Gotham Gazette Thu, 22 Apr 2021 20:05:32 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Queens Council District Holds City's First Ranked-Choice Election election pres rockaway

New York City voting (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

In spite of the challenges posed by the pandemic, and in some ways in response to them, 2020 proved to be a historic year for voting in New York City, with 3 million ballots cast in the presidential election in November, including a record-breaking 662,314 absentee ballots after the state eased rules on voting by mail, and unprecedented long lines at early voting poll-sites in the first presidential election with the nine-day period implemented in New York.

Moving into 2021, the newest change impacting New Yorkers’ ballots is the first-ever implementation of ranked-choice voting (RCV), which applies to special elections and party primary elections for city government positions.

The launch of ranked-choice voting will be a special election to replace the vacant seat formerly held by Rory Lancman in the 24th City Council District, covering parts of eastern Queens including Kew Gardens Hills, Pomonok, Eastchester, Fresh Meadows, Hillcrest, Jamaica Estates, Briarwood, Parkway Village, Jamaica Hills, and Jamaica. The ballot is set and absentee voting is underway, while early voting runs January 23-January 31, and election day itself February 2.

The winner will serve out the rest of this term for Lancman, who took a position in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration, which means the rest of 2021. Meanwhile, the regularly-scheduled 2021 election for the seat, along with the rest of the City Council and city government, will take place with the primary in June and a fall general election. The winner of the special election, like those in several other City Council districts with special elections from December or upcoming, will quickly have to defend his or her seat.

The race in City Council District 24 will be crucial not only for representation for that district and its residents, but as a litmus test for ranked-choice voting’s strengths and weaknesses in advance of the other special elections set for February and March, as well as the full citywide primaries in June.

Six of the City Council hopefuls in the eight-candidate District 24 race appeared this past week at a forum on ranked-choice voting, hosted by Rank the Vote NYC a coalition of elected officials, business and labor leaders, and other reform groups that led the charge in 2019 to implement ranked-choice voting in New York City, Common Cause NY, the nonpartisan organization behind Rank the Vote NYC that has led education efforts on ranked-choice voting in New York City, the Queens Daily Eagle, Disability Rights NY, and the Northeast Queens Chapter of the NAACP. The event was moderated by David Brand, the managing editor of the Queens Daily Eagle, and Aditi Lamba, an anchor at ITV Gold, a South Asian network.

The six candidates, listed in alphabetical order by last name, included Moumita Ahmed, a progressive community organizer, who is endorsed by the Working Families Party; James Gennaro, the former City Council member for District 24 in Queens, who served three terms from 2002 to 2013; Neeta Jain, a Democratic district leader and practicing psychologist; Dilip Nath, a higher education executive and president of the New American Voters Association; Deepti Sharma, a small business advocate and entrepreneur, including as founder of Food to Eat, a catering platform for small and mostly immigrant-owned restaurants; and Soma Syed, a practicing attorney and Queens County Women’s Bar Association president. Candidates Michael Brown, a real estate agent, and Mujib Rahman, a community activist, were not present at the forum. All candidates are Democratic, and with the exception of Gennaro, all are first-time candidates to the City Council. Special elections in the city are non-partisan, whereby candidates run on self-created ballot lines, so there are no party primaries or ballot lines from the major or even minor parties.

The content of the forum focused on how candidates were incorporating ranked-choice voting into their campaign outreach, including education on ranked-choice voting, how ranked-choice voting would minimize vote splitting, or where ideologically or demographically similar candidates split a base of support, increasing the likelihood of a dissimilar candidate winning instead, and how the new voting system was affecting their candidacies overall, including broaching “taboo” or “hot-button” topics with voters and their interactions with the other candidates. Forum participants were not asked questions about district-specific issues, although candidates nevertheless raised them in their responses.

In the interest of time, Brand and Lamba introduced the candidates themselves. Participating candidates appeared at the same time and took turns answering the same questions. They were each given 1-2 minutes to answer each question.

Kenny Cohen, the president of the Northeast Queens NAACP, opened the forum saying, “NAACP has been fighting for voting rights since its inception in 1909. To see this beautiful, diverse group of candidates running here in this City Council District 24 in Queens is a beautiful sight. And it's a testament to the work that NAACP and all the civil rights advocates in the past have done to get us to this point.”

Before the Q&A portion of the forum began, Sean Dugar, the education campaign program director for Rank the Vote NYC, a citywide education and outreach initiative on ranked-choice voting, explained how ranked-choice voting works with a slideshow presentation, followed by a mock election.

In summary, the new ranked-choice voting process allows voters to select up to five candidates (including a write-in) in order of preference. To win outright, a candidate must reach over 50% of the first-place votes. If a candidate does not win a majority of first-place votes on first count, then the candidate with the lowest number of first-place votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed to the remaining candidates based on their voters’ second choices. This process repeats itself until only two candidates are left, and then the person with most votes is declared the winner. The system will apply starting this year to party primary and special elections for City Council, Borough President, Public Advocate, City Comptroller, and Mayor.

The goals of ranked-choice voting include preventing polarized elections, promoting demographically and ideologically diverse candidates and officeholders, increasing voter awareness of candidates who are running, disincentivizing negative campaigning, and eliminating the need for costly runoff elections, which have applied to party primaries for citywide positions. And perhaps most of all, ranked-choice voting is meant to ensure that the winner of crowded elections has broad support among the constituents they are elected to represent.

Although the referendum passed with nearly 75% of the vote when a Charter Revision Commission put ranked-choice voting before New York City voters in the fall of 2019, critics have argued that it was an especially low turnout election given little was on the ballot and that the city has not adequately prepared voters for the change, potentially leading to voter suppression in marginalized communities where voters may not rank as many choices. But proponents of the new system disagree, pointing out that organizers in communities where voter suppression is more common led the charge for ranked-choice voting in the first place and that there is a robust voter-education underway. They also note that the 2019 Charter Revision Commission did painstaking work in a public process before proposing ranked-choice voting.

Brand kicked off the Q&A portion of the forum, saying, “It's a historic moment. It's our city's first use of ranked-choice voting, and it’s cool that it's happening in Queens.”

Lamba added that candidates in the race for District 24 were also scheduled to meet the following night on Thursday, January 14 for a forum co-hosted by multiple local organizations — Chhaya CDC, a housing advocacy organization geared toward low-income South Asian and Indo-Caribbean New Yorkers; India Home, a center for senior care; the Chinese-American Planning Council, an organization dedicated to the economic empowerment of Chinese American, immigrant, and low-income communities; Shetu, a community-based non-profit organization that assists low-income, Bangladeshi immigrant populations; APA VOICE, a non-partisan, pan-Asian coalition that seeks to increase civic engagement in the Asian-American community; and the MinKwon Center for Community Action, a Korean-led community group focused on social services for marginalized Asian Americans — and encouraged audience members to attend.

Brand posed the first question, asking candidates how City Council District 24’s diversity has influenced their campaign outreach. According to 2010 Census data, District 24’s total 167,448 population was 33.2% white, 28.9% Asian, 21.8% Hispanic, and 11.7% Black. District 24 has the largest Bangladeshi population of any City Council District, with over 10,000 people, part of an overall New York City population where Bangladeshis are the fifth largest Asian group overall, with almost 62,000 residents, according to the 2015 American Community Survey..

“I actually helped pass ranked-choice voting as field and education director for Common Cause. I believe in this way of voting; otherwise, I wouldn't have gotten involved,” Ahmed said.

“As the only renter running, I am mobilizing all of our communities around the issue of housing justice,” she continued, listing numerous endorsements from various civic groups, including the Hispanic American Voter Association, the Working Families Party, New York Communities for Change, Bangladeshi American Advocacy Group, and The Jewish Vote. “That's how we're talking to voters. That's how we're advancing the agenda of ranked-choice voting.”

Sharma began on a personal note, saying, “I was born and brought up in this district on 150 Fifth Street, right by Queens College. My son is going to the same school that I went to, and our focus has been talking to every single voter.” Although Sharma is one of six candidates in the race hoping to become the first South Asian elected to the City Council, she also emphasized, “I'm not here to represent the South Asian district, but every single person that makes this beautiful district exactly what it is.” She went on to add that she wants to prioritize her voters' concerns, citing COVID-19 relief, the vaccine rollout, and safe schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods.

“What better place to have ranked voting than here,” said Nath, referring to Queens, which is the most racially and ethnically diverse county in the country. He went on to praise term limits for creating space for new and diverse leadership, saying that “ranked-choice voting will further enhance the concept of diversity and inclusion.” He added, “What matters to you, what matters to Jewish [communities], what matters to South Asian or Latino [communities], is what matters to me.”

While Jain concurred that ranked-choice voting is important for amplifying diverse voices, including immigrants, she disagreed with the question’s premise, saying, “It is not affecting my election.” Jain highlighted her experience of community leadership — 30 years of practicing psychology, four years as a Democratic district leader, eight years as a founder of the civic engagement group International Ahimsa Foundation, and one year as the elected president of Daniel Patrick Moynihan Democratic Club of Queens — for “making a difference in their [people’s] lives.”

