Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/223 Fri, 06 Dec 2019 10:51:40 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Facing Criticism, NYPD Reps Tell City Council Body Camera Program 'A Work in Progress' https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8935-nypd-reps-tell-city-council-body-camera-program-a-work-in-progress https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8935-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.

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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 https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8927-city-council-to-examine-nypd-rollout-of-body-camera-program https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8927-city-council-to-examine-nypd-rollout-of-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]

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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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 https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8711-deputy-commissioner-for-counterterrorism-explains-how-nypd-sets-its-standards-for-surveillance https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8711-deputy-commissioner-for-counterterrorism-explains-how-nypd-sets-its-standards-for-surveillance 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.”

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by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

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NYPD Counterterrorism Chief on Threats, Privacy & Transparency Tue, 06 Aug 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: City Council Public Safety Chair Donovan Richards on NYPD Accountability https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8698-max-murphy-podcast-city-council-donovan-richards-nypd-accountability https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8698-max-murphy-podcast-city-council-donovan-richards-nypd-accountability Donovan Richards

Council Member Donovan Richards (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


July 24, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: How the City Council is Approaching NYPD Accountability

cm donovan richards 150 wbaiCity Council Member Donovan Richards chairs the Council's Public Safety Committee, which has oversight of the NYPD, and joined the show to discuss holding the police department accountable, Mayor de Blasio's handling of the disciplinary process related to Officer Daniel Pantaleo in Eric Garner's death, and more.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or wbai.org

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: City Council Public Safety Chair Donovan Richards on NYPD Accountability Wed, 24 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Looks at Reducing Recidivism for People with Mental Illness https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8608-city-council-examines-how-to-reduce-recidivism-for-people-with-mental-illness https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8608-city-council-examines-how-to-reduce-recidivism-for-people-with-mental-illness council comm cj

Elizabeth Ford of Health + Hospitals, left, & Becky Scott of DOC (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


City Council members on Monday held an oversight hearing to examine how New York prevents formerly incarcerated mentally ill persons from returning to jail. The hearing made clear that the de Blasio administration, Health + Hospitals public hospital system, and City Council members all want to reduce the number of mentally ill persons who rely on the jail system for their mental health care and keep those with serious mental illness out of jail altogether.

But, it was evident at the hearing that there is much more emphasis on services for the imprisoned mentally ill than on keeping those with serious mental illness out of jail, whether for the first time or in all-too-common recidivism.

The psychiatric services offered in city jails -- like nurse and doctor staff, therapeutic groups, and medicine -- are robust but someone with a serious mental illness often loses the best care upon leaving jail. This then contributes to high recidivism rates.

The hearing centered several key data points: roughly 43% of those held in city jails are suffering from mental illness (14% have serious mental illness); the recidivism rate in New York City is 20%, but for those with mental illness it’s 47%.

Held by the Council’s Committee on Justice System, Committee on Criminal Justice, and Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities and Addiction, the hearing looked at the different ways the city Department of Correction and Correctional Health Services, a part of New York’s public health care system, New York City Health + Hospitals, provide care for the mentally ill in prison and once they leave. Two pieces of legislation dealing with notifying defense attorneys of their detained clients’ mental health and returning unused commissary money to recently released inmates were also discussed with various stakeholders who testified.

As the overall jail population has declined significantly, the proportion of New Yorkers with mental illness in city jails has risen in recent years: the overall average daily population of city jails decreased from around 11,500 in 2014 to around 8,900 in 2018, and the percentage of people with mental illness increased from 38% to 43%.

The percentage of those with a serious mental illness, defined by Correctional Health Services as anyone with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder, has increased from 10.2% to 14.3% in that same time frame.

Council Member Keith Powers, a Manhattan Democrat and chair of the Committee on Criminal Justice, asserted that the City Council and the different city agencies in attendance all agree that jail is not the place to help seriously mentally ill people. However, jail is often where people with serious mental illness wind up, and jails often offer medical services – city jails have many psychiatric services located in one place (in fact, Rikers Island is the third-biggest provider of psychiatric care in the United States behind jails in Los Angeles and Chicago).

Currently, city jails put inmates diagnosed with mental illness in “mental observation houses” (MOs), where there are advanced levels of service and psychiatric nurses available, or the more intensive option, PACE (Program to Accelerate Clinical Effectiveness) units where there’s 24/7 embedded staff and more therapeutic groups, according to Dr. Elizabeth Ford, who testified for Correctional Health Services.

However, through questioning from Powers, Ford admitted right now there are people who qualify for PACE but due to spacing issues are only in MOs. THE CITY reported in April that the de Blasio administration is well behind on its planned 12 PACE units by 2020 (currently there are six).

Council member questions made clear that there are many mental health services available in prison, but the key organizing question of the hearing was: what happens when an inmate/patient is released? Ford said CHS gives inmates seven days of their medicine so they don’t drop off too preciptiously after leaving jail, a 30-day prescription which can be fulfilled at a pharmacy of their convenience, and many referrals to outpatient treatment programs.

Outpatient treatment is the primary way people with mental illness are treated in New York, most of which are run by New York City Health + Hospitals. Outpatient care requires patients to appear at appointments, as opposed to inpatient care or state institutionalization – mental health care nationwide over the past 60 years has transitioned away from state-run facilities once known as “insane asylums” or “psychiatric hospitals” and towards outpatient care.

When asked how CHS can make sure recently-released inmates follow through on getting care, Ford mentioned they are hiring more social workers and focusing on making sure existing services, like existing mobile care teams, work well rather than accepting “new mandates.”

In terms of keeping mentally ill people out of prison in the first place, Ford brought up the new plan from the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio of helping mentally ill people go to the Health + Hospitals system, instead of prison.

Furthermore, two diversion centers -- in East Harlem and South Bronx -- will offer police officers a place to bring emotionally disturbed people who exhibit signs of mental illness instead of arresting them. They’re not open yet, but are supposed to open later this year.

Ford hopes the community-based aspect of the diversion centers will be especially useful as the centers will be located to existing outpatient care.

Supportive housing is another way to prevent recidivism, according to Ford. Supportive housing offers mental health services to people struggling to find housing. The de Blasio administration plans to build 15,000 supportive housing units over 15 years.

If the roughly 1,200 city jail detainees diagnosed with serious mental illness were to be released tomorrow, the relatively minor supportive housing options and short-term diversion centers combined with New York’s disinclination towards inpatient care throw doubt on how the seriously mentally ill would be treated without jail-based services.

The city has created what they call Community Re-Entry Assistance Network (CRAN) teams, which are six-month transitional teams to help those with serious mental illness re-enter the community after release.

