Gotham Gazette Fri, 24 Jan 2020 14:09:39 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Max & Murphy Podcast: The Rise in Anti-Semitic Hate Crimes rise anti semitic

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

January 22, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The Rise in Anti-Semitic Hate Crimes

headshot1 dgFormer City Council Member David Greenfield, now CEO of Met Council, joined the show to discuss the recent rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes, how it has impacted Orthodox Jewish communities, what is being done about the troubling trend and what else needs to be done.

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

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: The Rise in Anti-Semitic Hate Crimes Wed, 22 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: How the City is Addressing a Rise in Hate Crimes rise hate cr

(photo: Mayor's office)

January 22, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: How the City is Addressing a Rise in Hate Crimes

deborahDeborah Lauter, executive director of the city's new Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes, joined the show to discuss the rise of hate crimes, especially anti-Semitic hate crimes, what the city is doing about it, and what her new office plans to do long-term to address the problem.

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

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: How the City is Addressing a Rise in Hate Crimes Wed, 22 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Many Major Challenges, Decisions for De Blasio in 2020 may townhall residents

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photo Office)

As Mayor Bill de Blasio enters his seventh year in office, on the heels of a failed presidential bid and at a time when his political clout appears at its nadir, he faces many major challenges and big decisions ahead.

2020, the next-to-last year of his second and final term, begins with a focus on public safety, including recent spikes in anti-Semitic hate crimes, murders, and byciclist fatalities, as well as how the city is adjusting to new state-mandated bail reforms that the mayor has criticized.

Then there are the intractable issues, such as homelessness, public housing, and school segregation, which continue to confront the mayor. There are issues that emerge every year during budget season, some predictably and others not, including how the state will treat the city, whether city spending can continue to rise as it has each year under de Blasio, and whether the city is prepared for the inevitable recession.

And then there are the more dormant issues coming to life or the surprises: Will de Blasio finally be forced to act on property tax reform? Will his jails plan advance on schedule? Who will he endorse in the Democratic presidential primary? Can he make more of his own good fortune by shifting course on any of his self-defeating habits or by becoming more creative and aggressive on certain challenges?

The mayor has two years to answer many crucial questions, determine where he will expend what political capital he has, and shape his legacy. While he will undoubtedly be known for his expansion of early childhood education, other elements of de Blasio’s legacy remain up in the air. He has shown some indications of attempted course-correction over the last few months after he abandoned his four-month bid for the presidency, the culmination, but perhaps not final chapter, in his yearslong quest for national prominence, largely at the cost of his work and image at home. Two key questions de Blasio will have to answer in 2020 are whom he will endorse in the Democratic presidential primary, likely Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, and how much of a role he will try to play in the national conversation.

With six years down and two to go, de Blasio’s mayoralty has already been the subject of a great deal of scrutiny, including his own consistent attempts to dispute how many portray his shortcomings and accomplishments. One of the essential questions for de Blasio in 2020 is whether he can significantly alter the larger narrative about him and his leadership, and shift how so many New Yorkers see him. He enters the year with his most recent approval rating of 25% among New York City voters, according to a Siena College poll, the lowest of his tenure as mayor.

But underlying those broader, big-picture questions are the details, and the many specific challenges and decisions de Blasio faces. While many New Yorkers are awaiting his plans on a variety of fronts -- from school desegregation to property taxes and more -- and are hoping for more progress on crises like homelessness and public housing conditions, de Blasio has an array of strengths and weaknesses, advantages and vulnerabilities as his seventh year as mayor begins.

The city’s economy is still growing, poverty has declined, jobs are at an all-time high, and unemployment is low. Most major crimes are at or near historic lows, even as arrests and summonses have massively decreased; the number of complaints of misconduct against police officers is relatively flat over four years, while the mayor’s many critics assail him as too soft on crime or a weak reformer of the police department.

De Blasio’s universal pre-kindergarten program has been broadly welcomed as a success, with its expansion to “3-K” in the works. His affordable housing and street safety programs have shown progress, though remain the subjects of intense debates over their scope. De Blasio must also implement a wide variety of more recent announcements, promises, and laws, including the closure of Rikers Island jails and development of revenue-generating housing on public housing authority land.

These and many more policies and programs, challenges and relationships, form the backdrop for the mayor’s 2020, which may very well be the last year for him to announce any new ideas that he has any hope to implement. As he hits the second half of his second term, the race to replace him will begin to intensify, with most if not all the candidates pitching themselves as a break from de Blasio in various ways.

But in his lame duck months, however many they may be, de Blasio could find new opportunities to work with City Council members seeking to burnish their resumes as they run for higher offices, including the Speaker, Corey Johnson, who has his eye on the mayoralty. And as always, de Blasio will be navigating his complicated relationship with Governor Andrew Cuomo, beginning with what may be one of their most contentious budget seasons of their overlapping tenures.

Budgeting and Property Taxes
As the new year begins, the next budget season follows. The city’s budget has rapidly expanded under de Blasio, with projected spending hitting $94.3 billion for the current fiscal year which ends June 30, 2020, according to the latest budget modification released in November. That’s a whopping $21.6 billion more than the last budget modification under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, shortly before de Blasio took office.

The city’s Office of Management and Budget predicts that spending will break the $100 billion mark within the next two fiscal years, a number that has fiscal watchdogs worried since savings and reserves haven’t increased at the same rate.

The good news is that economic growth the city has seen for years is expected to continue, albeit perhaps at a slower pace, though fears of a recession have not entirely been eliminated. There are some signs of slowing – the growth of the national economy has fallen but the city’s economic growth experienced a slight uptick in the first nine months of 2019 compared to 2018, according to a December 13 report by Comptroller Scott Stringer. The report predicts that the city will have a modest surplus by the end of the current fiscal year (June 30) and that gaps in outyears will be smaller and manageable.

“We're six years into an administration and there hasn't ever really been a big push to reexamine how government is doing things and making sure it's doing it in the most efficient, effective way possible,” said Maria Doulis, vice president at Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit fiscal watchdog, noting that the City Council has been more focused on finding savings than the mayor. De Blasio has begrudgingly instituted certain budget savings programs and the results, according to watchdogs, have been more appearance than reality, and certainly more limited than those watchdogs would like.

At the same time as the Council has called for more savings, it has also pushed the mayor to provide more funding for its priorities, sometimes in the hundreds of millions, and has been effective in baselining several programs that will continue to be funded. The mayor will have to contend with that as well as any attempts by the governor to shift costs to the city, as he has done in the past. 

Doulis also noted the “real risks” to the city budget from rising costs at three major entities – the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), NYC Health+Hospitals, which are city-run and supported by a mix of funding, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which is effectively state-run, but with some city say via board seats, and receives city funding.

De Blasio’s 2020 approach to the next city budget will be closely scrutinized as it becomes more clear what type of fiscal shape he will leave the city in when his tenure ends. The city’s budget, due by July 1, will also again be significantly shaped by the state budget, due by April 1, and it will soon become clear what de Blasio asks of the state in its budget and legislative processes, as well as how he will react to Governor Cuomo’s annual executive budget proposal and how it treats the city.