Jain stressed the range of problems that she has personally witnessed people facing during the pandemic, citing small business owners who went to her for “help to fill out the forms for SBA loans” and “kids suffering at home” because “schools do not have proper devices” for remote learning.

Gennaro emphasized his political career and the network of contacts he developed throughout his tenure as a City Council member, saying, “I was the one that appointed Kenny Cohen to the community board,” referring to Community Board 8 in Queens, and “I appointed the first Bangladeshi woman to Community Board 8,” alluding to Nargis Ahmed. “I’m quite confident that my relationships will serve me well in the upcoming election,” he said. Recalling his history with the community, Gennaro said, “I've had the ability to immerse myself in every community and really have a profound impact. I think people remember and appreciate that.”

Since his departure from the City Council in 2013, Gennaro has served in the Cuomo administration as the deputy commissioner for New York City Sustainability and Resiliency at the Department of Environmental Conservation.

In contrast, Syed said, “We need leadership that is of the future, not of the past.” Growing up in Jamaica and her experience as an attorney working pro-bono cases, has enabled her to form deep bonds within the community, across racial lines, Syed said. “Whether it be the Black community, Hispanic community, the Asian community, the Jewish community, and the white community — we are all together in one community. We’re all looking to better our lives, and the lives of our future, our children.”

Lamba asked if there were any issues that candidates considered “taboo” or “too hot” that they felt ranked-choice voting allowed them to talk about more openly or even campaign on.

“We have to make sure that we're talking about workers’ rights, and that includes sex workers,” began Ahmed, pointing out how certain groups like undocumented immigrants are excluded from federal aid and government protections. On that note, Ahmed spotlighted the “homelessness situation” as a “top priority,” explaining that “we’re closer to being homeless than becoming billionaires right now.” Even though these topics are often seen as taboo because “we’re talking about working-class Black and brown folks,” Ahmed said she believes they shouldn’t be. “That’s why ranked-choice voting is so great,” she added, “because it allows candidates like myself who come from working-class talk about working class issues.”

‘Policing is one of those issues that I've noticed that does alienate a few people, or groups of people,” said Sharma, ““one of the most important things that we need to think about.” To illustrate her point, Sharma described an incident as told to her by a Queens College student, who experienced a panic attack during finals. He called 911, but instead of a mental health professional or social worker, police officers responded to the call, and they handcuffed him. According to Sharma, “That didn’t help the situation. That made it worse.” She explained that the crux of the problem is funding, and then she centered Pomonok Community Center, which “used to have programs like taekwondo, gymnastics, and dance” but now “the only thing that exists there is homework help.”

“When we talk about investing in our communities, we need to keep talking about where the money is going to come from,” Sharma said, though she did not explicitly raise support for the “defund the police” movement.

For Gennaro, “Nothing is taboo. Nothing is off the table. Everything has to be discussed.” In response to Sharma’s mention of the Pomonok Community Center, where she said she personally benefited from its enrichment programs, Gennaro said, “I was happy to fund the good programming that she enjoyed.”

Sharma clarified by saying, “I did that in the 90s, though,” predating Gennaro’s tenure on the City Council.

On the question of taboo issues, Syed said, “I haven’t shied away from any issue. Everything that’s happening to even one person in our community needs to be discussed.”

Jain flagged mental health as a conventionally taboo subject that she believes needs to be discussed more on a political scale. “School children are growing up with anxiety. Our youth are out on the streets, and they are doing more drug abuse. Our seniors are going through depression.” She warned, “We really have to pay attention” because “it’s not going to go away that easily.”

Nath decried the state of remote learning, calling out the economic pressures placed upon low-income families who cannot afford high-speed broadband or laptops or iPads. He also pointed out that the closure of three hospitals in Queens in 2009 effectively transformed the borough into the epicenter of the pandemic a decade later.

Brand then asked candidates how they thought ranked-choice voting might serve voters and how it has affected the way they talk about themselves, as well as other candidates.

Candidates seemed to unanimously agree that ranked-choice voting creates a more level playing field for candidates in the electoral process. “RCV is giving a broader platform to everyone,” said Jain.

Candidates also agreed that the new voting system allowed them to focus more on the issues rather than political attacks. “It's giving a chance for voters to actually research and look up every single candidate because now that they know that they're not just voting for their number one,” said Sharma. She also said that these conversations with voters in which she’s able to focus solely on the issues, have enabled her to squeeze into voters’ number two slots in cases where she isn’t their top pick, thereby securing as many votes as possible.

Lamba asked candidates how they thought ranked-choice voting minimized the spoiler effect, or vote splitting between candidates who share similar demographics or ideologies.

“We are trying very hard through RCV not to split votes,” began Jain, “but I think that it’s still going to happen.” Jain said she has conducted an educational seminar for voters on ranked-choice voting and is planning another one soon, which she hopes will minimize vote splitting.

Syed expressed some doubt over the abilities of the New York City Campaign Finance Board and New York City Board of Elections to “invest enough resources and time to educate voters about RCV.” She went on to say that these shortcomings are “going to affect our minority communities who are already marginalized, who are afraid of the voting process. It falls on the candidates to pick up the slack and educate the voters.”

Gennaro said he didn’t think significant vote splitting would occur, saying, “I think that the whole idea of ranked-choice voting is to turn that splitting phenomenon on its head.” He did concur with Syed that “there has not been enough education by the Board of Elections and by the Campaign Finance Board,” concluding that “this election is going to be a little bit of a shakeout.”

Nath did not directly answer the question but voiced praise for the “many minority candidates running for office” compared to when he ran in 2005 for the same seat.

Sharma said she’s hoping to mitigate vote splitting by staying focused on the issues rather than identity politics. “I don't just talk about my race. I don't just talk about my gender. I talk about the things that are affecting them.”

“The beauty of ranked-choice voting is, yes, it diversifies the slate in terms of our identity. But issues, as well,” added Ahmed, citing her pro-worker platform.

Brand then asked what was possibly the most controversial yet straight-forward question posed during the forum: who is your second choice?

Sharma answered, “We are still analyzing our second choice based on how these forums go. I want to know that people are the same in every room, and don't pick and choose what they say, when it's convenient.”

Jain also said she was in the process of evaluating her candidate picks.

“My ballot is private,” said Gennaro, “but I will keep my eye on the candidates as the race progresses.” When Brand called this a “cop-out answer,” Gennaro told him, “I reject your characterization,” claiming that revealing his second choice would in effect attempt to “manipulate the voters.”

Syed also said she has not yet decided on a second choice candidate, saying that she is going to wait for more debates to hear other candidates’ platforms.

Nath did not explicitly share any names, but named top priorities: education, health care, and housing. He also said he’d rank candidates with “roots in the community.” Nath said he’s undecided on his fifth choice.

Ahmed was the only one who shared her candidate picks, saying, “I like to walk the walk.” She went on to disclose that Sharma will get one of her votes because of her detailed housing plan, Nath will also get a vote from Ahmed, who praised his work with New American Voters Association, and she also committed to voting for Jain because she supports taxing the rich. She didn’t name a fifth vote.

For the final question, which was submitted by a member of the audience, candidates were asked how they were educating voters on completing their ballots under the new system.

Gennaro, Nath, and Syed all identified reminding voters to vote for up to five different candidates as part of their education on ranked-choice voting in order to maximize the potential of the new voting system.

Sharma said her campaign volunteers have been taught how to educate voters on ranked-choice voting through a script and training sessions.

“We have literature in multiple languages explaining how ranked-choice voting works,” said Ahmed, who also pairs this education with reminders about her platform and endorsements, so that they will think of her on Election Day.

In addition to educational seminars, Jain also said that she has a sample ballot on her phone, which she uses to demonstrate for voters how the ballot will look and how to use it.

The forum on Thursday night, hosted by Chhaya CDC, India Home, Chinese-American Planning Committee (CPC NYC), Shetu, APA VOICE, and the MinKwon Center for Community Action, also began with an educational presentation on ranked-choice voting. After that, the candidates each had one minute to introduce themselves. The Q&A portion of the forum was divided into four rounds including questions from members of the organizations sponsoring the event; a “lightning round” requiring short answers; audience questions; and the candidates selecting an opponent of their choice to ask a question.

The questions posed to candidates touched on plans for social services, language accessibility, gentrification and displacement, land use, housing, tenants’ rights, senior care, the city budget, and more. The forum was moderated by Habib Rahman of TBN24, a Bangla language live television channel.

Although originally scheduled to appear, Gennaro cancelled an hour or so before the event, according to organizers. Habib called this news “disappointing” a few times throughout the forum, and said, “We’d like to thank all of the candidates who saw it important to come to the forum and speak to everybody who’s here.” Candidates Mujib Rahman and Michael Brown were also missing.