On the two pieces of proposed legislation being considered at the hearing, the lead sponsor of the defense attorney notification bill is Manhattan Council Member Margaret Chin, while Queens Council Member Donavan Richards is the lead sponsor of the commissary bill.

Chin’s bill, Intro. 1590, would require the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to notify the defense attorney of a person who is in the custody of the Department of Correction and who has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness.

The bill, co-sponsored by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and six other Council members, is not supported by Correctional Health Services in its current language. Although Dr. Ford chose to keep some reservations of Correctional Health Services private, she did mention that the agency has a newly-created court liaison program intended to act as a go-between for defense attorneys and medical officers.

The current process for notifying the defense attorney of a seriously mentally ill person who is accused of a crime is the patient must give consent to Correctional Health Services and CHS gives information relevant to the mental illness diagnosis to the defense attorney.

The bill “attempts to break the cycle of imprisonment,” said Chin, as ideally more cases could take mental illness into account.

The most intense exchanges of the hearing occurred in regard to the other piece of legislation discussed Monday. Intro. 0903, Council Member Richards’ bill, would require the Department of Correction to notify all recently-released former inmates if there is money in their individual jail commissary account as well as return that money within 60 days of release.  

A commissary account, which can be deposited into by an inmate’s family, is essentially a bank account that the inmate can use to purchase snacks or personal products while in jail. Currently, the Department of Correction is holding $3.7 million from as far back as 2012 in unclaimed commissary money for the over 140,000 individuals who have not claimed it.

Richards, indignant, heavily implied DOC wasn’t making any effort to return the money, while DOC testifiers stated multiple times they don’t use the unclaimed money for their own purposes.

According to those who testified for the Department of Correction, the only outreach done by the DOC has been to put posters -- only in English -- in the jails. DOC representatives said the often unpredictable nature of inmates’ release schedules as well as the general difficulty in remaining in contact with released inmates makes returning the money difficult. DOC does not support the bill, citing difficult logistics.

In a fitting summary of the hearing, Council Member Diana Ayala of Harlem and the Bronx said if the Department of Correction cannot find people leaving prison to give them their money back, how can they ensure the mentally ill leaving prison get the mental services they need?

***
by Truman Stephens, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Looks at Reducing Recidivism for People with Mental Illness Tue, 18 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Headley Case Again Raises Questions About NYPD Accountability Under De Blasio https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8150-headley-case-again-raises-questions-about-nypd-accountability-under-de-blasio https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8150-headley-case-again-raises-questions-about-nypd-accountability-under-de-blasio squad presser

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


When video was captured in 2014 of Staten Island resident Eric Garner dying with an NYPD officer’s arm wrapped around his neck, just months after the election of a progressive mayor promising a new day at the police department, it seemed like a watershed moment. The evidence was there for millions to see for themselves, across the city and country, and beyond. It seemed impossible that the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, would escape any accountability. But more than four years later there has been little beyond Pantaleo’s move to desk duty. Years of agitation and advocacy, lawsuits and desperate pleas occurred as a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo on criminal charges and a federal civil rights investigation has crawled to no end. Only recently -- amid ongoing criticism that there is still no real accountability for police officers who break the public trust, department protocol, or the law -- the NYPD announced a departmental trial.

Over the course of the past five years, there is little evidence that Mayor Bill de Blasio and the police department that he controls have taken steps to improve officer accountability, and the administration has even taken a large step backwards in terms of transparency (and the accountability that can come with it) regarding officers’ disciplinary records. Now, de Blasio is facing another round of questions about his management of the department, while he touts reform measures like de-escalation training and neighborhood policing that do not appear to directly connect to outcomes for officer accountability.

The recent arrest of Jazmine Headley, also caught on video that went viral, led to no action against two police officers who were seen violently pulling the young mother’s one-year-old baby from her arms and threatening bystanders with a taser. The NYPD, after a “strenuous” week-long review of the incident, declared its officers innocent and pegged the blame on two security guards, called “peace officers,” at the Human Resources Administration office where the incident took place. Separately, Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks, under whom HRA falls, suspended the two peace officers and announced that they would face disciplinary charges that could lead to termination. Tellingly, Banks also announced new HRA protocols that include directing peace officers to not request NYPD assistance -- unless there is an immediate safety threat -- “without first contacting the Center Director or Deputy Director or her/his designee to attempt to defuse the situation by addressing a client need.”

De Blasio, who came to power in 2014 vowing to reform the NYPD but has since failed to fully follow through in the eyes of many of his supporters, initially issued a tepid response to the incident and later defended the NYPD during a press conference and then an interview on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. He pointed to the peace officers and a situation that was “already out of control” when the NYPD arrived, and said it was “unfair” that critics lambasted the NYPD while ignoring the many reforms that have been enacted under his tenure.

“It’s very easy to critique when you’re not in charge,” said de Blasio, whose allies acknowledge several aspects of police reform he has instituted but say he’s fallen far short on accountability for badly behaving officers. “When you’re in charge you better get your facts straight.”

Elected officials and advocates were dismayed by the NYPD’s refusal to discipline the two police officers. “This defies belief. I am angry, confused and heartbroken,” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson tweeted on Friday. “Anyone who watched that video I’m sure comes to the same conclusion. We still need Justice for Jazmin[e].”

“This incident was badly mishandled, and agencies’ independent reviews have determined which employees are the most responsible for escalating the situation,” said Olivia Lapeyrolerie, a de Blasio spokesperson, in a statement. “Now we will work to ensure that both agencies work together to improve their policies and protocols so we can prevent this incident from happening ever again. This will absolutely lead to immediate reforms on the part of both agencies.”

Joo-Hyun Kang, a spokesperson for the Communities United for Police Reform coalition, said the department “is continuing to protect its own officers at any cost.”

“On Mayor de Blasio’s watch, the NYPD has been completely unwilling to hold its own officers accountable for wrongdoing and misconduct,” Kang said in a statement, calling for the two police officers to be fired from the force. “It’s outrageous and wrong that no officers were even interviewed for the NYPD’s sham investigation into Jazmine Headey’s arrest, and that the names of officers have still not been released. An independent investigation into Jazmine Headley’s case and how the NYPD officers acted is clearly needed.”

The Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent police oversight agency, is also investigating the incident and it’s possible it may come to a different conclusion than the police department. However, even if the CCRB makes a disciplinary recommendation, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill would still have the final word and could dismiss even those findings. BuzzFeed News reported in March that hundreds of police officers had been allowed to remain on the force despite committing offenses for which they should have been terminated. The report prompted the NYPD to create an independent panel in June to review its disciplinary practices. The three-member panel was initially given four months for the review but requested an additional 90 days to complete its work, at the end of which it will issue a public report with its conclusions.