As has been the case in the past, some years more than others, de Blasio may have to marshal support among members of the state Legislature to push back on certain aspects of Cuomo’s plan.

Another issue that will have a major impact on the city budget, though not in 2020, and need collaboration in Albany is a potential push for property tax reform, which the mayor has promised for years.

A commission created in 2018 by the mayor and Speaker Johnson has yet to issue its initial report, well past a promised deadline, while a lawsuit over alleged inequities in the system is making its way through the courts. Developments from either could force the mayor’s hand in 2020, when he has promised action. De Blasio has said that he will evaluate the commission’s recommendations and come up with his own agenda, including a 2020 push for needed state reforms, though that timeline has been seriously threatened by the commission’s delay.

De Blasio has vowed that any changes to the antiquated and unequal property tax system will have to be revenue neutral for the city, which relies on property taxes for tens of billions of dollars annually to fund the city budget.

“I think what happens with property tax reform will be important and something that the mayor and the Council speaker should really march ahead on,” Doulis said.

[Read: City's Property Tax Reform Delay Threatens Promise to Pursue Essential Changes in Albany]

Homelessness, Housing, and NYCHA
Homelessness continues to be an issue where the mayor has shown too little progress, despite a variety of significant new programs, a great deal of spending, multiple resets in approach, and adjustments to the city’s housing plan to build more rent-restricted units across the city and reduce the cost of housing. 

De Blasio has run into a number of obstacles as he’s sought to implement aspects of his housing policies, including local opposition to neighborhood rezonings and the placement of homeless shelters. The administration has passed a smaller number of neighborhood plans than it had hoped at this point, and the Inwood rezoning approved by the City Council last year was struck down by a judge just before the new year. Its fate, subject to legal appeal, is up in the air.

There are several rezonings left to accomplish and the city will have to make a concerted effort to move them across the finish line. Which ones de Blasio prioritizes and how effective the administration is at completing them are key questions for the year ahead. The list includes planned rezonings in Gowanus and Bushwick in Brooklyn, Southern Boulevard in the Bronx, and SoHo/NoHo in Manhattan, each at a different stage of the process. There is little time left for de Blasio to announce any new swaths of the city he may want to rezone before his time in office is up.

The administration is also hoping to advance a major redevelopment plan at Sunnyside Yards in Queens, the next iteration of which is expected to be released by the end of 2020. Some of the same elected officials who criticized the proposed Amazon satellite campus (a de Blasio-backed deal that came undone in shocking fashion, with some saying the mayor failed to aggressively sell its virtues and placate criticism) are apprehensive about how the city will approach this project.

In April, when he appointed Vicki Been as the new Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development to replace Alicia Glen, the mayor promised she would oversee another adjustment to his 300,000-unit affordable housing plan. Like property tax reform plans, it has yet to materialize.

There have been several recent developments that fit into the larger housing and homelessness plans, which some advocates say should be more completely integrated, along with public housing and the NYCHA rescue efforts.

On December 17, the mayor announced a new five-year plan to end chronic street homelessness that includes opening 1,000 new “safe haven” beds, converting 1,000 privately-owned housing units into new permanent housing for those leaving homelessness, expanded outreach, health care, and rental subsidies. The administration has celebrated its effective efforts to cut down on evictions through free legal services for many low-income households and in re-housing thousands of people who have wound up in city shelters.

Still, there are estimated to be more than 75,000 individuals in various city-run shelters and another 3,500 on the streets or in the subways, and de Blasio has not adjusted his 2017 goal of reducing the city Department of Homeless Services shelter census from about 62,500 to 57,500 over five years.

“The main message that we would want for both Mayor de Blasio and any elected official to have going into 2020 is that whatever progress has been made is never going to be enough until we actually end homelessness in New York City,” said Jacquelyn Simone, policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless.

She applauded a bill passed by the City Council in December, after a compromise with the de Blasio administration, that would require real estate developers who receive city subsidies for projects of 40 units or more to set aside at least 15% of new units for homeless families.

“We hope the mayor signs that bill into law soon and we also hope that the administration goes above and beyond the minimum requirements established in that bill,” Simone said. “Following through on and going above and beyond the general homeless housing commitments, I think would be one main priority. We would also like to see Mayor de Blasio accelerate the supportive housing pipeline that he has made.”

The mayor announced in 2015 that the city would build 15,000 supportive housing apartments in 15 years and Symone said that timeline should be shrunk to 10 years considering the urgency of the homelessness crisis.

On the public housing front, though the administration has been successful in stabilizing the operating finances of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), its plan to raise funds for capital repairs from new infill projects that create mixed-income housing, has stalled. The authority has a $32-billion five-year capital need for repairs and maintenance, and the city has managed to identify $24 billion over 10 years through various mechanisms that must be executed. A new chair and CEO, Gregory Russ, was appointed in June to manage the scandal-ridden agency, which is also under the watchful eye of a federal monitor who has been scrutinizing its functions and monitoring its progress in handling lead abatement.

De Blasio’s 2020 challenges include whether he can advance infill projects and ensure NYCHA is on track with lead testing and removal, boiler and elevator replacements and repairs, and more.

Transit and Infrastructure
The state and city have just over a year to prepare for the implementation of congestion pricing, the controversial traffic mitigation (and MTA revenue-raising) strategy that was approved by the state Legislature and Governor Cuomo last year. De Blasio was a reluctant supporter of the plan, which cedes much authority over city streets to the state-run and Cuomo-controlled MTA. But transit experts say the city must also undertake several measures to make the program a success, including by expanding and improving bus service.

“I don't know if he has a day-to-day grasp of some of the transportation issues,” said David Jones, president and CEO of Community Service Society, who is an appointee of the mayor on the MTA board, about de Blasio. “He seems somewhat removed.”

De Blasio has often been critiqued for having the ‘windshield perspective’ of a car-driver or -passenger, for not riding public transit with any regularity, and for prioritizing his ferry program over the city’s buses. More than a month after its launch, de Blasio rode the 14th street busway, which he green-lit, and while he has touted its successes, especially after initial data was released in late December, he has yet to indicate any plans for other such bus-dominant roadway plans.

Moreover, the mayor has faced increasing criticism for touting his commitment to Vision Zero – which aims to eliminate traffic fatalities – while the number of cyclist and pedestrian fatalities jumped in 2019 and advocates asked for more aggressive implementation of street and intersection redesigns and protected bike lanes. De Blasio has praised the aims of City Council Member Brad Lander’s “Reckless Driver Accountability Act,” which aims to take dangerous drivers off the road for repeated violations, but has not fully endorsed it or reached agreement with the Council on language so it can pass.

De Blasio may also have to decide in 2020 whether he is willing to increase the fare on the heavily-subsidized ferry system, where he has initially pegged each ride to the same price as a Metrocard swipe for the bus or subway, currently $2.75, and whether his plan for the BQX, or Brooklyn-Queens Connector streetcar, will truly advance.

School Desegregation
Six years into de Blasio’s mayoralty and New York City schools remain the most segregated in the country. The mayor and his two schools chancellors, Carmen Farina and Richard Carranza, have proposed a series of fairly tepid, incremental initial reforms.