When asked how they would enhance professional development programs geared toward immigrant and undocumented communities, all of the candidates agreed that language accessibility was a crucial aspect of this and proposed different strategies.

Syed suggested coordinating with the Small Business Administration to “connect with employers to see what needs they have, and we train and provide funding simultaneously.” Additionally, Syed proposed “investing in trade schools,” as well as educating those with foreign degrees about the existing system for certificate conversion.

On language accessibility, Nath took a few shots at Gennaro, saying, “Today, we have somebody who is running for this seat who voted against a language assistance program. Apparently, he’s not even on this panel. Maybe I’m missing him.” If elected to the City Council, Nath said, “I want to specifically work with CUNY and SUNY and create a center at York College and Queens College” that would help immigrants with their certifications.

Jain emphasized funding, citing her experience as a Democratic district leader and a delegate for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the most recent presidential election. “I know how much money is sitting there for our adult education program. I want to bring that money to my district. I want to bring the fair share to my community,” she said.

Sharma said she would create a task force of community leaders to strategize “innovative solutions” that are “on par with what’s happening in the community,” including making sure that “language accessibility is part of [job training].”

Ahmed said her personal experience of providing translation for her immigrant parents has informed her understanding of the need for language justice, saying, “When you can't understand, you can't participate.” But the clock ran out before she proposed specific strategies.

When asked how they would assist first-time homebuyers, Ahmed, Nath, Syed, and Jain all agreed that basements should be legalized as separate dwelling units.

Ahmed went on to say, “And we need to work with state legislators to tax the rich and make sure there's funding to give a stipend to homeowners so that they're able to pay their mortgage.”

Nath emphasized his commitment to helping homeowners, saying, “I have not taken a single dime from developers,” which he criticized for artificially inflating prices. He added that taxes should be suspended for first-time homebuyers and that the process by which to secure loans for homes should be easier.

“There’s already a program that exists, which provides $40,000 for the first-time homebuyer,” began Jain, referencing the HomeFirst Down Payment Assistance Program. “It should be extended more, and there should be some more educational programs also to be funded by the City Council,” added Jain.

If elected, Sharma said that she would work with the state on property taxes, although she didn’t specify. She also proposed “creating a New York City public bank, where we can actually provide capital that goes to a more diverse group of people.” She identified loans at the “number one problem” for first-time homeowners.

“Since 2002, property taxes have increased almost 18%,” began Syed. “When I get to City Council, I’m pledging not to increase property taxes on one-to-three [family] homes.” She also emphasized the need for seminars on purchasing homes and spotting predatory lending.

On gentrification and displacement as a result of rezonings and real estate development, all candidates agreed that input from the community is vital.

Both Nath and Jain called for the creation of more affordable housing.

Sharma, Ahmed, and Soma said that racial impact studies, as suggested by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and some City Council members, should be required on major rezoning proposals. In addition to racial impact reports, Soma emphasized the need for environmental impact statements. Sharma and Syed also criticized what they say is a one-size-fits-all approach of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program. “AMI, the average median income is the same across the board” when it should vary neighborhood by neighborhood, said Sharma.

Ahmed called for reforming the entire land use review process overall, saying, “I would not vote for any rezoning under our current ULURP process,” which she said “prioritizes developers over our community.”

On supporting tenants, Sharma said she would start with holding “problematic landlords” accountable by “taking them to court,” referring to Zara Realty, a real estate company that faced a lawsuit from New York Attorney General Letitia James over violations of rent stabilization and tenant harassment laws.

Syed, who has represented tenants against Zara Realty, said she would cancel rent “for those tenants who are not able to pay rent.” On this point, Nath disagreed, saying, “If we do that, that will hurt some of our small landlords.”

“What I will do is work to continue the moratorium on evictions during the pandemic by working with state legislators, expand ‘right to a lawyer’ for all renters in housing court, encourage the creation of more tenant unions…and expand community land trusts to help working class families afford a home,” said Ahmed.

On senior care, Sharma proposed distributing the COVID-19 vaccine via a mobile van, and Nath agreed, saying, “We need to bring the vaccine into the local community.” Syed promised using $750,000 in discretionary funds allotted to City Council District 24 to fund senior centers. Ahmed concurred, adding, “We also need adult daycare centers to provide help for our seniors, whether it's physical therapy, mental health support.” Jain, who serves as chair of the community advisory board of India Home, cited her experience in the role, including mental health counseling for seniors, providing hot meals, and vocational skills programs.

When asked how they would approach the city budget in the midst of the fiscal crisis caused by the pandemic, Sharma, Ahmed, and Jain called for new revenue streams. Sharma and Ahmed suggested redirecting a portion of the NYPD’s budget toward social services, with Ahmed pointing out, “The city spent $230 million in 2018 alone on lawsuits against the NYPD for misconduct. It's clear that we need to stop pumping billions into a policing system that's broken and plagued with lawsuits and human rights violations.” Ahmed and Jaim also proposed taxing billionaires. Additionally, Ahmed said she would “work with state legislators to pass marijuana legalization,” “take away tax abatements so corporate landlords can’t avoid taxes,” and “make sure New York City collects fines for permit violations and tax commercial property warehouses.”

While Sharma said that the city needs “to stop relying on federal funding,” Syed said that she would “push the Biden administration to provide state funding.” She also added, “We need to look at the entire city budget and make the appropriate cuts,” but she promised those cuts would not impact essential social services, such as senior care, mental health services, and support for the unhoused.

“What I'm proposing is suspending the commercial rent tax for at least one year, and giving a grant to the small business owner, so they can open the business and create jobs,” said Nath. He also said he was “supportive of Amazon” building a massive new campus in Long Island City, but in lieu of that, “We need to make sure we invite companies who will create jobs that are going to help the middle-class American. Of course, they have to be union jobs.”

During the lightning round, candidates were unanimous in their support of “people over profit,” Medicare for all, affordable housing, ranked-choice voting, and working-class communities. When asked to choose between investment in community programs and services or investment in law enforcement, most candidates chose the former, except Syed, who said she supported both.

During the final round, in which candidates asked another candidate of their choice one question, Sharma kicked things off, asking Nath for his stance on the Black Lives Matter movement. To this, he said he was supportive. “We cannot end [systemic racism] by electing the same people year after year who violate term limits, who just treat politics as a career,” he said, seemingly referring to former City Council member Gennaro, who served three terms and is now running for his old seat in District 24. (The current law limits officeholders to two concurrent terms, but there is nothing barring Gennaro from running again. He was among those who approved a term-limits extension in 2009 that allowed Mayor Bloomberg and City Council members like himself the possibility of an additional term.)“By electing one of us, we can bring diversity and inclusion to the City Council. That's how we end systemic racism in this country,” Nath said.

Syed asked Jain how she thought white supremacy affected immigrant communities, to which Jain replied, “This is a democratic country. What happened in Washington, that should not have happened.” She added, “Of course it affected our immigrant community,” highlighting immigrant concern over safety.

Next, Ahmed asked Nath what his favorite Bangladeshi restaurant was on Hillside Avenue, and he answered, “Sagar Chinese.”

When Nath asked Ahmed if she would pledge to not work with candidates “who violated the term limit,” seemingly another reference to Genarro, Ahmed said, “I absolutely support term limits and would not want to work with anybody who's exploiting a loophole.”

For the last question of the forum, Jain asked Syed what she would do differently from the previous Council member, Lancman, for immigrant communities. Syed said, “We need to equitably distribute discretionary funds into communities that really need them.”

by Allison Smith for Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Queens Council District Holds City's First Ranked-Choice Election Sun, 17 Jan 2021 05:00:00 +0000
'Break in the Dam': New York Sees Flood of Long-Stalled Police Reforms in Response to Outcry Eric Garner police reform NYPD

Eric Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, at a recent press conference (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

New York, and the nation, was teetering on the edge when it was suddenly and violently pushed over it on May 25, as George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota by police officer Derek Chauvin. It was an incident as shocking as it was familiar, an unarmed Black man dying at the hands of a police officer with the episode caught on video and broadcast to millions of people.

“I can’t breathe,” Floyd cried out, as Chauvin knelt on his back and neck for nearly nine minutes and three other officers either helped restrain the man or simply stood by while he was clearly in distress. It was eerily familiar to the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island six years ago. Garner uttered those same words and his death was met with similar anger and protests.

But even though Garner was killed here, the levers of power in New York did not move with the same urgency then as they have now.

No one could have predicted what would happen after Floyd’s death. The country was in the middle of a historic pandemic, suffering from skyrocketing unemployment and an unprecedented fiscal crisis that further revealed and exacerbated the inequities suffered by Black and brown Americans. Almost overnight, there was an immense outpouring of anger and unrest as tens if not hundreds of thousands of people marched and rallied against the abuses of law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and society at large every day for weeks.

What would eventually become the largest movement in the country’s history, and which is still continuing to this day, ushered in a seismic shift and, here in New York, prompted the passage of long-delayed legislation on police reform, some of which had languished since after Garner’s death, new executive measures on accountability at the state and city levels, and significantly shifted conversations about municipal budgets and the people and programs they prioritize. 