“In a day and age that we’re talking about building trust between police and communities, that incident undoes all the progress we’re trying to make,” said City Council Member Donovan Richards, who chairs the Council’s public safety committee, in a phone interview on Monday. “It further exacerbates the mistrust.”

Though he credited the mayor and commissioner for taking what steps they have to improve the public’s perception and relationship with police -- including the neighborhood policing program and the body camera program -- he flatly said accountability has not improved. As a response, he is preparing to introduce legislation that would mandate the creation of a “discipline matrix” that categorizes police conduct violations and details the specific punitive measures each violation would invite. Other jurisdictions have codified such guidelines to ensure that misconduct is punished in consistent and standardized ways, with little leeway for weakening disciplinary recommendations. Similar policies have been enacted and debated in other municipalities as well, including in Newark, New Jersey, which created a new civilian oversight board in 2016 that would use a matrix to determine responses to officer wrongdoing.

“What happened to bias training?” Richards wondered, citing the new training techniques that the department has been touting alongside de-escalation training as a solution since after Garner’s death in 2014. “Why do we need training to treat communities of color with respect? If this was a different zip code, this incident would absolutely have not happened.”

“If you have to get training to not pull a baby so harshly, you probably do not belong in the department. I don’t know how you train someone to not do that,” he added. Richards had called for the officers to be fired soon after the incident.

One significant hurdle to accountability has been the de Blasio administration’s reinterpretation of the state Civil Rights Code’s section 50-a, which protects police officers’ personnel records from public disclosure. Previous administrations have released a limited amount of information about officers’ disciplinary history. De Blasio’s administration did so as well up to 2016, when it claimed that the law had been misinterpreted for decades and changed its policy. The mayor said his hands were tied and that it was up to the state Legislature to scrap the provision.

Richards noted, however, that there has been “radio silence” from the administration on repealing 50-a. “There’s always time to get a better grade,” he said of the city’s record on police accountability, “The big test coming up is 50-a.” He is encouraged that a Democrat-controlled state Legislature will take up the issue if there is a vocal push for it.

Results of the NYPD commission and repealing 50-a could bolster the notion of a new era of accountability that critics are demanding. In the wake of the Headley incident, not only did those critics connect what they saw as police misconduct to the Garner incident, but also to other instances in the years since, including multiple shootings by police of unarmed individuals suffering from mental illness. An ongoing federal corruption trial involving several former top NYPD officials and two prominent donors to the mayor has also undermined the department’s reputation and the mayor’s commitment to reform.     

Short of any steps forward, Richards is concerned that the department is sending a message to other “bad apples” that they will be defended no matter what their behavior, further eroding any confidence that New Yorkers, especially communities of color, may have in law enforcement. De Blasio has staked some of his policing legacy on a neighborhood policing program he says is part of already drastically-improved relations between police and communities -- a claim many activists and elected officials say is overly generous. The administration also points to a reduction in both use-of-force incidents and complaints against officers as proof that its policies are working, while crime continues to drop and arrests are significantly down.

Recalling the video of Headley’s arrest, Richards worried about her baby and the trauma he went through.

“That baby will see that video some day,” he said. “Do you think he will trust the police?”

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

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Headley Case Again Raises Questions About NYPD Accountability Under De Blasio Mon, 17 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
NYPD Pushes Back Against Calls to Reform Special Victims Division https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7602-nypd-pushes-back-against-calls-to-reform-special-victims-division https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7602-nypd-pushes-back-against-calls-to-reform-special-victims-division nypd council hearing rape

NYPD reps at Monday's hearing (photo: @NYCCouncil)


At a tense oversight hearing examining the NYPD's response to sex crimes on Monday, the NYPD opposed all four bills introduced by the City Council in response to a Department of Investigation report released two weeks earlier.

The bills seek to require evidence-based models to determine staffing levels for the Special Victims Division, more training for sex crimes detectives, and a digital, searchable case management system for the SVD.

On March 27, following a year-long investigation, the DOI released a report stating that the NYPD's Special Victims Division has been chronically understaffed for years, with only 67 detectives available to investigate roughly 5,600 sex crimes per year (ranging from rape to groping).

As a result, “a full exhaustive work effort [for every sex crime investigation] has not been possible," wrote Michael Osgood, Deputy Chief of the Special Victims Division, in one of the many internal correspondences Osgood sent to NYPD higher-ups asking for more investigators and included in the DOI report.

Osgood did not testify at the hearing.

Advocates, sexual assault survivors, a former Special Victims sergeant, and other members of the NYPD testified before the City Council regarding the NYPD's handling of sex crimes. While survivors, advocates, and the former Special Victims sergeant say the NYPD needs to act to improve the experience of victims who report their assaults, the NYPD claims no need for improvement.

The hearing was led by Council Members Donovan Richards, chair of the Committee on Public Safety, and Helen Rosenthal, chair of the Committee on Women.

Officially, the NYPD has 90 days to respond to the DOI's findings, which NYPD officials repeated several times at the hearing when asked specific questions.

But in an informal response issued on its website, the NYPD rebutted the DOI's findings, calling its report "an investigation in name only" and stating there are 85 detectives available to investigate adult sex crimes, not 67.

"The number of detectives assigned to actively investigate adult sex crimes is 67 (not 85) and the NYPD did not dispute that number last Friday when we discussed the report with NYPD officials," the DOI said in a statement issued in response.

By Monday morning, the NYPD had added another 20 detectives to the Special Victims Division, 15 from patrol, five from detectives squads. Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce said that brought the total number of detectives assigned to investigate adult sex crimes to 100 (but did not account for the 100 being less than the 20 he said they added and the 85 the NYPD previously asserted).

Boyce’s testimony indicates the city now has 100 detectives to investigate 5,600 sex crimes annually.

For comparison, homicide investigations are similar in length and complexity to sexual assault investigations, and the city's homicide squads had 101 detectives to investigate 282 homicides in 2017, according to the DOI report.

The DOI made 12 recommendations, including that the NYPD hire 73 additional detectives "to meet the minimum investigative capacity required by an evidence-backed and nationally-accepted staffing analysis model" known as the Prummel model.

The DOI also said the NYPD should increase training for adult sex crimes detectives, invest in a new case management system, and renovate or relocate the facilities of all the special victims units that handle adult sex crimes.

"Investigators are not properly trained, facilities are not suitable, and wait times are extensive. It is no wonder that victims don’t report more often," said Council Member Richards at Monday’s hearing. "And it seems that NYPD leadership is just fine with victims of sex crimes being ignored."