De Blasio did empanel the School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG), which released two sets of recommendations, with the administration adopting most of the first, more mild set. The second set, full of more controversial proposals, including related to the city’s admissions policies and gifted and talented programming, was released in August and de Blasio has yet to give them more than an initial nod, saying that there would be an extensive public conversation to come in order to engage parents and other stakeholders in crafting reforms.

“Moving forward in 2020, it would be great for the mayor to start moving on these recommendations,” said Nyah Berg, the Integrated Schools Project Director at New York Appleseed, which was represented on the advisory group.

De Blasio and Carranza separately proposed scrapping the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), which determines admission at the eight “elite” high schools in the city. But that requires action by the state, where the proposal has not been warmly received. Even locally, elected officials and parent groups have complained that his proposal pits minorities against each other and will not have the intended effect.

De Blasio announced he was backing off of his proposal, which included a new system for more diversified admittance to the specialized schools, where black and Latino students are severely underrepresented, and would come up with something new this year.

“Outside of those eight specialized high schools, there’s still over a hundred screened high schools and also screened middle schools and exclusionary gifted and talented programs,” Berg noted. SDAG “has recommendations for how to work on integrating those, integrating our students better in New York City in that report. So I would hope that there is more of a focus on what he has the ability and power to do than a fight that’s happening in Albany.”

“I think if he was bold that he would have stood up and we would have already heard from him on the report,” she added.

Policing and Criminal Justice
One of the issues where de Blasio has disappointed many of his supporters the most has been policing. Though he came to power indicating he would take a more sweeping approach to reform of the NYPD, he has been more of an incrementalist and has often had to be pushed into accepting increased accountability and oversight of the department.

In 2020, de Blasio and the NYPD are expected to finally show evidence for their claims that the mayor’s neighborhood policing program is as effective as de Blasio often claims. The mayor will also likely have to continue to justify his support for the MTA’s planned addition of 500 new MTA police officers, many of whom are meant to patrol the subways and buses in conjunction with the NYPD in a plan that currently has more questions than answers.

The MTA plan was pegged as a way to reduce homelessness and fare evasion and other crime in the subways. De Blasio has also directed the NYPD to conduct outreach in the subways and on the streets, which advocates say turns homelessness from a social problem to a policing one. “One thing that's completely in the mayor's control right now would be if he would reverse this really misguided, overreliance on police for street outreach work and if he would, instead, focus more on the elements of his plan that are related to safe havens and permanent housing,” said Simone of Coalition for the Homeless.

“He's been perceived, obviously, as not taking on some of the hangover problems of broken windows policing,” said CSS’ Jones, who voted no during the MTA Board’s December budget vote due to his opposition to the police officer hiring plan.

Jones was particularly critical of the mayor’s recent choice to make Dermot Shea the new commissioner of the NYPD. It was the third time the mayor picked a white man to lead the department, again passing over First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker, who is African-American.

2020 will be a year of tests for Shea, and therefore de Blasio. Those tests include whether the city can reverse the 2019 increases in murders and hate crimes, as well as pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities, all while implementing additional promised reforms to bring police and community closer together, hold NYPD officers accountable for breaches of public trust, overhauling the Special Victims Division, and more.

The mayor and the NYPD also have their work cut out for them as new criminal justice reform measures take effect, including bail reforms intended to drastically reduce the detainee population in city jails.

And the Rikers Island jail closure plan is far from fruition. Though the City Council approved the plan to build four new borough-based jail facilities, the design and construction of the buildings is yet to come, not to mention navigating all of the logistical and community-based details.

“2020 is going to be a year of moving from big ideas to the nuts and bolts of implementation on many fronts,” said Greg Berman, executive director of the Center for Court Innovation.

Berman did have high praise for what the mayor has done in the last six years, reducing incarceration while keeping crime down and the city safe. “I think that de Blasio actually has a significant legacy to boast about in criminal justice,” he said.

Berman added that “the crucial thing is to not lose sight of the legitimate concerns that opponents” have raised about the jails plan, “in particular the concern that...what's to prevent these new jails from just emulating the dysfunctional culture that can be found in the Rikers jails?”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Many Major Challenges, Decisions for De Blasio in 2020 Mon, 06 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Advocates Question NYPD's Gang Policing police commissioner bill bratton host

(photo: Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office)

December 18, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Questions About the NYPD's Gang Policing

PodcastJosmar Trujillo and Taylonn Murphy Sr. joined the show to outline their critiques of the NYPD's policing of gangs, including large raids and sweeps, a particularly fraught topic given recent attention on the NYPD's gang member database.

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

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: Advocates Question NYPD's Gang Policing Wed, 18 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
NYPD's 'High Arrest Rate' for Hate Crimes is About 42% comm shea ed

Mayor de Blasio & NYPD Commissioner Shea (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Hate crimes in the city have skyrocketed over the last three years, to the point that the City Council passed a bill to create an Office of Hate Crime Prevention and Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday announced the creation of a new unit in the NYPD to tackle the problem. But, as the number of complaints about incidents of hate have risen, arrest rates are generally flat at just over 40%, even as the mayor and NYPD commissioner say they are “consistently” capturing those responsible at a “high arrest rate.”

The increase in hate crimes has been driven by a significant uptick in anti-Semitic incidents, from physical attacks to the drawing of swastikas, and following a fatal shooting at a kosher market in Jersey City where three people were killed in a targeted attack of terror, the mayor announced that the NYPD had been building a new Racial and Ethnically Motivated Extremism unit in its Intelligence Bureau. “The unit is focused on identifying any trends and any signs of racially and ethnically motivated extremism so that it can be acted on before any terror or any bias crime occurs,” de Blasio said Wednesday.

The next day, as the mayor and new NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea discussed the city’s response to the Jersey City incident in greater detail, both said the NYPD had a good record of making arrests for hate crimes. “I can tell you that they have a high arrest rate,” Shea said of his detectives, when he was asked how often perpetrators of hate crimes are caught. “I cannot quote it to you, it’s a number that fluctuates on a daily basis, but we have a significant amount of arrests in dealing with these incidents of hate that come up.”

Mayor de Blasio then jumped in to add, “The NYPD consistently finds the perpetrators of these actions – that is the big picture story here. If someone commits an act of hate, particularly a more serious act of hate, they are found, they are prosecuted, and they will pay the price for what they did. So it sometimes is right away, sometimes it may take weeks or months, but overwhelmingly they find the individuals involved and they bring him to justice. We’ll get you the exact numbers.”

The exact numbers, however, don’t support the language used by de Blasio and Shea. Through September of this year, there have been 309 hate crimes with 127 arrests made, a rate of about 41.1%, according to NYPD data. That rate has been relatively stable for the last two years – in 2018, there were 353 hate crimes recorded and arrests were made in 42.4% of those cases; in 2017, there were 325 hate crimes and arrests in 41.5% of cases. NYPD data on hate crimes and arrest rates appears fairly limited, with only a handful of years. According to the data on the police department website, in 2013 there were 59 hate crimes recorded for the entire year, though the posting does not show how many relevant arrests were made.