“I feel like it is a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Reverend Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network and a longtime civil rights leader, in a phone interview, adding he feels a “guarded” sense of progress. “I’m just making sure that it’s sunlight and not the train coming.”

“It’s been a stunning couple of months,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, reflecting on all the action taken at the city and state levels.

Elected officials were spurred into action, from Governor Andrew Cuomo and members of the State Legislature -- which is led by two Black officials, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins -- to Mayor Bill de Blasio and members of the City Council, led by Speaker Corey Johnson. They said they realized the necessity of responding to the moment and acted accordingly, even if their actions left some activists wanting.

Among the laws that passed were those criminalizing chokeholds by police officers, allowing officer disciplinary records to be made public, standardizing NYPD disciplinary action, mandating disclosure of police surveillance technology, tracking enforcement of low-level offenses by demographics, creating a new hate crime category for filing a false police report based on race, and much more.

“We’ve been trying to do this for years,” said David Galarza, an activist with the New York Justice Committee. “These are movement victories,” he added, calling them nothing short of “monumental.”

Even as some like Galarza are taking stock, the totality of the sweep cannot yet be appreciated, as new laws must be implemented and enforced, executive orders are still being carried out, investigations of police conduct are ongoing, and many, many promises must be kept. And the changes have been met with fierce resistance from members of law enforcement and their close allies, including within the NYPD and leaders of police labor unions, as well as elected officials on the right and center.

For activists, the mass protests helped accomplish in a few weeks what they had sought through years of advocacy. It took five years, after all, for Officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose chokehold killed Eric Garner, to be fired. Repeatedly disappointed in politicians who either opposed their demands or only offered piecemeal concessions, activists -- including mothers and other relatives of Black men killed by police officers -- were now achieving victories that would have seemed unimaginable just a few months ago. Elected officials who had more often than not acted to obstruct or water down police reforms were now bending over backwards to expedite them.

“You have to wonder in the stillness of the night, if we didn’t have the pandemic and everyone’s attention, would they have moved?,” Sharpton said.

The conditions of the pandemic, said Mark Winston-Griffith, a longtime civil rights activist and executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, “created this perfect storm where people had the anger, the bandwidth, the motivation, the focus to take to the streets in a way that was somewhat unprecedented.”

Winston-Griffith, who has been active in central Brooklyn and beyond for decades, pointed to the participation of people who were previously far removed from the justice movement, particularly the involvement of white people. “Ordinary people suddenly became politicized, suddenly got the courage to even utter the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ and were able to consider things that have never been considered before,” he said, citing the debate around defunding police.

In the past months, words like “abolish” and “defund” went from the mouths of activists to the vocabulary of a much larger swathe of the general public. Black Lives Matter, a movement supported by a majority of Americans and already a household term, was now ubiquitous in every form of media. “These notions are things that would have reflexively been rejected before,” said Winston-Griffith, as he reflected on the historic events and how the Overton window shifted to the left on policing and public safety.

Further cementing the very core of the movement’s demands was that the official response to the protests, even in “progressive” New York City, often resembled authoritarian impulses of repressive regimes, with the NYPD repeatedly reinforcing activists’ complaints about brutal policing. Officers often acted as if with impunity, violently cracking down on demonstrations, largely with public approval from Mayor de Blasio, who variously defended his police department while promising to investigate and discipline any misconduct.

As de Blasio repeatedly turned a blind eye to unambiguous evidence that officers had crossed the bounds of permissible behavior, except in select instances where he said he did not like what he had seen, protestors and their supporters -- including many elected officials -- only grew more enraged.

“The veneer of invincibility, impunity has been peeled away,” said Lieberman. “That’s huge because what Black people have known, have lived now part of the consciousness of people of all races and ethnicity and that’s an important foundation for progress.”

“I’m glad I lived to see the day that we start seeing the break in the dam,” Sharpton said, “but I wish George Floyd had lived to see that day, I wish others had lived to see that day.”

Sweeping Sets of Stalled Bills Move Through Albany and City Hall
Within a month of the protests, elected officials at the city and state levels advanced legislation that had long languished and embraced ideas that activists had repeatedly fought for.  

“This is undeniable progress in bending the arc of history a little bit towards justice,” said Lieberman, who spoke of the exasperation that marked decades of incremental progress. “At times, you feel like you’re yelling into the void and there’s no way that people are ever going to get it.”

The state Legislature passed a package of bills that were the most consequential police reforms that New York has seen in decades. On June 12, Governor Cuomo signed what he called the “Say Their Name” agenda, a title meant to evoke the many victims of deadly police violence like Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, Georgia, and Garner here in New York — among many others. The pieces of the package mostly had not been Cuomo priorities in the past, but were on the agendas of certain activists and legislators.

The State Legislature quickly passed and the governor signed a long list of bills, even beyond what Cuomo included in the “Say Their Name” agenda.

The state approved the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act, which criminalized the use of chokeholds by police officers if such use leads to “serious injury or death.” Another significant measure repealed Section 50-a of the state Civil Rights law, which had shielded police officers’ disciplinary records from public disclosure. (The New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board, a city entity that investigates allegations of NYPD officer misconduct and abuse of power, quickly announced it will create a database to make those records available online.)

“We’re tearing down, finally, the wall of secrecy that the NYPD, and other police departments across the state, have used to hide behind to protect abusive police officers,” Galarza said.

Also among the package was a bill that codified a Cuomo executive order appointing the state Attorney General as a special prosecutor in incidents where an unarmed civilian is killed by police. Another was dubbed the ‘Amy Cooper’ bill, which makes it a hate crime to make false 911 calls that are race-based. The bill was prompted by a recent incident of a white woman who called police on a Black man, Christian Cooper, in Central Park when he confronted her about leashing her dog. Her apparent attempt to weaponize his race against him, telling the police that a Black man was threatening her, led to a broad public outcry and even charges of filing a false report by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance.

The governor also signed the Police Statistics and Transparency Act (STAT), which mandates that courts collect racial and demographic data on low-level offenses and publish it online every month. It also requires police departments to disclose any deaths during an arrest to the Department of Criminal Justice Services, with a report due every year to the legislature and governor.

Other new laws require prompt reporting by officers when they discharge their weapons and one that requires that people in custody are given medical and mental health assistance when needed.

The governor also signed into law bills to require State Police patrol officers to wear body cameras and another to create the Law Enforcement Misconduct Investigative Office under the state Department of Law. The office will be tasked with investigating complaints of misconduct against any local law enforcement agency.

“Black New Yorkers, like all residents of this state, deserve to know that their rights, and lives, are valued and protected by our justice system,” said Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester Democrat, at the June 12 bill-signing. “The legislation that will be signed today will help stop bad actors and send a clear message that brutality, racism, and unjustified killings will not be tolerated.”

At the bill-signing, Cuomo called on the federal government to pass criminal justice reforms. But he also insisted that “New York State is the progressive capital. We never sit back and say just what the nation should do, we show the nation what it should do. We lead by example and we lead by getting it done. We are a state of action and that's us at our best.”

Activists, however, have expressed frustration that elected officials like Cuomo and many in the State Legislature and elsewhere only showed the willingness to get things done once it became too politically risky to not do so.

Constance Malcolm’s son, Ramarley Graham, was shot and killed by a police officer in the Bronx in 2012, and she has spent years rallying and marching for better, more accountable policing. “It's important to understand that the murder of George Floyd sparked uprisings across the country but police violence and systematic racism are not new issues,” she said in a phone interview.

Malcolm is among many other New Yorkers who have similarly lost family members at the hands of police and who work with the Justice Committee, a grassroots organization, to push for institutional reform. Gwen Carr, Eric Garner's mother, has also been active with the group, and worked to put pressure on elected officials to pass reforms. Malcolm noted how some, like Iris Baez, the mother of Anthony Baez, who was killed by a police officer in 1994, have had to endure the same pain for so much longer.

“These are movement victories, not his doing,” Malcolm said of the governor. “In fact, Cuomo fought us every step of the way on these bills.”

“It’s sad to see that we’ve been fighting for so long, marching, protesting for this change and it took George Floyd’s death to really wake people up,” she added. “The same words that Eric Garner screamed and yelled...are the words that this man said before he died and it took his death to spark changes.”

In New York City, the City Council simultaneously passed a package of six bills that were not only a response to long-standing demands from advocates but also addressed issues that had arisen in the NYPD’s crackdown on protests.

The Council had its own chokehold bill, which was controversially amended after Floyd’s death to include a prohibition against an officer compressing an individual’s diaphragm during an arrest, and goes further than the state law in that and other ways, such as by criminalizing any instance where an officer uses a chokehold. Chokeholds have long been banned under NYPD policy but they will now be considered Class A misdemeanors. The bill also criminalizes other forms of restraint that place pressure on an individual’s back or neck that could prevent them from breathing or stop blood from reaching the brain.