Chief of Patrol Terrence Monahan, Deputy Commissioner of Collaborative Policing Susan Herman, and Director of Legislative Affairs Oleg Chernyavsky testified before the Council. Chief of Detectives Boyce, who is on the verge of retirement from the NYPD, was also seated at the table and fielded questions. Though Council members said they wanted to hear from Chief Osgood as head of the Special Victims Division, the four NYPD officials seated at the table took virtually all of the questions, along with some terse interjections from Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters Larry Byrne.

By and large, NYPD officials asserted that the department takes rape seriously, that both staffing and training are adequate, and that their electronic case management system is sufficient.

Chernyavsky said that the bills requiring additional training would "dilute the police commissioner’s authority by dictating a particular method and duration of training."

In response to Council Member Debi Rose's bill requiring the NYPD to use evidence-based models to determine appropriate staffing levels for the Special Victims Division, Chernyavsky said, "The requirements of this bill, however, erode and encroach upon the most basic responsibilities of the police commissioner to manage this agency and its personnel."

However, Chernyavsky's response ignores the fact that the head of the Special Victims Division requested additional staffing from multiple commissioners over the course of years. The DOI report includes dozens of pages of internal NYPD communications wherein Osgood repeatedly requests additional investigators to be added to the division.

As the DOI report notes, the caseload of the city's adult sex crimes detectives has increased by 65.3 percent since 2009, when there were 72 detectives.

"I cannot understand how anyone can argue with these recommendations," said retired Special Victims Sergeant Michael Bock, who worked with the division for years. "None will be detrimental to investigations. What are we afraid of?"

Bock appeared before the Council after the NYPD representatives, none of whom stayed to hear his testimony. The department left behind two people to monitor the rest of the hearing.

Despite assurances from the NYPD that the SVD is adequately staffed, that training is sufficient, and that the division's electronic case management system is adequate, the testimonies of many sexual assault victims and advocates indicate otherwise.

As one woman, Desdemona Meck, testified, "Two months after moving to New York City, two men attempted to rape me in the Bronx." A few hours after the assault, she received a rape kit and reported the rape to the precinct.

"The detective told me I have to learn to be smarter in New York City, that I should toughen up, and in the future not be so nice to strangers. She went on to ask me if I was positive I hadn't somehow made it seem as though the sex was something I had wanted."

Meck said the detective's reaction made her feel "shameful." Meck went on to identify both of the assailants through mugshots. The detective deterred Meck from bringing the case to trial. "She seemed confident in her belief that spending more time on the case would be a waste."

Advocates who testified at the hearing like Mary Haviland, Jane Manning, Christopher Bromson, and Angela Fernandez have worked very closely with both the NYPD and sexual assault victims for years. Some attend private meetings with NYPD officials, have attended trainings for Special Victims detectives and have likewise had those detectives attend their advocate trainings.

Haviland, executive director of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, is currently involved in an audit of closed sex crimes cases. Bromson, the executive director of the Crime Victims Treatment Center, and Manning, head of Women's Justice NOW, have assisted many sexual assault victims who have come to their organizations for help, often after reporting their rape to the NYPD goes awry.

"The fact that Chief Boyce could sit without a smile on his face and say that the SVD could follow up with victims is just not the reality," Haviland said. "They are not able to follow up with victims who come in. They are not able to give explanations for dropped cases or the results of rape kits."

"This issue of inadequate staff and inadequate training is something that advocates have been bringing up to the NYPD for years, we've been pleading for those things for years," said Manning.

Fernandez represents a different group of advocates who were largely not present at the hearing -- ones who work in hospitals running programs for sexual assault survivors. As the DOI report notes, sexual assault victims often have to wait hours to see a detective after reporting their assault and getting a rape kit done in a hospital. Detectives are supposed to come to the victim in the hospital, but that doesn't always happen.

"One service provider described how a client spent the entire night at a hospital waiting for an SVD detective to arrive," DOI investigators wrote in their report. "When no detective showed up, the victim, thoroughly discouraged, decided against reporting the crime to the police and went home."

Over the weekend, the NYPD rolled out a public awareness campaign aimed at increasing reporting of sex crimes.

Yet without more detectives assigned to investigate reported sex crimes, some victims who report their assaults will continue to suffer in the ways advocates and victims described at the hearing.

Both Council Members Rosenthal and Rose expressed concern over the NYPD's mixed messages -- at the same time they have put out a public awareness campaign to get more people to report their sexual assault, they have also been reluctant to add more staff to the division responsible for investigating those sexual assaults.

"With the increase in reporting, will there be enough personnel to handle these cases?" Rose asked. "It is imperative that they have enough staff to investigate these cases, to avoid the re-victimization of the people who step forward."

The NYPD's refusal to allocate adequate resources to the Special Victims Division has far-reaching consequences for victims of sexual assault and discourages victims of sexual assault from coming forward to report what happened to them. NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill did say recently that when he names a replacement for the retiring Boyce as chief of detectives, that person will do a full review of the SVD.

While the NYPD currently maintains that they have an adequate number of investigators staffing the SVD, Bock, the recently retired Special Victims sergeant, says otherwise.

"I really believe the DOI report nailed it. The NYPD's denial is upsetting," Bock said. "For a long time, the running joke in the [Special Victims] office was, 'Can I have another cinder block as I'm swimming in the pool?'...Having 20 open cases on your screen doesn't feel good."

***
by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
     

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NYPD Pushes Back Against Calls to Reform Special Victims Division Mon, 09 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Questions Arise as De Blasio Rezones Series of Low-Income Neighborhoods https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7521-questions-arise-as-de-blasio-rezones-series-of-low-income-neighborhoods https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7521-questions-arise-as-de-blasio-rezones-series-of-low-income-neighborhoods east new york planning map

City Planning map of East New York rezoning area


Later this year, the Department of City Planning is slated to release a “draft planning framework” as part of a process to rezone Gowanus, an initiative spearheaded by Brooklyn City Council Member Brad Lander aimed at increasing affordable housing and making a variety of other neighborhood improvements. Rezoning Gowanus, a middle-to-upper income, majority-white neighborhood, would be a departure from the city’s prevailing approach to reimagining a number of neighborhoods across the city.

At the beginning of his mayoralty, Bill de Blasio set an objective to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing in the city, a goal that has since been expanded to 300,000 by 2026. To that end, de Blasio listed about ten neighborhood to rezone, the central purpose of which is to permit added housing density. The community-wide plans that have moved forward or are on the verge of passage through the City Council thus far have include lower-income communities: East New York, East Harlem, and the Jerome Avenue corridor in the Bronx. Downtown Far Rockaway was also rezoned, and plans are moving ahead for Inwood and on the North Shore of Staten Island.