The mayor’s office did not comment on why he and the police commissioner, despite the NYPD making no arrests in nearly 60% of cases, believe there is a high arrest rate for hate crimes. According to the latest NYPD clearance report – which shows the rates at which eight major felonies are solved – in the third quarter of 2019, there was a citywide clearance rate of 33%; that included a clearance rate of 52.9% for murders, 49.7% for robbery, 67.4% for aggravated assault and 35.3% for burglary. 

Sergeant Jessica McRorie, an NYPD spokesperson, also did not address that fact when Gotham Gazette requested follow-up on the press conference comments and also did not provide a comparison with rates for other crimes. “We will never tolerate hate in our city in any form,” McRorie said in an email. “The NYPD has the largest Hate Crime Task Force in the country comprised of the best hate crime investigators that work tirelessly with our patrol officers, detective squads and community leaders to vigorously investigate every reported hate crime. The NYPD extensively reports on hate crimes consistent with local law on our website and provides the latest data to the media on a weekly basis.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated with the latest NYPD clearance rates. 

NYPD's 'High Arrest Rate' for Hate Crimes is About 42% Sun, 15 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
The Challenges Facing Dermot Shea ceremonial shea

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

Just a week on the job, new NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea appeared at a solemn press conference in Brooklyn on Thursday, where he addressed the Jersey City murders of two people with ties to Williamsburg as well as the Manhattan murder of an 18-year-old Barnard student. The killings are emblematic of a rise in hate crimes, particularly anti-Semitic ones, and an increase this year in murders in New York City, though those numbers remain near record lows.

He was in Williamsburg with Mayor Bill de Blasio, Shea said, "To express our commitment to you and to all New Yorkers to continue to root out hate and to not rest until acts such as this cowardly violence are brought to justice."

As the newly elevated commissioner of the NYPD, Shea has his work cut out for him in those two areas and many others, including the politics of the high-profile job. Shea took over one of the toughest jobs in the country – overseeing the police force of 36,000 uniformed officers and nearly 20,000 civilian employees in the nation’s largest city, with more than 8 million residents that’s also home to tens of millions of tourists each year and a top terrorism target – amid pivotal shifts, including laws governing the criminal justice system, and rifts.

He takes on the responsibility of repairing trust between the department and many members of the public wary and critical of it while rolling out new programs, overhauling certain divisions and protocols, and ensuring that public safety does not suffer throughout. And he must prepare himself to make the tough decisions that come with increased oversight of police conduct. He must deliver on many promises made by his two recent predecessors and by the official who appointed all three of them, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who will soon be facing his legacy.

Barring any scandal, Shea likely has just over two years as the city’s top cop given that de Blasio’s second and final term expires on December 31, 2021.

Shea, a 28-year veteran of the department who most recently served as chief of detectives, officially assumed the leadership role on December 1 in a private swearing in (an official ceremony was held the next day), taking over from James O’Neill, who had held the department’s top spot for just over three years. He’s the third commissioner to be appointed by de Blasio, under whose tenure major crimes have largely continued to drop each year while arrests and incarceration have also purposefully fallen, the department has adopted new policing strategies but criticism has raged from the right and the left.

“As we said we could in 2014, we have shown that we can drive crime down significantly with a far less intrusive enforcement profile,” Shea said when he was sworn in by the mayor last week at police headquarters in Manhattan. “In fact we have done what many believed was impossible. We’ve pushed crime down while also reducing criminal summons, stops, arrests, and incarceration. And throughout our police department, we are building trust and strengthening relationships in every New York City community and there’s more to do. Neighborhood policing and precision policing are seamlessly blended together and serve, I believe, as a model of American policing and proof that, yes, you can have it all.”

But as the department continues to maintain crime at or near historic lows, that has allowed focused attention on specific aspects of policing – accountability for wrongdoing by officers; increases in rates of certain crimes, like reported rapes; pockets of the city that continue to be plagued by gunfire; and several criminal justice reforms passed by the state Legislature set to take effect in the new year. Even parking placard abuse by officers. There's the constant threat of terrorism, and a City Council considering requiring more transparency around what technology the department uses. Shea must also grapple with an epidemic of suicides among police officers as ten officers have taken their own lives this year. The city has sought to ameliorate the crisis with a new mental health initiative launched in in partnership with New York-Presbyterian Hospital in October to provide greater services to officers.  

While he has immense resources, including a more than $5 billion annual budget, Shea has his plate full, a fact he has readily acknowledged, committing to improved community relations while also sounding an alarm about sweeping changes to pre-trial detention and evidence-sharing about to take effect.

“There are significant challenges on the horizon, however,” he said in his speech, much of which was directed at the many members of the NYPD sitting before him. “We’ve seen some signs of them. People that live in our communities too have already talked about them – looming changes that again will test you and test your ability to keep New Yorkers safe. But I believe we are a very strong organization. I have confidence in you because time after time you have proven your dedication to the people of this great city. And I know we will adapt and work with all of our partners to see changes necessary to keep everyone safe, including our police officers.”

The comments were indicative of Shea’s new perch, where he is expected to weigh in on policy and even politics, often during press conferences with the mayor where in the past he played a supporting role.

City Council Member Joe Borelli, a Staten Island Republican, pointed out perhaps the biggest change that comes with taking the helm of the police department. “One of the most difficult parts of any police commissioner’s job is navigating the political realm of New York City,” he said. “Last week, Chief Shea was a person with a defined role and defined duties and defined expectations, and tomorrow, he's going to be someone who is required to take part in this dance, and it's gonna be a challenge for anyone.”

Neighborhood Policing
The mayor and his three police commissioners: Bill Bratton, then O’Neill, and now Shea, have all emphasized the NYPD’s new neighborhood policing paradigm, which places the same cops on familiar beats across the city and gives them time and orders to build trust between officers and the communities they serve. But despite their claims of its advantages, they have not provided evidence of its efficacy and a long-promised community survey has yet to be published.

Shea will have to prove that the new approach, which was used to justify an expensive expansion of the police force and advocates have at times criticized for turning each community issue into a policing one, is working as intended and that it is sufficiently addressing the credibility and trust gap that has long existed between the police and some communities, particularly communities of color.

After his appointment was announced, Shea quickly went on a listening tour to meet with elected officials, advocates, faith leaders, and others, including making an appearance at the National Action Network’s House of Justice to meet with Al Sharpton and clergy members.

“Unfortunately, the way our laws, and especially our criminal laws are built is that they do criminalize poverty and over-police the most vulnerable communities,” said Marie Ndiaye, supervising attorney of the Decarceration Project at the Legal Aid Society. But she noted that the commissioner and police officers have the discretion to apply them in the most just way possible. “Officers have discretion to not arrest, to not cite, to have someone just stop a behavior they're doing and move about their way,” she said.

Even as the department has shifted its tactics, it has focused on more targeted policing, particularly of gang activity. As a result, thousands of individuals have been placed on a gang database, at times with little justification and even without having committed a crime. Advocates have called for erasing the database – which could include as many as 37,000 people, according to a Brooklyn College report – insisting it is discriminatory and based on racial profiling.  

“The most difficult thing to do is to let folks know that it's a never-ending discussion,” said Public Advocate Jumaane WIlliams, a Democrat, in a recent interview outside City Hall about his expectations for Shea. “So we should always be having discussions of how to make policing better and have safer streets. And those are not competing interests. We can do them at the same time.”

A New Disciplinary System
Last year, then-Commissioner James O’Neill responded to a series of exposes around a lack of accountability at the department by insisting that disciplinary standards had improved and that the department was not riddled with bad actors, but also creating an independent panel to overhaul the NYPD’s internal disciplinary procedures. The panel issued 13 recommendations in February that O’Neill accepted.

Some required little effort and were implemented within two months – supporting amendments to Section 50-a of the state civil rights law, which shields officers’ disciplinary records from public disclosure, preventing the expansion of the scope of 50-a, increased public reporting, publishing of trial room calendars, and enhanced reporting on when disciplinary action does not match a recommendation of the CCRB, the Department Advocate’s Office, or the Deputy Commissioner for Trials.

As commissioner, Shea will have to oversee the continuing implementation of the rest of the recommendations, many of which are underway as well, such as studying a disciplinary matrix for police officers that would clearly outline the possible disciplinary action for different types of misconduct and identifying an outside entity to audit the new disciplinary system.

Transparency and accountability are the main areas where critics say the mayor, who came to office pledging a transformation of the police department, has failed them. Even those like Public Advocate Williams who have supported the neighborhood policing model feel disappointed. “If you're not dealing with accountability, if you're not dealing with the disciplinary issues, if you're not dealing with the transparency issues, it's just not going to go anywhere. And those seem to be the two buckets that we've had the hardest time moving,” he said.

“I'm not sure that it should be that challenging. I can understand it's difficult, but it's the right thing to do,” he added. “Being transparent about...when police have been disciplined is the right thing to do. When there's...police involved and people are hurt, transparency about what occurred on edited footage to the family, those things are the right thing to do and that's that's where the city should be leading the nation. But we’re actually behind the nation, and we seem to be behind in a lot of things, and then call ourselves progressive.”

A Stronger Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB)
Also related to officer discipline, the CCRB, which investigates complaints of misconduct and other specific abuses of authority by police officers, received new powers under a revision to the City Charter approved by voters in November. Besides a larger, more independent board and bigger budget, the CCRB’s executive director now has subpoena power, and the board can investigate instances where officers lie under oath to its investigators. Another measure that was approved requires the NYPD commissioner to explain in writing when he or she chooses to reject or modify a disciplinary recommendation made by the CCRB or an internal NYPD official. 

Operating under these new rules, Shea will be required to be more transparent about disciplinary actions than his predecessors (NYPD commissioners, who have final say, very often reduce the recommended punishment for substantiated misconduct), though it does not entirely inhibit his discretion in how he disciplines his officers. As commissioner, he also chooses three of the 13 members of the board, who are then appointed by the mayor.

Ndiaye recommended “full cooperation with the CCRB and accepting their recommendations where those recommendations make sense, and actually allowing them to do their job.” She added, “Internally, the NYPD should be doing its own robust investigations and really be holding people accountable.”

Evolving Body-Worn Camera Policies
Another area where the commissioner maintains discretion is in the public release of body-worn camera footage of “critical incidents” where individuals are either seriously injured or killed by police officers. The NYPD’s long-sought policy, only recently published, notes that the commissioner will decide within 30 days whether to release the footage.

Advocates have criticized the policy since it leaves disclosure in the commissioner’s hands with no mandates for how the footage is released – the police department can edit and release partial footage as it deems necessary. Shea will also have to work on the ongoing implementation of the body camera program itself, it has only recently reached all 20,000-plus patrol officers, along with other specialized units.

Recent Upticks in Crime
Even though the overall major felony crime rate has continued to decline overall, certain categories of criminal behavior have grown or appeared to grow, requiring a more targeted approach by the NYPD and presenting challenges for Shea as he takes the reins.

Among those are hate crimes, domestic violence homicides, sexual assaults, and some more recent upticks in shootings in certain parts of the city. Through December 1, murders are up 8% this year compared to the same period last year; 2018 saw a record-low number of murders.

Hate crimes have spiked in recent years, largely incidents of anti-Semitic attacks and vandalism. Following the fatal shooting in Jersey City targeting a kosher market, Mayor de Blasio on Wednesday announced that the NYPD had been working to create a new unit to specifically target hate crimes called the Racial and Ethnically Motivated Extremism unit. At the announcement, Shea noted that there has been a 22% increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes this year and that the new unit would aim to prevent rather than just react to such incidents.

Despite murders at or near all-time lows over the last several years, intimate-partner homicides have persisted and even increased, maintaining an increasingly higher percentage of the overall murders in the city. Two murders in November particularly highlighted the protracted nature of the problem, one that the NYPD has few tools to directly address. Rape reports have also risen significantly in recent years, though there are questions around whether that has been the result of social (and to a lesser extent police-departmental) factors encouraging reporting, rather than the actual number of incidents, which are notoriously under-reported even still.

The increase in reports means additional opportunity for the NYPD to arrest perpetrators, though, and presents another challenge for Shea, who as chief of detectives faced criticism around how the Special Victims Division was staffed and operated.

City Council Member Helen Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat and chair of the Council’s committee on gender equity, is still waiting to see progress on reforms to the Special Victims Division. A Department of Investigation report last year found that the SVD suffered from severe understaffing which adversely affected sexual assault investigations.

“There is quite a bit of work to be done with that unit coming out of the DOI investigation and report from February 2018 and we haven't achieved the things that they called for in that report that the Police Department committed to,” Rosenthal said in a phone interview. “We're asking for there to be an intentional effort for trauma-informed investigations, and that happens through good training, good supervision, more staff. So they still have a ways to go.”

Cuomo's MTA Policing Plan and Subway Crimes
Serious crimes in the city’s subway system, which is used by nearly 6 million riders each day, have also declined in recent years, though there has been an increase in robberies and specific categories of misdemeanor crimes, including sexual misconduct. Governor Andrew Cuomo repeatedly inflated the problem, however, when he pushed the MTA to hire 500 new police officers who would also work to crack down on fare evasion and address the growing number of homeless people on the subway system. (Cuomo’s description of crime in the subways drew multiple rebukes from then-NYPD Commissioner O’Neill, among others.)

Those new MTA police hires were announced after an earlier diversion of 500 officers to the fare evasion beat by the NYPD and the MTA. The increased police presence has been met with a swift backlash from some elected officials and advocates, who say that it disproportionately harms New Yorkers of color and criminalizes poverty. They also note that the new hires will cost hundreds of millions of dollars over the next several years, resources that could be put to fare-reduction initiatives or to invest in the communities where residents cannot afford to pay fares, or even toward better bus and subway service, which can encourage more people who can afford the fare but skip it to pay.

Several recent incidents caught on video have added fuel to those critiques.

“The problems of police misconduct are deeply embedded in the mission of policing,” wrote Alex Vitale, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, for The Nation, outlining how he believes the NYPD needs to change after O’Neill. “While the lowest-level interactions have been reduced, police continue to wage a war on drugs, gangs, disorder, and terror, and those wars are going to be waged in a confrontational way. And anyone who resists those wars (even passively), like Eric Garner, will be subjected to escalation, not de-escalation, regardless of how much training is conducted.”

He added, “O’Neill leaves office having achieved no real improvements in police transparency, accountability, or behavior. Instead, he leaves his successor, NYPD insider Dermott Shea, with a host of unresolved issues and a hostile workforce committed to resisting change.”

Implementing Criminal Justice Reforms
Under the category of resisting change may be Shea’s repeatedly expressed concerns about sweeping criminal justice reforms passed by the State Legislature and Governor Cuomo earlier this year and set to take effect in January. They include the elimination of cash bail for misdemeanors and a vast number of non-violent felonies and new open discovery laws that allow a defendant to receive the evidence against them on a faster timeline.

Reformers and advocates hailed the new laws, particularly the bail reforms aimed at equalizing a system where people who have yet to be found guilty of a crime can spend months, even years in jail simply because they cannot afford to pay for their freedom. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, that law would apply in 90% of arrests.

“I think Shea’s going to be in charge of overseeing a real culture change within the NYPD,” Ndiaye said. “The majority of this is not only following the letter of the law, which is of course, important, but following the spirit of the laws, which is to limit people's interaction with the criminal justice system and to mitigate the harms that come with that as much as possible.”

Public Advocate Williams said, “We have to support these type of reforms while investing in the things that we know make communities safer and my hope is that the commissioner will join us.”

The reforms have, however, prompted a backlash from law enforcement officials and legislators who have predicted that they will lead to an increase in crime, though there is no evidence to back that claim. Some believe the laws will make officers hesitant to do their jobs, knowing that an individual they arrest may soon be out of detention.

“I think the most difficult challenge he's gonna face is the recalibration of the police department in response to bail reform,” Borelli said. “How do you keep patrol officers motivated to do their job when a person they've arrested will be let out before they get home for dinner? It is going to be the most demoralizing change the police department faces in its two-century history.”

Shea himself has expressed some reservations. “We are for reform. We just have some very slight concerns about some parts of this reform that’s coming,” he said at a December 5 news conference on the latest crime statistics, citing some worry about public safety. But, he said the department has been training officers to work under the new system. “We’ve been preparing and planning for this for many months now...We feel well prepared as an agency in terms of being ready for this. And if there are any bumps in the road we will learn from it and quickly.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Note - this article has been updated with references to the NYPD gang database. 

Note - this article has been updated. 

The Challenges Facing Dermot Shea Thu, 12 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
De Blasio's Answer to Garner Death, NYPD Deescalation Training Slowly Evolves Toward Meeting Mayor’s Rhetoric police academy graduation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

De Blasio's Answer to Garner Death, NYPD Deescalation Training Slowly Evolves Toward Meeting Mayor’s Rhetoric Mon, 09 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Deadly NYPD Shooting of Officer and Civilian Tests New Body Camera Footage Policy anto reyes police body cam

Monday's press conference at City Hall (photo: @changethenypd)

[Update (Sunday Dec. 15): on Friday, Dec. 13, the NYPD released body camera footage in this case]

Antonio Williams’ parents were not allowed to see their son in the hospital before he died from police gunshot wounds he sustained while attempting to flee a police stop in late September. Two-and-a-half months later, they are seeking footage from the body cameras worn by the officers involved that night and, in the process, are testing the NYPD’s new policy for publicly releasing video of what it calls “critical incidents,” including when civilians are killed by police.

NYPD Officer Brian Milkeen was also shot and killed by NYPD officers during the altercation as he wrestled with Williams. Many details of the event remain murky but a police department representative said Monday the NYPD expects to release footage of the incident "in the coming week."

At a tearful press conference on the steps of City Hall Monday, Williams’ family was joined by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams (no relation), members of the City Council, and the families of other black men killed by police to seek details from Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD about the September shooting. Despite a recently-published policy designed to clarify and expedite the process of releasing footage to the public, Shawn and Gladys Williams, Antonio’s father and stepmother, say they have not been shown body-camera video of the events leading to their son’s death.

“At the end of the day, we just want the truth. We want to find out what happened that night, why it happened, what could have been done to prevent it happening,” said Shawn Williams. Shawn and Gladys were joined by Antonio’s brother, Justin, who wore a shirt that said “My Brother, My Guardian Angel.” Others held signs saying “Justice for Antonio Williams #ReleaseTheNames” and “De Blasio/NYPD Stop Blocking Transparency, Justice for Antonio Williams.”

On September 29, Mulkeen, in plainclothes, approached Antonio Williams in front of the Edenwald Houses, a NYCHA complex in the northeast Bronx, then chased and wrestled him to the ground after Williams fled, according to then-Police Commissioner James O’Neill. Other officers were also in pursuit. According to the police department, Mulkeen can be heard via the not-yet-released body camera recording yelling, “He’s reaching for it. He’s reaching for it,” as Williams is, according to the NYPD, seen reaching toward his waist. Both Mulkeen and Williams died by police gunfire. Officers on the scene discharged 15 rounds, O’Neill said.

Police reported finding a handgun on the scene belonging to Williams, which had not been fired. A witness said that Williams was waiting for a cab when he was approached. Advocates say that in New York State it is not, by itself, illegal to run from the police.

The police department has not released details to the Williams family or the public about what Williams was being stopped for or whether he was suspected of a crime while the events were unfolding. It is also unclear whether officers identified themselves as police before approaching Williams.

Jonathan Moore, a lawyer with Beldock Levine and Hoffman LLP who is representing Williams’ family, said they have requested these details, as well as the names of the officers involved and any body-worn camera footage recorded that night, which could illuminate what happened and whether police officers acted appropriately and within the law. Moore’s firm submitted a request for the body-camera footage and other details through the state’s Freedom of Information Law on Monday, Moore said.

“We are concerned that that information is being covered up,” Moore said at the press conference. “Let’s see some transparency here. Let’s level the playing field. Let’s have the evidence about what happened.”

On October 18, the NYPD quietly published a long-sought policy outlining how the department would approach publicly sharing body-worn camera footage of “critical incidents” -- police interactions where the use of force resulted in death or serious injury, or where releasing body camera video would “address vast public attention, or concern.” The policy came months after O’Neill and de Blasio announced the full implementation of the body-worn camera program. It was originally piloted as a way to hold officers accountable after a judge found the NYPD had for years unconstitutionally targeted people of color with stop-and-frisk policing. As of this fall, roughly 24,000 police officers have been equipped with cameras.

The shooting deaths of Mulkeen and Williams appear to fall squarely within the NYPD’s definition of a “critical incident,” and participants at the press conference Monday, organized by Communities United for Police Reform, an advocacy coalition, said the department is in possession of video that could provide answers and closure for Williams’ family.

“We don’t even know what happened,” said Brooklyn City Council Member Antonio Reynoso. “We don’t know whether the officers did anything wrong, whether Antonio did something wrong. We don’t know anything. We’re standing here blind. The city has all the information and refuses to give it to us.”

The new policy says “the Department will decide when to publicly release BWC footage of a critical incident within 30 calendar days, excluding any non-disclosure period(s), provided that the force investigation review is completed.” It does not say whether it applies to events retroactively and does not guarantee footage will be published, leaving that decision entirely within the police commissioner’s discretion.

In an email to Gotham Gazette, police spokesperson Devora Kaye wrote, “The NYPD is committed to releasing footage of critical incidents captured by body-worn cameras within 30 days, with limited exceptions, while also balancing privacy concerns, protecting against compromising criminal investigations, and the need to comply with federal, state and local disclosure laws.”

“We expect to release the video from this incident in the coming week, and the Department will be sharing additional videos for other police involved shooting incidents in the coming weeks and months,” she wrote of the September 29 shooting.

Last month, under the new policy, the NYPD posted a 14-minute video of the fatal shooting of Gregory Edwards by police on Staten Island.

When asked whether the new policy should apply retroactively to Williams’ death and if Mayor de Blasio had discussed the matter with the police department, a mayoral spokesperson deferred to the NYPD.

A spokesperson for the Civilian Complaint Review Board says the watchdog agency has received no complaints stemming from the shooting, which is required in order to open an investigation.

The increasingly vocal public outcry around Williams’ death is setting up the September shooting to be one of the first tests of how the department will deal with critical incidents since the policy was released.

“I call on Dermot Shea, the new police commissioner: this is the first item on your plate,” said Moore on Monday. “We’re asking simply that there be full disclosure so that we can determine whether justice has been done in this matter.”

City Council Member Brad Lander, also a Brooklyn Democrat, said the police department will need to be more transparent about the application of the policy, especially in sharing video to the families of people killed by police. “A policy is written precisely to go out of the realm of implication into the realm of specific knowledge, and it is not clear. It does not obligate the NYPD to share [footage] with the family,” he told Gotham Gazette after the press conference.

Shaping the narrative and controlling the information around civilian deaths are hard and enduring issues for the loved ones of people killed by police. The new body-camera footage policy says the police department will release “representative samples” of the video but makes no commitment to publish footage completely or without redaction.

“Before they bring the evidence out, they want to tell it their way,” said Gwen Carr, Eric Garner’s mother, at the press conference. “But that officer [Brian Mulkeen] may have died for other reasons, we don’t know. They want to make Antonio the scapegoat like in so many other cases.”

Speaking the day after the shooting, then-Police Commissioner O’Neill told reporters, “Make no mistake, we lost the life of a courageous public servant solely due to a violent criminal who put the lives of the police and the people we serve in jeopardy.”

“We just need to know,” said Gladys Williams, Antonio’s stepmother. “It has been two-and-a-half months. It is hard to spend the holidays without our son.”

Note: this article has been updated to say the Civilian Complaint Review Board has not received a complaint in this matter.

[Update (Sunday Dec. 15): on Friday, Dec. 13, the NYPD released edited body camera footage in this case. Just prior to the release of that video, family of Antonio Williams and others held a press conference to criticize the mayor and NYPD, saying in an accompanying press release: "Antonio Williams’ father, stepmother and brother – joined by elected officials and police accountability advocates – rallied in front of NYPD headquarters to protest Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD’s refusal to provide Williams’ family with full access to unedited police body camera footage of the September 29th Bronx police killing of Antonio Williams and Officer Brian Mulkeen. The rally took place after the Williams family was able to preview an NYPD-produced video that is expected to be released publicly today."]

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Deadly NYPD Shooting of Officer and Civilian Tests New Body Camera Footage Policy Mon, 09 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
NYPD's New Agreement with Police Oversight Board Promises Better Access to Body Camera Footage de Blasio NYPD leaders

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

A new evidence-sharing agreement between the NYPD and its civilian watchdog agency around the department’s handling of police body-worn camera footage has the potential to significantly change the way misconduct investigations are carried out. But despite the NYPD’s recent commitment to greater transparency and cooperation, to be successful the agreement will require an element of trust in an interagency relationship marked by obfuscation and obstruction.

Under the new agreement, the Civilian Complaint Review Board will have more direct access to body camera video, which officials say will dramatically improve its ability to pursue police officer misconduct allegations. But the agreement also hints at the ongoing imbalance among the police department, the CCRB, and the public in terms of who controls footage captured by a system meant to make officers more accountable and policing more transparent.

In November, after months of negotiation, the NYPD and CCRB announced a memorandum of understanding establishing an intricate process that will allow officials from both agencies to view requested body camera video together without redaction, before it is subject to editing by the police department. The announcement closely followed a City Council oversight hearing and a series of articles by Gotham Gazette on the body camera program, including several on the CCRB’s struggle to obtain necessary footage.

“It is a real compromise and it’s going to let the CCRB do its job and provide effective, independent oversight of the NYPD,” said CCRB Executive Director Jonathan Darche in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

The CCRB is an oversight agency appointed by the mayor in partnership with the City Council and police commissioner to investigate civilian complaints related to excessive force and abuses of police authority, among other defined types of officer misconduct. The proliferation of body cameras across the police force gave advocates, reformers, and others hope that more misconduct claims could be verified or definitively dismissed.

In March, Mayor Bill de Blasio and then-Police Commissioner James O’Neill announced the full implementation of 20,000 officer-worn cameras to rank-and-file cops, and another 3,000-4,000 were handed out to specialized divisions later in the year.

Around the same time, the backlog of CCRB video inquiries skyrocketed and the number of the agency’s cases with pending requests roughly doubled. While CCRB investigators are relying more on evidence from the cameras to help substantiate claims, they are also having a harder time obtaining the footage. When they do, the footage is often censored or cut by the police department. In dozens of substantiated instances, the NYPD has falsely denied to the CCRB that it has body camera footage the Board has requested.

The new agreement calls on the city to create a “secure room” within CCRB headquarters that will function as an NYPD facility with access to the department’s BWC database. When CCRB investigators request footage, a representative will be present in the secure room while police officials search their system. That representative will be allowed to pass on notes about the raw video to CCRB investigators who can then request specific sections of tape. Once a narrowly described section of video is requested and subjected to NYPD editing, it can be shared outside the secure room.

“From neighborhood policing to body cameras for all patrol officers, this Administration has led a paradigm shift in the way our city is policed. We applaud the Police Department and Civilian Complaint Review Board for cutting red tape and working together to promote transparency and accountability,” wrote Olivia Lapeyrolerie, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, in an email.

The change is likely a big step forward for the police watchdog. Under the current system, the NYPD acts as the sole owner of body camera footage with complete discretion to censor and redact footage and the ability to delay releasing it to the CCRB from the outset. Officials say the new approach allows the CCRB to monitor the video transfer process from as close to the beginning as possible (once an inquiry is made). It also helps deter “false negatives” in which the NYPD denies the existence of footage in its possession, an ongoing concern and repeat problem for the CCRB.

In the most serious cases of excessive police force, the NYPD may still “lockdown” footage if it is part of an internal inquiry by the department’s Force Investigation Division. Footage under lockdown will be searchable by a CCRB rep but not shared with CCRB investigators until after the NYPD division’s investigation is concluded.

To the extent that it outlines the parameters for interagency body camera video sharing, the agreement is an acknowledgement of the NYPD’s de facto ownership of body camera technology and the evidence it records. It still leaves the NYPD with ultimate access to the secure room and the footage database, unlike in other jurisdictions where the oversight body has direct access to video without having to go through the police department.

"While the latest MOU between the NYPD and CCRB may provide quicker access to some footage for the CCRB, it cements the NYPD's unilateral control of footage, including the ability to redact and restrict footage as it sees fit,” wrote Kesi Foster, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, an advocacy coalition, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

“The MOU makes no explicit allowances for survivors of police violence or their families to view footage and allows the NYPD to block CCRB access to footage in serious cases where excessive force is used - which are the exact cases that the public and CCRB should have immediate and unfettered access to footage,” Foster wrote.

Since the complete rollout of body-worn cameras, the NYPD has reserved the right to edit footage before release to the CCRB and the broader public (including the news media), saying state and federal privacy laws require it to do so (an NYPD policy memo issued in October, explicitly states this for release to the public, but not to the CCRB). The result has been a growing backlog of unfulfilled body camera footage requests to the CCRB that hamper its investigations, which need to be completed within an 18-month statute of limitations.

As of the end of October, the CCRB reported 574 cases (27 percent of all its investigations) in which body camera footage requests had not been fulfilled by the NYPD. Over half of those requests have been pending for more than 30 days.

The backlog and the NYPD’s ability to edit footage before turning it over to the CCRB have created a system where investigators are limited in what evidence they have access to, even when they are aware material footage exists. By contrast, the NYPD shares video of an arrest with prosecutors completely and almost immediately, suggesting that the new technology is being used more to prosecute civilians than investigate police misconduct.

The November agreement is a step away from that status quo. It creates certain checks on the NYPD’s ability to withhold or delay footage and improves trust in the body-worn cameras program as a police oversight system.

“There are a few takeaways from the agreement. The first is it’s going to significantly reduce the backlog once it’s fully implemented. The second is that it assures the CCRB that we are receiving all the relevant video in a case,” said Darche.

“It also takes the NYPD’s security concerns into account, and it assures civilians and members of the NYPD that their privacy rights won’t be violated,” he added.

The NYPD has maintained that, for releasing video to either the CCRB or the public, it must edit footage to ensure legally protected subject matter isn’t publicly disseminated. Police representatives have said the identities of minors and victims or survivors of sex crimes must be censored and any depiction of medical treatment redacted, pursuant to statutory privacy protections. Reviewing and editing footage is what causes the delays in transmitting evidence to the CCRB, officials say.

“One of the areas in dispute was the NYPD felt those statutes applied. We did not feel that those applied. The NYPD felt that blurring the faces of people allowed them to then release the video to us and that was a compromise we were willing to accept,” Darche said, referring to part of the agreement that deals with footage being shared outside the secure room.

The new agreement puts much more onus on the CCRB to request only the relevant footage as a way to reduce the burden on the NYPD to process the video. CCRB investigators will be required to “diligently conduct as many investigatory steps as reasonable” to determine whether potential video is relevant to their investigation before making a footage request, rather than submitting blanket requests for all potentially relevant footage.

“Under this agreement, CCRB investigators will obtain relevant records such as an arrest or summons associated with complaints prior to making a body-worn camera footage request, in order to make the search and viewing processes more efficient,” wrote Ethan Teicher, the CCRB press secretary, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

The additional costs to staff new positions in the secure room and to meet the additional investigatory requirements are yet to be determined, but officials think it will ultimately improve the process and lead to better, more coherent video searches.

Examining the raw footage “will be a shared responsibility between the NYPD and the CCRB, and it is the CCRB’s hope that involving Agency staff in the initial review of body-worn camera footage will provide additional, case-based knowledge that will make the process more efficient,” Teicher wrote.

“The CCRB will need to work with OMB [the Office of Management and Budget] and DCAS [Department of Citywide Administrative Services] for additional funding for the secure space. Initially, we expect both the NYPD and the CCRB to each have four staff members in the room, while the other terminals will be used by investigators tasked with reviewing the footage,” he added. The agency currently has roughly 100 investigators, according to a CCRB spokesperson in October.

In addition to a backlog of video request, the CCRB has reported a large number of false negatives in responses to requests for body camera video. In a July memo to CCRB board members, staff cited 147 cases where the police department said requested footage did not exist only to find out later that it did. In some cases the denied footage was leaked to the press, and in others officers under investigation reported reviewing footage that was previously said not to exist. As of July, the NYPD had acknowledged accidental false negatives in 19 cases, according to the memo.

“[T]he CCRB cannot accurately track the number of cases in which it received ‘false negatives’...because the Agency does not know what video the NYPD possess,” the memo stated.

The CCRB believes the new agreement changes that dynamic. “Having a presence in the secure room when a search is conducted should reduce the chance of generating a false negative,” Darche told Gotham Gazette.

While the agreement makes a commitment to involve the CCRB in the initial search for requested footage, it still establishes a lopsided relationship with the NYPD.

A footage search must be conducted by a member of the NYPD in the presence of a CCRB representative. Yet nothing under the agreement prevents the NYPD from accessing the secure room outside of established business hours, and allows the department to audit CCRB electronic access to the system. On the other hand, the CCRB will only have access to the room during agreed-upon hours and does not have the ability to audit the NYPD’s use of the room.

“As the secure room will be an NYPD facility, the Department will have access to it outside of business hours. However, the CCRB does not expect NYPD personnel will use the facility to work on CCRB-related matters without CCRB present,” Teicher wrote.

“The CCRB will not at this time be able to audit the logins at the secure facility,” he added. “If an issue is ever raised, the CCRB will make every effort to work with the Department to resolve it.”

The agreement does not go into effect until the secure room is built, after which other protocols will be established. The text of the agreement does not specify a timeline for that.

“We will continue to work with OMB and DCAS to secure the necessary funding for the facility, and hope to have it set up in the first half of 2020,” wrote a CCRB spokesperson in an email.

In an email to Gotham Gazette, Chris Dunn, legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), wrote of the new MOU, “we are concerned about how long it will take to get the new system up and running and about how much time this agreement gives the NYPD to turn over videos. A police department as sophisticated as the NYPD should be able to deliver videos in a matter of hours, not weeks.”

The agreement was hashed out under the administration of former Police Commissioner James O’Neill over weeks or months in the lead up to its announcement in November, which was first reported by the Daily News. It will have to be implemented under his successor, Dermot Shea, who was sworn in at the beginning of December after serving as Chief of Detectives, among other roles at the NYPD.

“I am confident this agreement between the CCRB and the NYPD will be preserved under incoming Police Commissioner Dermot Shea. This compromise is a step toward significantly reducing the body-worn camera backlog, ensuring police accountability, and allowing the CCRB to carry out its essential public safety mission on behalf of all New Yorkers,” CCRB Chair Fred Davie wrote in an email.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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NYPD's New Agreement with Police Oversight Board Promises Better Access to Body Camera Footage Wed, 04 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Facing Criticism, NYPD Reps Tell City Council Body Camera Program 'A Work in Progress' finance comm hearing

(photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Facing Criticism, NYPD Reps Tell City Council Body Camera Program 'A Work in Progress' Mon, 18 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000