Eric Garner Gwen Carr City Council“As God as my witness, I never want to see another human being cry out ‘I can’t breathe’ as their life is choked or squeezed out of them by a police officer,” said Council Member Rory Lancman, a Queens Democrat who sponsored the chokehold bill, shortly before its passage on June 18. Lancman first introduced a version of the chokehold bill soon after Garner’s death in 2014. Carr has appeared with him all along the way to fight for its passage, as well as her advocacy for firing Pantaleo and the passage of other reforms in Albany.

“This isn’t a radical idea,” Lancman said. “The NYPD banned chokeholds as a matter of policy nearly three decades ago. Tell that to Anthony Baez. Tell that to Eric Garner. Tell that to the hundreds of New Yorkers who filed chokehold complaints with the [CCRB] in the years after Eric Garner’s death. Someone must police the police.”

The NYPD pushed back and lobbied hard against the diaphragm provision, with top brass claiming that they otherwise supported the bill despite their past opposition to it. After years of his own opposition to the prior version of the bill, de Blasio changed his tune amid the protests sparked by Floyd’s killing.

When he signed the bill into law at a celebratory event in the Bronx, after painting a Black Lives Matter mural, de Blasio recognized the NYPD concerns and, in an especially rare statement, indicated lawmakers might need to be open to amending the law.

“I am signing this bill, because I believe we can make it work,” de Blasio said. “I believe we can find a way to hear those real concerns, to keep people safe, to retrain our officers the right way,” he said. “But I also believe that we need to acknowledge those concerns, because they’re saying in the effort to keep us safe, they want to make sure they can do their job on our behalf, and I take that as an honest concern. So, we will work together. We will make these pieces of legislation work together. As with all legislation, if something happens that’s unintended, we will name it, and we will determine how to act together.”

The Council also approved another bill that was the subject of significant NYPD pushback, which appeared to keep both off the Council’s calendar for years, the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act, which requires the NYPD to disclose the types of surveillance tools it uses and the privacy safeguards it has in place to protect the public.

The bill package also addressed accountability issues at the NYPD, requiring the creation of an internal disciplinary matrix to standardize discipline meted out to police officers for wrongdoing and improving the Early Intervention System that tracks officer behavior to prevent misconduct and flag those who need additional training or perhaps another line of work.

Other measures that had been introduced in the past seemed particularly pertinent after the NYPD’s actions during the protests – one, sponsored by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, affirms the right of the public to record police activity and another requires that officers display their badges at all times. Repeatedly during demonstrations in the city, officers had attempted to interfere with members of the public and even press who sought to capture their actions on video. Dozens of officers also covered their badge numbers with black bands, a clear violation of NYPD policy. 

“Because of the advocates who pushed this need for years, we are now codifying the right to record into city law, further protecting the ability for the public to provide transparency and demand accountability as we move forward together in a holistic strategy to have safer streets and better policing at the same time,” said Williams, in a statement after the bill was signed. “We cannot give into the false and destructive notion that communities must choose between accountability and transparency in policing or safer streets. The people of this city deserve both. Working together, we can provide it.”

BLM de Blasio signingMayor de Blasio signed all the bills into law on July 15. ”Every time we do these things, we are saying Black lives matter in a tangible and real way,” he said. “Now, we’ve only begun and we have to do more, because...the day has to come where every interaction a New Yorker has with a police officer is filled with neutral respect. That is what neighborhood policing is building...It has to be done, and these bills will help us do it, because they will create more trust and more accountability.”

Promises from Executives
In the wake of the protests, both Cuomo and de Blasio took executive steps aimed at improving police discipline and tactics.

In mid-June, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea disbanded the 600-officer plainclothes anti-crime unit, which targeted getting illegal guns off the street, but was known for its aggressive tactics and was involved in a disproportionate number of shooting deaths of civilians, Shea explained.

Two days after that announcement, the mayor unveiled a set of reforms to the department’s disciplinary system that would ensure that officers would be disciplined faster, discipline decisions would be made public, and that body camera footage would be released in a timely manner. However, the department has been slow to implement previously promised reforms and has missed several of its own deadlines to do so. 

“I came into office with a promise to fundamentally change the way this city is policed - and that’s exactly what we’ve tried to do,” the mayor said in a statement accompanying the announcement. “Historic wounds run deep and we know much work lies ahead, but we won’t give up. This is another step in the right direction and we’re not stopping here.”

As de Blasio has announced these measures and his recalcitrant support for Council legislation, he’s also repeatedly argued that his administration has made significant progress in improving policing and police-community relations over his six-and-a-half years in office. He points to a major reduction in stop-and-frisk, an immense reduction in arrests and summonses, fewer complaints about police officer misconduct, and the new paradigm of neighborhood policing. But, the mayor remains committed to so-called “broken windows” policing that focuses on enforcement against low-level, quality-of-life offenses, which his critics say continues to disproportionately harm communities of color, and data on various fronts has repeatedly showed drastically disproportionate enforcement by race, from marijuana arrests or summonses to those for social distancing during the pandemic.

At the same time, Commissioner Shea has been decidedly opposed to how far the recent reforms have gone, in part blaming them and the protests for an increase in gun violence in the city. “I think if you examine New York City there has been a chipping away of tools that the NYPD uses, and I think those discussions are good and I think they’re helpful and I think you have to examine each one and what’s the impact on public safety,” he said in a CNN interview on July 16. “And I think that we have gone too far, I think we’ve crossed the tipping point on many levels in terms of taking tools away from the police in these last two months, it's just a completely different situation, where it’s a toxic environment.”

[Read: De Blasio Says He’s Reformed the NYPD and Improved Police-Community Relations. The Reality is Complicated.]

As with Cuomo, de Blasio’s rhetoric rings hollow to some who have spent their lives pursuing the cause of social justice, particularly after the passage of the recent city budget. Advocates had wanted the mayor and City Council to cut $1 billion from the NYPD’s roughly $6 billion annual operating funding, but the final agreement made relatively minor cuts, offers a planned reduction in police overtime that is, based on past performance, highly unlikely to be met, and included a deal to shift school safety out of the police department’s purview and back to the Department of Education, over the course of multiple years.

“He should never have been mayor in the first place,” Constance Malcolm said. “He said he cut $1 billion from the NYPD budget and we know that’s a lie. He’s proved time and time again that we can’t trust him. And then you have elected officials that say they’re protecting Black and brown people in our community when they voted against the budget cuts.”

Also in mid-June, Cuomo signed an executive order, titled “New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative,” mandating that all police departments across the state adopt a plan, approved by the state, by April 1 of next year that “reinvents and modernizes police strategies and programs in their community based on community input.” If any police department fails to comply, it would risk losing state funding (though that funding is a very small portion of the NYPD budget).

Cuomo said localities must bring stakeholders around the table and should discuss a total reinvention of policing as they see fit, arguing that community voices must be heard and made to believe they are designing public safety. At the same time, he disparaged those calling for defunding the police by $1 billion as lacking clear demands for moving forward, though many of the activists and groups do subscribe to certain visions for the future of policing and public safety.

Winston-Griffith noted that the governor’s past actions undermine his newfound enthusiasm for change. Earlier this year, the governor was among those leading a push to roll back an extensive reform passed last year that had banned cash bail for most nonviolent offenses. “In the beginning part of this year, we saw an onslaught on the whole notion of bail reform,” Winston-Griffith said. “Just as the pandemic was breaking, we were fighting the governor because he spearheaded the repeal of bail reform, which essentially meant he was looking to put more people behind bars, to keep them there even in the midst of this pandemic. I don’t think that would have happened in May or June.”

Ongoing and Next Debates
Activists say their fight is far from over, particularly as they worry about the pushback against a movement that has gained much ground, especially amid an increase in gun violence in the city, growing criticism of the reforms, and calls for the NYPD to be re-empowered. 

Winston-Griffith said the push for cutting funds from the NYPD and reinvesting them in communities of color will continue in the next budget cycle. “It sets us up for a fight in next year's budget, where the concept of ‘defund’ has already been introduced,” he said.

Council Speaker Johnson, who conceded that he was “disappointed” with the scope of cuts in this year’s budget after arguing for a true $1 billion cut to the NYPD, has also indicated that that debate has not come to an end. “I think we were able to do a lot of good in this budget, and I look at this as really the beginning, not the end,” Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat who plans to run for mayor in next year’s election, told Gotham Gazette in a recent interview. Johnson said publicly that he was sorry it took Floyd’s death to get the Council to move the chokehold bill, and others, introduced after Garner’s death.

“American politics is a pendulum that swings back and forth,” said Sharpton. “And while it has started to look like it is swinging our way, we need to get much more done...because if it swings back the other way, the only thing that will protect us is if laws are in place.”

Sharpton said the next battle is at the federal level, where Democrats have announced similar sweeping police reform proposals that Republicans have resisted.

“We can’t stop until these laws are national, federal laws and that all 50 states are subject to those laws...We have the Eric Garner law in New York State on chokeholds, but if you go through the Holland Tunnel to New Jersey, that doesn’t cover you,” he said.

The pushback that Sharpton spoke of has already been underway, or rather, is a persistent factor. In the city, calls to cut $1 billion from the NYPD budget weren’t fully met, and divided the City Council that includes 47 Democrats and three Republicans, with one empty seat, exposing complicated fault lines among the majority, with many Black and Latino members supportive of the budget deal, not clamoring for a blanket defunding of the NYPD, while also insisting on legislating reforms.

Law enforcement unions, in particular, have sought to curtail or reverse efforts at reform, often with misleading and incendiary rhetoric, warning that changes will lead to a return to “the bad old days” when crime was rampant. Though there is no clear connection to the reforms being passed, they point to a recent increase in crime citywide, particularly shootings, as proof of their warnings.

City Council Member Joe Borelli, a Staten Island Republican, voted against the recently approved city budget because of the cuts to the NYPD. “I think 2020 will be a marked moment when the pendulum began swinging back in the other direction after three decades of violent crime reduction,” he said in an interview. “Holding police accountable is important. It’s something the NYPD has long done but we will look back at this moment as a time when we reversed 30 years of good work from police and Democratic and Republican elected officials.”

He particularly opposes the city’s ‘chokehold bill,’ which would criminalize any arrest maneuver where an officer compresses a person’s diaphragm and many police officials and their allies have come to call the ‘diaphragm bill.’ Borelli echoed the NYPD and police union belief that it makes it impossible for officers to arrest a person who is resisting. “It changes the balance of criminality in the types of struggles that occur every single day between police officers and those they are trying to arrest,” he said.

“I challenge the mayor and any member of the City Council to put handcuffs on me without violating this rule. Show me how it’s done,” he added. The former Assembly member said he would have voted for the State Legislature’s proposal, which is less restrictive.  

There are also criminal justice proposals at the state and city levels that have gathered new momentum, such as a bill that would require that juveniles be allowed to speak with a lawyer before being interrogated by police officers, measures to end solitary confinement, expand elder parole, and more.

After being asked by Governor Cuomo to do so, Attorney General Letitia James is currently leading an investigation of the NYPD’s actions towards protesters during demonstrations in the city, with an eye towards systemic reforms. On July 8, she issued a preliminary report, which recommended, among other things, the creation of a commission to oversee the NYPD with the power to select and terminate the commissioner and other members of department leadership. James said her investigation of the NYPD’s tactics is ongoing, but that given the clear lack of trust many New Yorkers have in the police, she thought it was essential to offer broader reform proposals before her review is complete.

The Democratic leaders of the State Assembly and Senate have pledged to continue to pursue more reforms. “We know that this is the beginning, but it's a move to bring justice to a system that has long been unjust,” said Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins at the June 12 bill-signing held by Cuomo.

"The Assembly Majority has fought tirelessly over the years to deliver meaningful and necessary criminal justice reforms for our state. This year, our members answered the call from people from across New York and the country by passing sweeping law enforcement reforms that will build on the gains we have made,” said Speaker Heastie, in a statement. “We have accomplished a great deal, but we know our work is not finished. We will continue fighting to improve police and community relations, and to create a more fair and equitable system for all people.”

There are several other pieces of policy that advocates also want to pursue, said NYCLU’s Lieberman, including legalizing recreational marijuana (and investing the revenue in communities of color), eliminating the police’s enforcement of “walking while trans,” and removing cops from schools, as well as prison reforms like banning solitary confinement.

“These are the bills that could’ve and should’ve been passed as part of a fundamental change agenda by the State Legislature,” she said. “They speak to the moment. They’re about undoing injustice and bending New York towards justice and they’re yet to be done. So there’s work to do.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

'Break in the Dam': New York Sees Flood of Long-Stalled Police Reforms in Response to Outcry Tue, 21 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +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

Read more by this writer.

Facing Criticism, NYPD Reps Tell City Council Body Camera Program 'A Work in Progress' Mon, 18 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Cabán Declares Victory, Katz Doesn't Concede in Queens District Attorney Primary caban qda

(photo: @CabanForQueens)

Tiffany Cabán, a 31-year-old public defender, made national headlines and shocked the New York political world on Tuesday evening, taking a commanding lead and declaring victory in the crowded Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney. Her closest rival, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, did not concede, however, and said she wants to see every vote counted, and perhaps recounted.

A primary win would set Cabán up toward victory in November -- something she indicated in her remarks she believes is a given -- in the overwhelmingly Democratic borough and become the first newly-elected Queens District Attorney in almost 30 years.

qns da primary mapWith 98.58 of election precints reporting, Cabán had 33,814 votes, or 39.57% of the total, outpacing Katz, who had 32.724 votes, or 38.3%. Cabán did especially well in western Queens, including areas such as Astoria and Long Island City (see map to the left, created by Steven Romalewski of the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York Graduate Center).

Coming in third was Greg Lasak, with about 14.5%, followed by Mina Malik with 3.9%, City Council Member Rory Lancman, who dropped from the race on Friday to back Katz, with 1.4%; Jose Nieves with 1.3%, and Betty Lugo with 1%. The total number of votes in the primary stood at 85,447 at that point, roughly 12% of Queens' 766,117 active registered Democrats (as of February 1, according to the state Board of Elections).

The New York City Board of Elections will be responsible for counting outstanding absentee, military, and affidavit ballots, and reviewing the election results before certifying them. It is unclear if Katz will reevaluate her stance and concede -- she spoke Tuesday night before Cabán declared victory.

Cabán ran on a radical platform of a “decarceral state,” pledging to keep as many people out of jail as possible by investing in communities, never seeking cash bail, not prosecuting a host of lower-level offenses, and other campaign promises that made her the candidate of New York’s ascendent left wing.

"[T]hey said we couldn't win, but we did it, y'all," Cabán declared on Tuesday evening to a raucous crowd of supporters at La Boom in Queens.

She pledged to overhaul the Queens criminal justice system toward fairness, and investment in communities rather than more punitive prosecutorial measures. But, she stressed, "Nothing is more important to me than the safety of all people who call this borough home." She promised to build relationships across the borough and in its various communities, to work with those who did not vote for her, and to create an equitable justice system not "at the cost of safety - that is the source of safety."

The race is for an open seat after long-time Queens DA Richard Brown passed away in May; he had already declared that he would not be running for reelection, prompting the first competitive primary in several decades.

Cabán, a Latina who identifies as queer, was the insurgent, far-left progressive in the race, running a grassroots campaign built on the strength of hundreds of volunteers and thousands of small donors, as well as big ones, from inside Queens and across the country.

Having served as a public defender in Manhattan for seven years, she became the poster child for opposing the calcified tough-on-crime policies of the Queens DA’s office, which Brown had led since 1991, though all the other candidates also ran on progressive platforms.

Cabán was the only candidate in the primary who has neither been a prosecutor nor an elected official. But her candidacy inspired criminal justice reformers and like-minded elected officials who have fought for policies of decarceration. She drew comparisons with the dynamic and groundbreaking Democratic Congressional Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who endorsed Cabán and lent her campaign a surge of energy. That soon followed with endorsements from presidential candidates Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Cabán was backed by a somewhat surprising number of local elected officials, including Queens electeds such as State Senators Michael Gianaris, Jessica Ramos, and James Sanders, Assemblymember Ron Kim, City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer; as well as city Comptroller Scott Stringer, and others. She received endorsements from recent progressive hero candidates Cynthia Nixon and Zephyr Teachout, as well as activist groups who represent people who’ve been in the criminal justice system, immigrants, and others. She made special mention of The Working Families Party and the Democratic Socialists of America during her victory speech.

The New York Times editorial board, not known for supporting new-into-politics revolutionary candidates, endorsed Cabán as well, saying she would come into office “unencumbered by ties to the borough power structure and free to pursue her commitment to serve the community by doing more than just winning convictions. Her seven years as a public defender have given her insight into how the system works, and how it ought to be changed.”

Her lack of prosecutorial and managerial experience was often used as criticism by her opponents, who said she did not seem interested in law and order, raising concerns that crime would rise under her tenure. But her supporters argued that that is what makes her uniquely qualified to usher in a paradigm shift in the Queens DA’s office, which other recently elected DAs across the country have attempted including Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Rachael Rollins in Boston, both of whom endorsed Cabán.

In overwhelmingly Democratic Queens, Cabán is almost sure to win the November 5 general election, assuming her apparent primary win holds. She would face a nominal opponent in Republican candidate Daniel Kogan, an attorney in private practice (there was no Republican primary), but the ballot is not yet set and it is unclear if Republicans may try to field another candidate given a Cabán victory, or if any other efforts to defeat her could emerge.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Cabán Declares Victory, Katz Doesn't Concede in Queens District Attorney Primary Tue, 25 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
‘Hard to Define’: Melinda Katz’s Path to the Precipice of Becoming Queens District Attorney gov completion qbp

Melinda Katz (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

“If it’s good for families, it’s good for Queens,” Melinda Katz likes to say. It’s a line she used in her first State of the Borough speech as borough president, a position she has held for six years and she now hopes will propel her to the office of Queens District Attorney.

Katz is one of six Democratic candidates running to be the top prosecutor in Queens, home to more than 2 million people, 48% of whom are foreign-born. About 190 nationalities are represented across the borough’s population, with more than 200 languages spoken by its residents.

Though she is the perceived frontrunner due to her borough-wide position, name recognition, and support from labor unions, elected officials, and others, Katz is the only candidate in the race who lacks courtroom experience. She hasn’t shown much interest in criminal justice reform in well over a decade, and she’s been accused of being most interested in figuring out her next political job than in any particular mission to help the people of Queens. Yet she has served the people of Queens in some form or another for much of the last 25 years, including as a state legislator, City Council member, attorney, real estate lobbyist, and borough president.

Seen by many, including her opponents, as the most likely to win, Katz has won many endorsements from officials and groups, but they credit her mostly with simply having been around -- holding office, developing good relationships, and showing an interest in community concerns -- while the editorial boards of the three major New York City daily newspapers (The New York Times, Daily News, and Post) all deemed her unqualified for the position of district attorney and endorsed other candidates.

Besides Katz, on the ballot for the June 25 primary election are former State Supreme Court Justice and Assistant District Attorney Greg Lasak, who was endorsed by the News and the Post; Tiffany Cabán, a public defender in Manhattan endorsed by the Times; Betty Lugo, a former Nassau County assistant district attorney; Mina Malik, a Harvard professor and former prosecutor; Jose Nieves, formerly deputy chief in the Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit at the Office of the New York State Attorney General; and City Council Member Rory Lancman, who dropped out of the race Friday and threw his support behind Katz.

Running for District Attorney, Katz has promised, like most of the other candidates, to pursue broad progressive reforms that break with the tough-on-crime reputation that the Queens DA’s office fostered for decades under the late DA Richard Brown, who recently passed away just shy of his planned retirement after nearly 28 years in the position. Katz has both leaned into the notion that she has “establishment” support, claiming many ties to communities in the borough, and distanced herself from the traditional power structures that she is aligned with.

To her critics and opponents, Katz is a career politician looking for her next gig, eyeing the term-limitless district attorney post as she faces term limits on her borough presidency at the end of 2021. To her supporters, she is a dedicated public servant searching for her next assignment on behalf of the people. But to both, she is not easily characterized. Katz does not appear to have had one or more clear focus areas as an elected official, and, particularly germane to the position she’s seeking, she has not appeared especially interested in criminal justice reform.

Katz’s list of projects and accomplishments is long, and varied, and there aren’t easy associations with her public image, unlike some of the other borough presidents -- indicative of her lack of clear issue focus, but also the fact that she has often sat out debates over some of the most pressing issues in the city.

“My biggest pride comes from knowing that every day that I have been in public service, I have stood up to powerful interests but I’ve also been a voice for people who didn’t have one,” Katz said in a phone interview, just a few days before the primary election. “And at every level that I’ve served, I have brought justice to people.”

Katz was clear that she believes she alone has the experience and the trust of Queens communities that would make for a successful next district attorney. She has spent years on the ground, she says, across the borough, face-to-face with the very people whose lives will be affected by the decisions she will make if elected.

“She’s hard to define,” said City Council Member Daniel Dromm, a Queens Democrat who has not made an endorsement in the district attorney race. “She’s got a finger in everything.”

Broadly seen as the frontrunner in the race, with a slew of endorsements from prominent labor unions, community leaders, and elected officials, and a hefty campaign war chest, Katz is banking on her resume and wide name recognition in the borough to take her to victory on June 25. The winner of the Democratic primary is all but assured to win in the November general in the overwhelmingly Democratic borough, with only nominal opposition from the Republican candidate, attorney Daniel Kogan.

A Queens native and graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Katz earned a law degree at St. John’s School of Law. She was an intern at the Legal Aid Society representing tenants in forcible eviction cases and later interned in the Organized Crime Unit for the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York and for U.S. District Court judge Michael Mukasey. After law school, Katz worked in securities litigation for the white-shoe firm Weil, Gotshal and Manges.

Katz first won elected office in 1994, in a special election to the New York State Assembly, running as an outsider candidate on the Liberal and Good Government Party lines. She defeated local Democratic district leader Michael Cohen by just 420 votes in a low-turnout election and filled the seat vacated by Alan Hevesi, who had been elected comptroller. Hevesi supported Katz’s bid to be his successor.

Over her first five years in office, Katz was successful in passing 16 bills, including several related to the legal system and criminal justice reform, such as Kendall’s Law, which allows prosecutors to pursue cases of long-term child abuse by extending the statute of limitations for victims to report child sexual abuse.

“I had to stand up to the Catholic Church,” Katz said on Thursday. “It was not easy 25 years ago. Nobody wanted to talk about sexual abuse as a child, it was not an open conversation by anybody in the church and I had to pass this bill against a very powerful interest.”

Her other bills included giving women direct access to gynecological care, increasing penalties for domestic violence, and adding sexual orientation as a protected class under the state hate crimes law. In 1995, just a year into office, the New York Daily News named her “one of the one hundred up-and-coming young leaders for the 21st Century.”

But Katz would soon face defeat at the ballot box when she attempted to run for Congress, seeking the Democratic nomination for the 9th Congressional District, formerly held by now U.S. Senator Charles Schumer. She lost by 285 votes to Anthony Weiner, a former aide to Schumer. The Queens Democratic Party, which was on the opposing side when she first ran for Assembly, was in her corner. Even the New York Times editorial board endorsed Katz, writing at the time that she “has only been in office four years, but she has distinguished herself as an advocate of health and women's issues and for her constituent services.”

Following her stint in the Assembly, Katz took a role under then-Queens Borough President Claire Shulman, as director of community boards. She served there for three years before being elected to the New York City Council.

It was perhaps on the Council, where she served from 2002 through 2009, that Katz made her most significant mark on the city, as chair of the powerful land use committee. Her campaign says she helped secure private-sector partnerships that created 15,000 units of affordable housing and that she fought to protect communities from overdevelopment. Most importantly, she says, she changed the culture of the land use process: “changed the discussion from ‘how many units’ to ‘how we’re going to build’ as well. Whether or not we’re going to use union labor, the importance of union labor to make sure we had safe work sites and the importance of hiring from the community.”

Her push for safety protections at construction sites, she says, cost developers hundreds of millions of dollars. She insists that’s one of her major accomplishments and one that undercuts her opponents’ claims that she is far too allied with real estate interests, a critique that has dogged her since her time on the Council and persists to her current race for district attorney.

Her work after the Council gives those criticisms credence. In 2009, Katz gave up her Council seat and ran for city comptroller, aided by hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from real estate firms, according to the New York Times. She ran on a platform of “common sense and accountability” amid the financial crisis that was roiling the city, pledging to audit city agencies to eliminate wasteful spending, expand effective programs and ensure federal stimulus money was creating jobs. Katz lost that election to John Liu, also of Queens, and went on to work for the law firm of Greenberg Traurig for the next three years, lobbying on behalf of real estate clients.

In each race since then, including two for borough president and now for district attorney, Katz has continued to gather large donations from prominent real estate firms. (She notes that several of her opponents are throwing stones from glass houses, having also received large contributions from corporate donors.)

“Melinda Katz has an expansive resume and her relationships are very, very deep. I don’t really buy into that critique,” said Queens City Council Member Adrienne Adams, who has endorsed her, of the real estate ties.

In 2013, Katz was elected borough president and handily won reelection in 2017 for a second and final term. Katz has also cemented her ties to the Queens Democratic Party, which is often criticized as one of the last bastions of calcified political power in the city. The Party protects and promotes its own and, in any race, brings to bear a large cadre of local, state, and national elected officials that originated from its ranks or owe it some allegiance, as well as the allies of those officials, other local party officials like members of the state committee, political club members, and others.

The Queens Democratic Party was previously headed by Congressional representative-turned-lobbyist Joe Crowley, who lost to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and has been fundraising for Katz. (Ocasio-Cortez is backing Caban.) The current county party chair, Congressional Rep. Gregory Meeks, has rallied the party behind Katz, who has also been endorsed by the likes of Governor Andrew Cuomo, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx, and others. It’s what makes Katz the establishment candidate, a moniker with connotations akin to party nepotism and one that her opponents have employed as a cudgel. She pushes back against it.

“My campaign started with 300 people standing in a park that were not elected officials,” she said. (There were indeed local elected officials present, according to a Queens Daily Eagle report.) “They were civic leaders, they were Cure Violence groups, they were immigration groups, who said to the city of New York and the borough of Queens, ‘We trust Melinda Katz to make the decisions as the district attorney of Queens County.’ That’s how my campaign started.”

The office of borough president, though far less powerful now than in the past and lacking the policy clout of an elected legislator, is nonetheless a prominent position in which officials have wielded significant influence. Borough presidents can sponsor legislation in the City Council. They are advocates and cheerleaders for their boroughs, figureheads of sorts who are supposed to keep a finger on the pulse of their many constituents and neighborhoods. They have a strong voice (though not a binding one) in land use applications.

The office also controls millions of dollars in discretionary capital and expense funding each year, to distribute to pet causes, nonprofits, schools and cultural institutions, and the politically-potent power to name hundreds of members of community boards.

Katz has embraced the various aspects of the role, lending her visibility across the borough. “I believe that she’s the strongest candidate,” said Council Member Adams. “Melinda has a scope that reaches far beyond any of her opponents as far as I’m concerned. Her experience as far as managing the entire borough of Queens along with her experience as an attorney to me, again, put her as a very strong frontrunner for this race. A lot of people talk about experience in the courtroom, but no one has managed the number of people that Melinda Katz has.”

Caban and others, including the three editorial boards and good government group Citizens Union, which backed Lasak, have been particularly critical of Katz’s lack of time in court, but the borough president has parried by touting her managerial experience, insisting that it sets her up to lead the large complement of attorney that comprise the DA’s office.

Among the accomplishments Katz touts are her creation of an Immigration Task Force, which works with nearly 100 nonprofits and city agencies to provide services to immigrants. She secured funding for the Queens Family Justice Center, which serves domestic violence and human trafficking victims. She launched the Jamaica Now Action Plan, a $153-million city funded revitalization project for Jamaica Center.

She has advocated for Hurricane Sandy victims, for veterans, for public housing residents. And she’s channelled nearly $200 million in investments towards schools, hospitals, NYCHA, and parks in the borough. And she led a campaign to restore the New York State Pavilion, including putting $11.5 million in capital funds towards the project.

Katz’s opponents and critics, however, say her record on criminal justice issues has been lacklustre at best, and harmful at worst. They point to her past votes as a legislator: as an Assembly member in 1995, she voted to reinstate the death penalty, while as a Council member she voted against it. In the Council, she voted to increase penalties for low-level offenses, voted to create a new category of crime (gang recruitment), and in favor of increased police surveillance in city schools.

They also see her as moving with the political winds and shifting her positions, even during the current race -- for instance, she has taken a more expansive position on ending cash bail in recent weeks compared to most of her first several months on the trail.

“Melinda Katz could never be a champion of the policies that the people of Queens, specifically black and brown residents, need and have been calling out for,” said Milan Taylor of the Rockaway Youth Action Fund, which endorsed Lancman but moved to Caban upon his departure from the race. “[Katz] embraces the establishment’s tradition of lackluster reform and discriminatory practices. Katz has done an unsatisfactory job on criminal justice reform as Borough President and will do the same as District Attorney.”

Alyssa Aguilera, executive director of VOCAL-NY Action Fund, which endorsed Cabán’s insurgent campaign, said her organization has worked on criminal justice reforms in all aspects -- policing, bail reform, access to jobs and reentry -- and “Melinda Katz is not somebody that we ever interact with. She’s not somebody who’s known as standing behind organizations, community members in these big fights to, for instance, end stop-and-frisk, or when Eric Garner was killed, or the fight to close Rikers. She was a nonplayer in all of those efforts.”

Over the course of the race and more so in the last few weeks, Lancman levelled direct criticism at Katz, running an ad blasting her vote for the death penalty, and confronting her at a May forum for a lack of interest in criminal justice reform both as a Council member and borough president.

But, on Friday Lancman said he feared splitting the vote of Southeast Queens residents, who are predominantly African-American, and withdrew from the race. He endorsed Katz “because she has made the effort to successfully garner support within every community in our borough, the experience as a public official to see essential criminal justice reforms through to completion, and the relationships with the civic and community organizations and institutions throughout Queens necessary to effect real change.”

On Wednesday, Katz rejected four city-led land use applications related to building a 1,500-bed jail in Kew Gardens, Queens that is meant to help speed up the closure of Rikers Island jails. She said that closing Rikers is “a moral imperative” but raised concerns that the community did not have sufficient buy-in on the Kew Gardens jail plan and that large borough facilities would replicate the problems on Rikers.

Council Members I. Daneek Miller and Donovan Richards, fellow Queens Democrats, in an interview defended Katz from charges that she is a political climber. “For you to get up there every day, that your charge and your mission is to serve others, is noble,” said Miller, standing with Richards at City Hall. “And anyone who would speak against that, I would question their motives.”

“It’s called a sacrifice,” Richards said. Katz has “delivered” for Queens, he said. “Between our districts, you look at infrastructure, you look at investments in parks, investments in healthcare...there’s been no shortage of equitable things she’s done to work with us to shift resources into communities that were sorely missing the investment that they needed.”

Miller said Katz has successfully raised the issue of predatory real estate practices in Southeast Queens and has worked with him on labor issues and workers rights. “She’s been an excellent partner who really understands the needs and values of Southeast Queens.” Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ, the property services union, similarly praised Katz in a statement announcing his union’s endorsement. “Her plan to protect Queens residents from wage theft, unsafe workplaces, and hostile work environments will make New York a better, safer place for working families.”

Katz has carefully sought to counter critiques of her record. Her campaign points to her work in sponsoring warrant forgiveness and conviction sealing programs, hate crime forums, and gun violence town halls.

“Those are real-life instances of standing up for criminal justice reform,” she said in the interview. She also pushed for the creation of a new police precinct in the borough. And she cites her managerial experience, noting the other candidates’ lack thereof.

“If you’re going to get meaningful criminal justice reform, it also requires having the skill-set to run a $59 million budget with 530 employees. As the borough president, I run an enormous office that’s borough-wide and have answered to the community voter by voter, constituent by constituent, every single day for the last six years across a huge and vast borough,” she said.

She has also lamented her original death penalty vote. “I would say that is my deepest regret,” she said.

And she believes that her record makes her the one candidate with the strongest chance of bringing about the reforms that have taken centerplace in the race. “I don’t know how many people that are running for this race have had to actually answer to their constituents in the borough of Queens, who have had to take a lot of heat for the decisions that they’ve made and the policies they’ve stood up for,” she said. “But I always stand up strong for the things that I believe in.”

Aguilera said, nonetheless, Katz’s bid raises one key question. “Are you doing this because you’re a true believer, you’re really down for the issues that we care about, or is this just your next political move?”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: Gotham Gazette is an independent publication of Citizens Union Foundation, sister organization of Citizens Union. ]]>
‘Hard to Define’: Melinda Katz’s Path to the Precipice of Becoming Queens District Attorney Sat, 22 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Breaking Down the Queens District Attorney Race queens da seven

(l-r)Tiffany Cabán, Melinda Katz, Rory Lancman, Greg Lasak, Betty Lugo, Mina Malik, & Jose Nieves

June 19, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Breaking Down the Queens District Attorney Race

Journalists Emma Whitford, who has written for Gotham Gazette and other outlets, and David Brand of the Queens Daily Eagle joined the show to discuss the Queens District Attorney race, just days before the June 25 Democratic primary vote.

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: Breaking Down the Queens District Attorney Race Wed, 19 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Should a Top Prosecutor Have Prior Prosecutorial Experience? 'Qualifications' Debate Rages in Queens District Attorney Race District Attorneys New York City

Four sitting New York City District Attorneys (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

Does the top prosecutor for one of New York City’s most populous boroughs need to have prosecutorial experience? Should the top prosecutor have spent significant time -- years, maybe decades -- arguing in court proceedings? Do they need to know how to put people in prison? Do they need to know to keep them there?

That’s part of the “qualifications” debate ignited in recent weeks in the Democratic primary for Queens District Attorney, an election to replace the late DA Richard Brown. Seven candidates are on the ballot for the June 25 election: Queens Borough President Melinda Katz; City Council Member Rory Lancman; former State Supreme Court Justice Greg Lasak; Tiffany Cabán, a public defender in Manhattan; Betty Lugo, a former Nassau County assistant district attorney; Mina Malik, a Harvard professor and former prosecutor; and Jose Nieves, formerly deputy chief in the Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit at the Office of the New York State Attorney General.

All of the candidates are, of course, licensed attorneys; some are former prosecutors without elected experience; two are elected officials without prosecutorial experience; and one is a public defender that has been neither an elected official nor a prosecutor but has been operating in the trenches of the system. The election is taking place amid record low crime and a criminal justice reform movement that aims to shift the paradigm of what a district attorney can, and should, do with the powers at their disposal.

Key to the race in the overwhelmingly Democratic borough of over 2 million residents is an evolving view of the qualifications for district attorney, and questions not only about what experience someone should have before becoming a top law enforcement official with immense powers to forever alter people’s lives, but what exactly the Queens electorate wants in its first newly-elected DA in almost 30 years.

District Attorneys have broad (some say overly so) discretionary powers over how laws are enforced in their county. They can bring -- or decline to bring -- criminal charges as well as initiate civil cases. Their decisions can influence whether police arrest people for specific crimes. