “It's very disturbing to me that this order lacks a clear mechanism for getting BWC footage to the CCRB in a timely manner,” he said.

He also pointed out, as did Council Member Brad Lander after him, that the operation order merely says the commissioner will decide within 30 days whether to release footage of a critical incident to the public. It does not seem to mandate the release, Lancman said. He also questioned whether the policy’s stated guidelines on releasing representative samples of footage would allow the NYPD to create a narrative of incidents that would protect its officers rather than reveal the truth.

Pontillo and Chernyavsky, however, sought to reassure him. “This procedure creates a presumption of release,” Pontillo said. Chernyavsky said representative samples are part of a common sense policy. “What we are striving to do is to give this type of sample, where possible to attach a more comprehensive video to it, when you have a situation where there is just so much video footage that it's not feasible to turn it around that quickly,” he said. “You may have a situation where we're putting out something of great public interest rather than simply being silent for an extended amount of time.”

Several Council members also pushed the police officials to commit to ensuring that body camera footage is released immediately or is at least allowed to be reviewed by the family members of individuals killed in police-involved shootings. They cited two recent examples: the fatal police shooting of Kawaski Trawick in the Bronx in April and the September incident where officers shot one of their own, Brian Mulkeen, and a civilian, Antonio Williams, in a hail of bullets. In both cases, neither Trawick’s nor Williams’ families have been allowed access to footage from officers on the scene. “I do think just families should have access sooner than everybody else,” Public Advocate Williams said. “That seems to make sense to me.”

But the operations order notes that families of those involved would be notified and shown footage only before it is publicly released, as has been the department’s practice. Families do not receive immediate access when they demand it. 

Civil rights and police reform advocates who spoke at the hearing in support of Williams’ bill expressed additional criticisms of the overall body-camera program. 

Jacqueline Caruana, senior trial attorney at the criminal defense practice at Brooklyn Defender Services, said the program is currently being used to the NYPD’s advantage rather than for transparency. “Any legislation that establishes reporting requirements for body-worn camera usage will likely be ineffectual if it does not also impose a consequence for failure to follow them, and if the department itself remains generally unwilling to penalize offices for misconduct,” she said.

Michael Sisitzky of the New York Civil Liberties Union said the NYPD’s total control over cameras and footage undermines the goals of the program. “If it becomes apparent that these cameras are primarily focused on surveillance and tool for prosecution, New York City must be open to reconsidering whether the substantial sums currently spent on this NYPD program could be better invested in our communities,” he said in written testimony.

Lenora Easter, team leader of the early defense team at the criminal defense practice of The Bronx Defenders, urged the Council to close a loophole that allows officers discretion to not turn on their cameras in exigent circumstances. She also pushed for increasing the “buffering period” on officer cameras – the two types of cameras currently used will save 30 seconds and 1 minute of footage prior to a camera being turned on. That extra buffer provides added context to an incident but recorded without audio.

Laura Hecht-Felella, legal fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, said Williams’ bill should be passed alongside the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act, a bill introduced by Council Member Vanessa Gibson to mandate the NYPD disclose information about the surveillance tools it uses. The NYPD has vehemently opposed that bill over the course of two Council sessions.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Facing Criticism, NYPD Reps Tell City Council Body Camera Program 'A Work in Progress' Mon, 18 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
City Council to Examine Rollout of NYPD Body Camera Program cm cornegy richards press conference

(photo: John McCarten/City Council)

The NYPD’s body-worn camera program is meant to provide transparency and accountability about policing activity in the city, particularly in cases of high-profile incidents of police officers’ use of force against civilians. But more than seven months after body cameras were rolled out to every uniformed patrol officer, there are many questions about how the cameras are used and about the policies that determine the release of the footage to the public and independent watchdogs.

At a hearing on Monday, the New York City Council will examine the rollout of the program and ask some of those key questions, along with discussion of proposed legislation to require the NYPD to regularly publish data on the implementation of the body-worn camera program.  

The Council’s Committee on Public Safety, chaired by Council Member Donovan Richards, is expected to delve into two main issues: the long delays in the release of body camera footage to the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), an independent agency that monitors and investigates allegations of abuse of power and misconduct by police officers; and the NYPD’s recently-published policy on releasing footage to members of the public and the news media.

[Read: NYPD Publishes Long-Sought Body Camera Footage Policy]

Footage from body-worn cameras is crucial evidence in investigations by outside authorities into complaints against NYPD officers. Gotham Gazette recently reported that since March, when body-worn cameras were fully rolled out to 20,000 patrol officers, between 29 and 37% of the CCRB’s open investigations had pending requests for body camera footage, per monthly data from the Board. The delay for releasing footage also varies. The NYPD responded to 43% of requests within 30 days; 35% of requests were fulfilled within 30 and 60 days; in 13% of requests, there was no response for more than 90 days.

Even when footage is provided, it can be edited or censored. The NYPD says the delays can be attributed to the need to edit footage to ensure compliance with state privacy protection laws, but the CCRB has pointed out several other reasons that the department has cited to refuse to provide footage, while also pointing out that there have been many cases where the NYPD says body camera footage doesn’t exist, but it is later discovered that it does. [Read: New NYPD Body Camera Footage Policy Raises Questions About Editing]

Meanwhile, prosecutors in district attorney offices across the city automatically receive unedited body camera footage from the department when it is uploaded after an arrest. [Read: Vast Difference in NYPD Provision of Body Camera Footage to District Attorneys Versus Police Watchdog]

“One of the things that I want to explore the most is the issue around CCRB and obviously prosecutors gaining access to the footage much faster,” said Richards, a Queens Democrat, in a phone interview.

“The Civilian Complaint Review Board plays a very important role, just as we saw in the [Eric] Garner case,” Richards added, citing the CCRB’s investigation into then-NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was recently terminated from the force, five years after he used a banned chokehold during an attempted arrest that led to Garner’s death on Staten Island. “And being that they are the agency that has oversight over the NYPD, they shouldn't have to wait 30 days. They should be able to have a system in place that gives them access right away,” he said.

The NYPD’s policy on public release has been criticized by a number of stakeholders and experts, first for including a 30-day timeline for footage of “critical incidents” and also for an explicit acknowledgement that the NYPD will exercise discretion in editing and omitting certain footage. The department’s recently (and quietly) released “operations order” around release of footage also makes no mention at all of the CCRB.

Richards said the 30-day policy is inadequate.

“One of the things we do also want to ensure is that the NYPD is not just doctoring certain parts of the video that they want the public to see,” he added. “We need to make sure that it's a full transparent process and that the public, who funds the NYPD, has the right to know what these interactions look like between the department and everyday people...which creates a higher standard, which then leads to more accountability and ensuring that there’s checks and balances.”

Besides the oversight aspect of Monday’s hearing, the Council will also discuss a bill proposed by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams that requires the NYPD to publish quarterly public reports on the use of body-worn cameras and an annual report on every incident that requires activation of a body camera.

The quarterly reports would include data on the number of officers with body-worn cameras, and the percentage of officers, disaggregated by borough and precinct; the percentage of total law enforcement activities where body-worn camera footage was recorded, disaggregated by category of law enforcement activity; the percentage of total use-of-force incidents where footage was recorded, disaggregated by use-of-force category; and the percentage of total police-civilian encounters that lead to investigations by the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau where footage was recorded; disaggregated by category of alleged misconduct.

The annual report would be far more detailed, requiring data on every incident recorded on body-worn cameras in the previous year including the date, time, and location of the incident; the law enforcement activity that triggered the recording; whether officers on scene were equipped with cameras; whether footage was recorded and the reason if it was not; whether the camera failed to clearly record audio; whether the footage was visually compromised or obstructed in any way; whether an officer told an individual they were being recorded; whether an officer switched off their camera before the incident was concluded; whether someone requested the footage under the state’s Freedom of Information Law; whether a use-of-force incident occurred during the recording, and the category; whether a recording was used for an internal investigation by the department or for an external probe by the CCRB; and the race, gender and age of the individual subject to law enforcement activity that led to the recording.

[Read: New NYPD Body Camera Footage Policy Raises Questions About Editing]

[Read: Vast Difference in NYPD Provision of Body Camera Footage to District Attorneys Versus Police Watchdog]

[Read: Oversight Board Stymied by NYPD Denial of Body Camera Footage Requests]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Council to Examine Rollout of NYPD Body Camera Program Sun, 17 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
NYPD Counterterrorism Chief on Threats, Privacy & Transparency city council c s protecting

Donovan Richards and John Miller (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

As the internet continues to transform the landscape of threats to the United States and New York City specifically, the NYPD has had to adapt, and the police department in the country’s largest city, what some call its ‘number one terror target,’ uses monitoring and surveillance tools that have raised questions. Advancements in technology and tactics -- as well as age-old concerns about privacy, free speech, and due process, plus prior departmental errors in judgement -- have led to calls for more transparency by some advocates and lawmakers.

Amid the push to ensure civil liberties and NYPD transparency, the department has fought to maintain its own privacy, arguing that keeping its strategies and tools secure is necessary to truly provide public safety in the age of internet terrorism. Particularly, the NYPD’s intelligence and counterterrorism units must be given wide latitude to fight today’s threats, argues NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller.

Appearing last week at the “Protecting New York Summit” hosted by City & State, Miller spoke about the threats the city faces, the balance between transparency and secrecy, the lines that separate monitoring and investigation, and his work to keep New Yorkers safe. Appearing next to Miller during the discussion, moderated by Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max, was City Council Member Donovan Richards, a Queens Democrat and chair of the Council’s public safety committee, who wants to see policing done more fairly and transparently.

Whereas terrorist organizations until recently worked methodically in organized hierarchical structures, they now rely on propaganda-driven operations, Miller said, where senders and recipients often exchange messages without even knowing who is on the other end. Most of these messages move around on the internet, sometimes in public chat forums, providing the NYPD both a challenge and an opportunity.

While Miller and his team, along with other law enforcement partners like the FBI, are able to monitor some conversations that indicate the possibility of illegal activity or threats to public safety, there is also an incredibly vast world of potential danger where individuals are at times moved to do harm after sitting in front of their computers -- an intimate space often difficult for law enforcement to penetrate.

“The world has become a much smaller place. The world is a dangerous place. Now it’s a smaller more dangerous place,” Miller said at the summit, describing some of his thinking about his patrol.

But as the NYPD and others monitor, surveil, and investigate -- Miller took pains to insist on careful nomenclature, though a common set of definitions was not fully established during the free-wheeling hour-long conversation -- some want to know more about what words and phrases can trigger heightened policing, as well as what specific tools the NYPD is using, and when, where, and how they are being deployed.

When asked about calls for NYPD transparency by the City Council, activists, and advocates, who want to know more about how the NYPD is carrying out surveillance, what tools are being used, and how people are winding up on certain lists, Miller said: “It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“If you give complete transparency you will be ineffective,” Miller said. “I have undercover officers who take their lives into their hands and go into places with dangerous people who would kill them if they knew what their role was. To describe what equipment they wear - it would be to put them in danger.”

In the interplay between Richards and Miller, one specific potential police oversight measure that the City Council is considering is a bill that would require the NYPD to be transparent about which technological tools it is using, when, and how.

The Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act, originally introduced in 2017 by then-Council Member Dan Garodnick, would require the NYPD to publish the details of equipment it uses to record audio and video, and perform other surveillance tactics. The bill was heard by Council committee, where NYPD representatives vociferously opposed it, did not move in the Council, and was reintroduced in 2018 in the new four-year Council session. It has not received a committee vote. The parties involved say they are continuing to negotiate the details of the bill.

According to Miller, NYPD and Council representatives sat together to go over the bill line by line, whereby the police department explained concerns and outlined changes it wanted to see in order to support the bill. Miller said the legislation showed no signs of changes asked for by the NYPD, that it remained a bill written by advocates.

“I think we believe in the work NYPD does every day but that does not preclude them from being accountable to the public,” Richards said. “We wouldn’t be the first city to reveal some of the tools the NYPD uses already.”

Miller and Richards both said that New Yorkers and visitors to the city, should not have to give up any additional privacy or freedoms due to the need for greater policing and counterterrorism work in the city -- which has been home to 30 mostly foiled terrorist plots since the attacks of September 11, 2001, Miller said, including three that were carried out (Chelsea bombing, subway bombing, West Side bike path truck attack) in the past two years.

They also agreed that there are of course some limits to free speech when it comes to disrupting or making threats to public safety, getting at one of the key tensions in how the NYPD monitors the internet.

“The Supreme Court has decided it’s not OK to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. Not all speech is protected. It’s probably OK to yell ‘god is great’ in a crowded theater; but if you say ‘allahu akbar,’ does that make it different? My answer is no...But if you’re saying something like ‘we should do something here, to hurt and kill people,’ that’s not OK,” Miller said.

“Even as we enjoy the freedom as Americans of free speech,” Richards said, “it doesn’t give individuals the right to go out there and prop up propaganda that can lead to violence and attacks in our city.”

Richards pointed to what he sees as unequal treatment of certain groups by the NYPD. He raised the issue of Muslim surveillance, which the department practiced after September 11, 2001, and more recently how the NYPD treated the presence of the Proud Boys, a rightwing extremist group, at the New York Metropolitan Club versus reports that the department has surveiled Black Lives Matter activists.

“Are they being treated equally? The answer to that question to me is no,” Richards said. “There has been historically a difference in how certain communities have been surveilled in our city.”

Miller denied allegations that the NYPD practiced improper surveillance of Black Lives Matter activists, who have also accused the NYPD of jamming their phones.

“We don’t jam anybody’s phone,” Miller said. “It would be a crime and against the law.” He said if members of a protest see their phones stop working it’s likely due to the fact that so many people in a concentrated space are trying to connect to wireless networks at the same time.

Among the causes of the recent uptick in white supremacy-motivated attacks of “domestic terrorism,” both Miller and Richards cited the increasingly hostile climate surrounding national discussions of race and ethnicity.

Asked if his job has been made more challenging by the fact that the president of the United States, Donald Trump, has promoted conspiracy theories, stoked racial resentment, and encouraged extremist groups, including targeting a New York member of Congress, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Miller said he wanted to stay away from the politics of it all.

“The things that are said, the names that are called, the calls that are made certainly have set a bar that has unleashed more vitriol that used to live in shadows way out into the open,” Miller said. After observing attackers who emerge from “online spaces, you would be foolish to deny that the brittle tone of the national discourse doesn’t have something to do with that,” he said. (The panel took place before the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio that rocked the nation this past weekend.)

According to a previously unpublicized FBI document, fringe conspiracy theories can now be considered “domestic terrorism,” Yahoo! News reported. The document, released May 30, details a number of arrests related to violent incidents motivated by such theories.

When it comes to surveillance, the NYPD does not treat cases of “domestic terrorism” any differently than other threats that compromise public safety, Miller said.

“If you’re talking about committing acts of violence, blowing something up, you’re going to be our focus,” Miller said. “The rules we use to collect information on rightwing extremists, leftwing extremists, Islamic exteremists, we can’t do anymore with one than we do with another,” he said.

On August 1, just after the panel discussion, the New York Times reported that the NYPD keeps a database of mugshots, including those of arrested teens, to be cross referenced with facial recognition software. Despite studies demonstrating that facial recognition software is less accurate in identifying people with darker skin, the NYPD defended its use, citing its as a necessity to make “sure we’re doing everything to fight crime,” NYPD Chief of Detectives Dermot F. Shea told the Times.

The NYPD does not use facial recognition to “lock anyone up,” nor as probable cause, but it can serve as a lead in investigations, according to NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill, City & State reported.

“Our committee is ensuring that even as surveillance is done there is a level of accountability,” Council Member Richards said at the summit. “One of the things we are trying to focus on is ensuring that we do protect the people’s right to the freedom of speech, and done in a way where certain communities don’t feel like they are unjustly targeted,” he said.

The NYPD has also come under fire for its surveillance of internet forums. However, Miller said that the NYPD does not surveil people unless there is a legitimate threat or allegation.

“When you’re in public forums where people know there are other people there. I don’t know that anybody is being watched until there is a possibility of illegal activity,” Miller said.

Miller said that the NYPD follows the “Handschu agreement” -- a set of guidelines that regulate NYPD activity designated after the department was found to have violated free speech among members of the Black Panther Party in 1985 -- when it comes to opening investigations, getting the approval of a judge. Miller said that compliance with the Handschu agreement precludes the possibility of surveillance that infringes on the constitutional right to free speech, and took issue with the term “surveillance,” which he argued has been manipulated by advocates to be misleading and have a negative connotation.

“Surveillance means I send out a surveillance team. If we have a case open we have to write it up,” Miller said. “The Handschu committee has to go and say this fits within the agreement. That's not surveillance, that’s investigation. Mixing these words together -- surveillance, spying -- advocates know what they’re doing by choosing these charged terms. We work within precision, rules, oversight. It bothers me when I hear about ‘police surveillance of neighborhoods.’ We don’t surveil neighborhoods, religions, activities, unless it fits within the guidelines.”

Richards drew a comparison between those who inaccurately predicted that drastically reducing the NYPD use of stop-and-frisk would lead to ‘streets running red with blood’ and those warning of increased transparency in NYPD surveillance.

Miller made a different point about stop-and-frisk, using a metaphor favored by his former boss, former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, who likes to say that policing is like giving medicine to a patient. Doctors often have to give more medicine and treatment the sicker the patient is, but too much medicine (policing) can be counterproductive, and when the patient shows signs of improvement, it’s important to adjust the levels of medication. Miller said that in the later years of the Bloomberg administration, dosages of stop-and-frisk had gotten totally out of hand, to the point of being counterproductive, and that the NYPD did not appropriately respond to feedback from its patients.

Miller said that with a more strategic and precise approach, more guns are being taken off the street in recent years than even at the height of the stop-and-frisk era.

Asked about whether he’s worried about being blamed if he pursues reform and it is believed to contribute to an increase in crime or major incident, Richards said he is not “too concerned” about increasing transparency because he believes “that once again the more we build that trust collectively together the safer our city will be.”

“We’ve talked a lot about building trust with the NYPD. Why are communities feeling safer? It’s because we are building trust. We build trust by being transparent with each other,” Richads said. “It enables someone who could learn of a threat to want to communicate that to the NYPD. We close the door on that particular scenario if we are not being transparent.”

by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

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NYPD Counterterrorism Chief on Threats, Privacy & Transparency Tue, 06 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000