The rezonings include changes to an area’s land use rules, typically allowing for taller residential buildings that must include a certain set percentage of affordable housing units, and promises of amenities like new schools, improved street designs, and other community benefits.

But from the start, questions have arisen around which neighborhoods are chosen for such major changes, and whether those changes accelerate forces of displacement for current residents. A City Limits analysis of East New York, East Harlem, and the Jerome Avenue corridor found that 85 percent of the residents included in the rezoning areas are black or Latino and over 50 percent of the households take in less than $35,000 annually. Far Rockaway and Inwood are in line with demographic profile of the three main, larger city-led rezonings.

Asked by Gotham Gazette about the pattern of his administration’s rezonings falling in lower-income neighborhoods, de Blasio said in February that the sample size of the rezonings is small, so no sweeping conclusions could be drawn from the pattern. He also reiterated his view that low-income communities are the ones that are most suitable for increased development.

“The opportunities to create more affordable housing have been first and foremost in some communities that have been been underbuilt for a variety of reasons,” he said. “We look for where is the opportunity to make the biggest impact.”

“East New York is the classic example,” the mayor continued. “There was a lot to work with. In some cases, there’s public land or private sites that hadn’t been built out.”’

De Blasio went on to insist that his rezoning plans have been focused on increasing affordable housing stock wherever the opportunity presents itself.   

“So my point would be, one, on the rezonings, we’re still first and foremost going to be focused on affordable housing. That’s the reason we’re doing the rezonings, overwhelmingly. And two, that’s going to be where land and where building sites are,” de Blasio explained. “But at the same time, anything we can get our hands on -- Gowanus is in the pipeline as an example.”

While de Blasio has pushed through different elements of the zoning packages, including the mandatory affordable housing attached to any upzoning, in something of a surprise, de Blasio’s practices have tracked with that of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, in terms of the neighborhoods tabbed for such increases in density. A 2010 Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy study of the rezonings under then-Mayor Bloomberg, for example, found that rezonings in areas with whiter than average populations were more likely to retain restrictive zoning ordinances. In turn, the city allowed comparatively more density in rezonings in black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Nevertheless, the de Blasio-led rezonings, which do include many more safeguards for communities than Bloomberg’s, have been embraced by many local elected officials, especially those who’ve been able to negotiate for more local investments from the city. The de Blasio rezonings, however, have also been met with resistance from various affordable housing advocates and some elected officials.

“Overall the neighborhoods that are being rezoned are mostly low-income communities of color,” Emily Goldstein, senior campaign organizer at the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development, told Commercial Observer in February. “They’ve all had many years of disinvestment, and now they’re facing this idea that, in order to get reinvestment they’ve needed all along, it has to come with a rezoning. I think there’s huge concern of how these shifts in the market will affect displacement. There’s a question of what’s going to get built and for whom.”

In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Katie Goldstein, executive director of affordable housing advocacy group Tenants and Neighbors, argued the city's rezonings have created housing that is nominally affordable, but in reality too expensive for the residents in certain neighborhoods. And the location selections, she said, exacerbate displacement pressures and gentrification. “What we’re seeing now is really just city-sponsored gentrification in these neighborhoods that have already been experiencing displacement pressures,” Goldstein told Gotham Gazette.

In an interview with Gotham Gazette last month, Comptroller Scott Stringer voiced similar concerns regarding the mayor’s approach to affordable housing. “Sometimes, there’s disconnect between the housing that we’re building and the people that can access that affordable housing,” he said. The overarching question that many have asked about de Blasio’s larger affordable housing plan, including the housing to be built in rezoned neighborhoods, has been “Affordable for whom?”

For his part, de Blasio argues the rezonings will not spur out-of-character development, nor significant displacement. Instead, the mayor says, creating affordable housing in low-income areas helps to reduce displacement pressures, especially when paired with provisions that require 30 percent of the units to be built under the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) guidelines that de Blasio and the City Council passed last term.

New York City must build its way out of the housing crisis, de Blasio believes; sitting on existing housing stock will only lead to higher rents and more displacement. He also regularly reminds critics that the rezonings are not only paired with MIH, but also significant investments in eviction prevention efforts.

In addition, de Blasio offers, the added housing density in rezoned neighborhoods is coupled with improvements to infrastructure, schools, parks, public transportation, job training, and more, allocating resources for the community at hand and its thousands of new residents. Furthermore, low-income neighborhoods, in de Blasio’s telling, have been underdeveloped compared to more affluent areas, as they have not been rezoned for decades.  

Lander, who replaced de Blasio in the City Council almost a decade ago, is helming the Gowanus rezoning, in its early stages, with community input. The process began in fall 2016 with a series of community visioning and planning meetings. As Lander has repeatedly noted, Gowanus would be a different type of rezoning than the ones de Blasio has put forth.

According to the aforementioned City Limits analysis, Gowanus -- a neighborhood bordering Park Slope that shares a name with the canal that runs through it -- is over half white with a annual median income of over $65,000.

Lander believes the city should not only rezone Gowanus but should make it a priority to upzone other more affluent neighborhoods throughout the city. According to Lander, loosening zoning restrictions and building affordable housing in traditionally tightly-zoned, affluent neighborhoods can help desegregate New York.

“I think it is our responsibility to affirmatively focus on upper-income neighborhoods and white neighborhoods [for upzonings],” he said. “We’ve started to have a conversation about Fair Housing and about what we do to combat residential segregation, and build a more integrated city.”

“One central way of doing that,” he explained, “is by rezoning wealthier neighborhoods.”

Moses Gates, director of community planning and design at Regional Planning Association, told Gotham Gazette that it is not as if Gowanus is the sole low-density, tightly-zoned, middle-to-upper-income community throughout the city that could use more affordable housing.

Gates said that, contrary to de Blasio’s claims, lower-income neighborhoods are not necessarily better-suited for upzonings. “If the response is ‘we’re doing it in low-income neighborhoods because this is where we have historically had housing development,’ I’d ask the city, ‘What does that mean?’” Gates said. “It’s not like there’s no people in East New York. It’s not like East New York has less density and better transit access than Forest Hills.”  

Along with Forest Hills, urban planning experts have pointed toward middle-to-upper-income, low-density neighborhoods such as Long Island City, Bayside, Midwood, and Chelsea as opportune locations to upzone. The de Blasio administration has also raised the prospect of rezoning Washington Heights, Bushwick, Chinatown, Southern Boulevard, Flushing, and, as mentioned, the Bay Street Corridor on Staten Island’s North Shore.  

More broadly, Gates contended the de Blasio administration has not been clear on what it is trying to accomplish with its rezonings and it has not chosen optimal locations for them. “I think the city needs to look at transit-accessible places,” said Gates. “I think the city needs to look at places that do not currently have affordable housing opportunities.”

One of the obstacles to rezoning proposals can be opposition from local City Council members, many of whom are loath to invite outcry from constituents and community boards that are often opposed to adding density close to home. Though he has made clear his philosophy is one of ‘getting to ‘yes,’’ new City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has also indicated he will continue the tradition of heeding the local Council representative’s wishes on land use matters, including neighborhood rezonings, and involving relevant community boards and other stakeholders. The City Council as a whole has the final vote to approve neighborhood rezonings, or single projects that require a land use approval process.

“Council Member Koo was not happy with the Flushing rezoning, and it didn’t go anywhere,” Johnson said at a press conference last month when asked by Gotham Gazette about the mayor’s neighborhood rezoning selections. “Every district has individual needs.”

He added, “Anytime you talk about rezoning, it needs to be a process that respects the local Council member, the local community board, [and[ the Borough President.”

The Jerome Avenue corridor rezoning moved through committee at the City Council on Tuesday, and will soon be voted through the full Council. The final deal reached between the de Blasio administration and local City Council Members Vanessa Gibson and Fernando Cabrera is projected to bring 4,600 new homes to the 95-block rezoned area, according to the mayor's office, and includes two new schools, about $56 million in parks investments, and other community benefits. According to the mayor's office, all housing built in the area will be affordable and subsidized in the near-term, will measures in place to ensure permanent affordability for about 1,150 of the housing units.

“The Jerome Avenue Neighborhood Plan invests in communities that have never before gotten a fair shake," said Melissa Grace, a spokesperson for the mayor, in a statement.

Council Member Donovan Richards, who represents Far Rockaway, a community home to a rezoning led by the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) and more focused on commercial than residential growth, positioned himself as a cautious supporter of de Blasio’s neighborhood selections. “We’ve seen opportunities and communities like the Rockaways, because there is a lot of land that’s never been tapped into,” he said during a phone interview. “When you look at East New York, also -- neighborhoods with immense amounts of land where the city has never invested.”

But Richards -- who last term chaired the zoning subcommittee and participated in key negotiations to amend zoning codes and on individual projects -- said efforts to increase affordable housing stock should not exclusively “fall on the back of communities like Far Rockaway or Jerome [Avenue] or Inwood.”

“I don’t think the focus should be just in low-income communities,” Richards continued. “We should be looking for opportunities everywhere.”

Additionally, Richards argued New York is “still a very segregated city,” a problem the city’s housing policies need to address. “We need to work toward righting that wrong if we’re going to give low-income residents an opportunity at succeeding in New York City,” he said.

Asked why he believes the de Blasio administration has not adopted this strategy, Council Member Lander said he wasn't sure. “I don’t want to speculate; I don’t know the answer to it,” he said. “And I think it’s a fair question.”

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Questions Arise as De Blasio Rezones Series of Low-Income Neighborhoods Tue, 06 Mar 2018 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Oversight Hearing on Policing Protests Dominated by Disputes https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7466-city-council-oversight-hearing-on-policing-protests-dominated-by-disputes https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7466-city-council-oversight-hearing-on-policing-protests-dominated-by-disputes Ydanis NYPD

City Council Member Rodriguez (photo: William Alatriste)


The City Council Committee on Public Safety held an oversight hearing on Wednesday to examine the NYPD’s tactics and procedures regarding protests and crowd control. The perpetually controversial issue has come to the fore once again in the wake of immigrant activist Ravi Ragbir’s detention by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the NYPD’s subsequent aggressive handling of protesters, culminating in the arrests of two City Council members and 16 others on January 11.

Both Council members who were arrested, Ydanis Rodriguez and Jumaane Williams, Democrats of Manhattan and Brooklyn, respectively, sit on the public safety committee and questioned NYPD officials at Wednesday’s hearing, which was led by committee Chair Donovan Richards, a Queens Democrat.

Williams was released by the NYPD with a desk appearance ticket but Rodriguez was arraigned in court on charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, reckless endangerment, and obstructing emergency medical services. Rodriguez, on the day of the protest, tweeted a picture of what he claimed to be an NYPD officer holding him in a chokehold.

Despite this, the hearing focused less on the allegedly brutal tactics employed by the NYPD in protests and focused more on the department’s alleged coordination with ICE. There was some discussion of the department’s approach to crowd control, though, part of a history that includes the NYPD having been accused of inappropriate suppression or brutal tactics against protesters involved with Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, antiwar demonstrations, and opposition outside the 2004 Republican National Convention.

But the hearing largely devolved into exasperated quibbles between Council members and NYPD representatives over the basic facts of what happened on January 11, including whether the department was coordinating with ICE it its detainment efforts.

The hearing is the first public safety hearing to be chaired by Richards, who was named to the post by new Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who was part of the January 11 demonstrations but was not arrested. Johnson did have a tense exchange with one officer, who he pursued and reported to NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill for aggressive conduct. Johnson and O’Neill discussed the totality of the day, Johnson said soon after, and the NYPD is continuing its internal investigation of officer conduct.

From the moment it began, the hearing was heated, as Council members and the NYPD officials testifying engaged in several disputes of the facts related to January 11 and to policy areas where Council members deemed the NYPD to be inadequately performing their duties.

It was noted that the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group, a unit of nearly 700 officers that is deployed to maintain crowd control at demonstrations, has under its purview counterterrorism, a combination that worried Council members who feared that empowering officers trained in combating terrorism with monitoring protests would result in overly aggressive policing of the latter.

The department noted that the unit was created, under the direction of former Commissioner Bill Bratton, in response to large-scale terror incidents in places such as Paris and Mumbai. Bratton’s pitch at the time: “Safe from crime, safe from terrorists, safe from disorder.

When Richards asked if the NYPD views peaceful protesters and terrorists as posing similar threats to public safety and order, the NYPD representatives were evasive, saying that the department required a reserve of officers able to respond to terror incidents, trained in disparate areas of policing like making mass arrests and handling hazardous substances.

Stephen Hughes, Commanding Officer of Patrol Borough Manhattan South, stated that in 2017, SRG had made 322 arrests at 109 demonstrations. The NYPD’s legislative director, Oleg Chernyavsky, stated that those are just arrests made by SRG, and that other patrol units can make arrests that are not counted toward that total.

Several Council members all but accused the NYPD representatives of lying under oath in saying they had not been coordinating with ICE during the January 11 incident. The officers repeatedly asserted that they had not been deputized as immigration officers and were not coordinating in any way with ICE, as per department policy. Williams attempted to refute this narrative by showing a picture of NYPD and federal Department of Homeland Security officers appearing in the immediate vicinity of each other.

“I’m hoping that what happened wasn’t intentional,” Williams said. “And I want to prevent it from happening again.”

Chernyavsky rebutted the notion that being in the same vicinity meant the two agencies were coordinating.

“I think the fact that we were physically present standing next to a federal officer who was outside of, I would assume, his or her place of employment, was an unintentional consequence,” Chernyavsky said. He also asserted that NYPD had become more active in crowd control and making arrests when its task became escorting an ambulance, with Ragbir in it, out of the crowded streets near the downtown federal building where he had had a check-in with immigration officials (there is some dispute about whether Ragbir was actually suffering from any ill feelings and in need of an ambulance). Chernyavsky said NYPD officers were unaware initially that the person in the ambulance was in ICE detention, and claimed that they even went to the wrong hospital at first, a point he thought would bolster the notion that the NYPD was not coordinating with ICE.

“What happened that day was some kind of coordination, period,” Williams said, growing increasingly frustrated with the NYPD reps as Chernyavsky asserted that it’s “irresponsible to allege that we coordinated with immigration enforcement.” They instead repeatedly asserted that they were simply enforcing existing local laws related to protest and crowd control management. They said that the events had unfolded quickly and in chaotic fashion.

The Council members signaled that they had hoped to have a more constructive dialogue about the NYPD’s policies and rules of engagement but were instead having a debate over what the facts were.

Council Member Brad Lander, a Democrat from Brooklyn, also grew increasingly frustrated with the NYPD officials as his line of questioning went on. Lander was incredulous towards the NYPD claim that it was not coordinating with immigration enforcement despite having provided ICE, which was transporting Ragbir, with a police escort from Bellevue Hospital to the Holland Tunnel, which occurred after Ragbir had briefly been at the hospital.

“Up to that point, you guys were responding to a protest,” Lander said, referring to the NYPD’s insistence that they were enforcing local laws. “But at Bellevue, there was no protest.” He also noted that there was no health risk for Ragbir at that point, a justification for Ragbir’s transport by ambulance with ICE on scene. The officers contended that they were not escorting ICE, but rather were simply “present at transport” due to the potential presence of protesters, who ended up not following the ambulance Bellevue or federal officials to the Holland Tunnel. Lander contended that there was no difference between the two.

“Really?” he asked, growing impatient with NYPD testimony.

“I’m more concerned walking out of this hearing than I was walking into it,” Lander said before being interrupted several times. Lander chastised the department for failing to own up to its role in Ragbir’s detention, and for not being apologetic and acknowledging the mishaps.

Local Law 228, which forbids city law enforcement officials from cooperating with ICE by being deputized as federal immigration officers, and requires the NYPD to report the number of federal detainer requests it receives, recently went into effect. An NYPD rep noted that the department did not comply with a single detainer request from ICE out of the 1,526 it received in 2017, as President Donald Trump ramped up immigration enforcement. In 2016, Barack Obama’s last full year as president, the NYPD received 80 detainer requests and complied with two.

Law 228 was passed in November but went into effect on January 30, 19 days after the Ragbir detention and subsequent protests. Williams called this “quite a coincidence,” but the NYPD reps assured the Council members that their prior internal department policy was to not coordinate or comply with ICE. They reiterated several times that they had not complied with a single detainer request of the 1,526 that were submitted by federal authorities to the NYPD, and that the only instances where the NYPD actively works with ICE are on task forces that are related to a different policy area that both NYPD and ICE agents happen to work on, such as human trafficking or the opioid epidemic.

The arrest and detention of Ragbir, who has had a detainer against him since 2006 as a result of a fraud conviction, at a routine check-in with immigration authorities has been extremely controversial among New York’s activist and political community. Ragbir, after a stint in ICE detention in Miami, is back in New York but faces another check-in on Saturday during which he could face deportation. With the Trump administration’s significant uptick in immigration enforcement, particularly against undocumented immigrants who have not committed felonies, ICE has been making sweeps in immigrant neighborhoods and at courthouses with or without the NYPD’s cooperation.

On Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio sent a letter to Thomas Decker, the Field Office Director for New York’s ICE office, extolling Ragbir and pleading that he not be deported back to Trinidad, while also making the case that aggressive immigration enforcement in immigrant communities and courthouses is deteriorating trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement. De Blasio did not mention Ragbir’s prior conviction.

“These activities not only create fear in immigrant communities, but undermine public safety,” the letter read. “New York City is the safest big city in America because of the trust between law enforcement and communities, including immigrant New Yorkers. When ICE takes aggressive action against leaders in immigrant communities, it casts a chilling effect on immigrants’ willingness to engage with government and law enforcement generally, undercutting that trust.”

“The safety and interest of New Yorkers should be central to any determination concerning Mr. Ragbir, or other individuals arrested by ICE,” the letter continued. “Therefore, I request that ICE exercise its discretion to permit Mr. Ragbir to remain with his family in New York.”

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by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Oversight Hearing on Policing Protests Dominated by Disputes Wed, 07 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
New City Council Committee Chairs Have Plenty on Their Plates https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7419-new-city-council-committee-chairs-have-plenty-on-their-plates https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/7419-new-city-council-committee-chairs-have-plenty-on-their-plates City Council Speaker Corey Johnson members

Members of th new City Council with Speaker Johnson (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The new class of the New York City Council took greater shape on Thursday with the appointment of chairs and members to the 40-plus committees and subcommittees that oversee the broad legislative, land use, and oversight roles of the 51-member body. Most returning Council members were reassigned to lead different committees while some remained in the positions they’ve served the past four years. New Speaker Corey Johnson also chose to create a few new committees to boost staff levels in certain areas and to better address specific issues that were subsumed under broader committee purviews.

In their new roles, many of the committee chairs will have to navigate a slate of issues, which in many cases will likely lead them into direct confrontation with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. This holds particularly true for the powerful land use and finance committees, both of which have new Council members at the helm. Speaker Johnson has also pledged broader independence from the mayor than his predecessor, indicating that members will be allowed, and even encouraged, to take the administration to task. He has pledged an enhanced oversight and investigations committee to lead the way in that regard.

Council Member Rafael Salamanca Jr. of the Bronx was appointed chair of the land use committee, which is tasked with overseeing and reviewing land use applications, zoning amendment,s and landmark preservation in the city. Since the committee has the final say on any development projects that require city government approval, it plays a prominent role in determining the success of the mayor’s affordable housing program, in particular thus far by approving comprehensive, and controversial, neighborhood rezonings in communities such as East New York and East Harlem.

The city is exploring similar rezonings -- to create more affordable housing while also injecting economic energy and other benefits into neighborhoods -- in the Bay Street corridor on Staten Island, Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, and Flushing, Queens, among other communities. “Our city is at a crossroads, including my community in the South Bronx,” Salamanca said in a statement Thursday. The City Council, he said, “should be on the front lines on shaping the planning, development and all other land use actions in a way that listens to and addresses the concerns of all New Yorkers.” Freshman Council Member Francisco Moya is heading up the subcommittee on zoning and franchises which falls under Salamanca’s purview.

The finance committee, led by its new chair Council Member Daniel Dromm of Queens, also has a tough task ahead as it heads into budget season. Dromm will lead the Council’s negotiations with the administration over the $86 billion-plus city budget. The mayor is expected to release his fiscal year 2019 preliminary budget proposal later this month and the administration has been bracing for cuts in federal funding, threatened by the Trump administration, and a widely expected economic slowdown after years of continuous growth.

Last year, the Council advocated for increased savings and reduced agency inefficiencies even as they called for new funding for Council priorities. “I intend to use this position to move a progressive budget forward working closely with Speaker Corey Johnson who I thank for giving me this opportunity to serve,” Dromm said in a statement.

The Council’s budget hearings will no doubt also touch on the city’s $96 billion capital budget. Numerous Council members called last year for increased transparency in how capital projects are funded and managed, insisting that the city needs to reduce financial waste and cut down on project delays.
Johnson has now gone so far as to create an entirely new subcommittee to oversee the capital budget, chaired by Council Member Vanessa Gibson. “Many members, including myself, have been frustrated by the capital process itself,” Gibson told Gotham Gazette outside the Council chambers on Thursday. She said the new committee will allow expanded oversight of capital spending, particularly by individual city agencies. “At the end of the day, we just wanna say to the public, to New Yorkers and to all of my colleagues that we are spending your money wisely,” she said.

The transportation committee continues to be led by Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who has been a vocal supporter of the Move New York congestion pricing plan, which would impose tolls on the East River bridges to raise funds for mass transit infrastructure and reduced fare MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers, while also lowering tolls on other bridges.

De Blasio has opposed both congestion pricing and the “Fair Fares” campaign, insisting that fair fares should be funded by the state and that congestion pricing is a “regressive tax” that hurts outer borough commuters. He has instead proposed a so-called millionaires tax, which Rodriguez also supports, that would accomplish both goals - subsidized MetroCards and new transit revenue. However, like congestion pricing, the tax would have to be approved by the state Legislature where it has already been rejected by Governor Cuomo and the state Senate, portending perhaps that the fair fares fight will be fought locally yet again. Cuomo appears on the verge of pursuing some version of congestion pricing.

In keeping with Johnson’s promise to stand up to the de Blasio administration, the Council now has an expanded Oversight and Investigations committee, led by Council Member Ritchie Torres of the Bronx. The committee is expected to have a full-time investigation staff made up of professional investigators, former prosecutors, and journalists. In an interview with the New York Times, Torres indicated a number of different issue areas he would approach for added oversight. “The abuse of placards. The use of eminent domain. The disposition of public land. Deed restriction. The disbursement of city subsidies. All of it is on the table,” he said.

On Thursday, Torres told Gotham Gazette that the New York City Housing Authority’s lead contamination issue, which has been a black eye for the de Blasio administration, was a “continuing concern” for him. “I have not set the investigative priorities of the committee just yet, but given my former position as chairman of the public housing committee, given my interest in the subject, NYCHA is going to be figuring prominently in my oversight priorities,” he said.

Torres’ role will crossover with the work of other committees, such as the Committee on Public Housing, which he led last term and will this term be led by Brooklyn Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel. The public housing authority needs $25 billion for infrastructure improvements, with few forthcoming state and federal funds this year. The authority’s numerous public failures continue to haunt the administration and invite criticism from the Council and community activists. And although the city has put a NYCHA overhaul plan into motion and seen some successes and promising developments, problems are not likely to abate any time soon.

“As chair, I will ensure that critical issues are addressed, from heat, to lead, to security issues,” Ampry-Samuel said in a statement. “I look forward to visiting every housing development in the city and the opportunity to hear from the residents and the resident leaders.”

Johnson also chose to expand the role the Council plays in scrutinizing the city’s criminal justice system. Council Member Rory Lancman of Queens was chosen to lead the newly formed Committee on the Justice System, which has oversight of city courts, district attorneys, legal service providers and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

Manhattan Council Member Keith Powers will be heading the Committee on Criminal Justice, which has oversight of the Department of Correction and Department of Probation. Both committees will play a prominent part in the plan to close the Rikers Island jail complex, which is contingent on reducing the city’s jail population to less than 5,000 -- it is currently just under 9,000 detainees -- while also creating borough-based jail facilities. Lancman told Gotham Gazette he expects to “aggressively oversee and try to reform” the city’s justice system. “You’ll see a very robust agenda coming out of my committee,” he said.

Lancman and Powers’ committees were carved out of the earlier Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services and the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, which Lancman led last term. Powers, who is new to the Council like Ampry-Samuel and others, said that move “recognizes that Rikers Island and the corrections system is really its own issue that needs to be tackled in the next coming years.”

“There are a lot of thorny issues,” Powers said of the closure of Rikers, “and I think a big part of it is really making sure that we put on the right timeline and that we make sure we manage all the different constituencies that are involved here.”

New York City Health + Hospitals, the cash-strapped municipal hospital system, continues to be a big area of concern for the Council and in particular Johnson, who led the health committee for the last four years. Johnson created a separate Committee on Hospitals to oversee the system, appointing new Manhattan Council Member Carlina Rivera as chair.

Council Member Mark Levine, chosen to be the new health committee chair, noted a number of issues he will address, including the opioid crisis, racial disparities in health outcomes, animal rights and the threat of bioterrorism. He has promised to push for a single payer healthcare system in the city -- a priority for the speaker -- and told Gotham Gazette he expects “there will be times when the Council and the administration are on different sides of an issue,” and that its incumbent on members to advocate for the Council’s priorities. “That’s the job of a good committee chair,” he said.

See the full list of new Council leadership, committee chairs, and committee members.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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New City Council Committee Chairs Have Plenty on Their Plates Thu, 11 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000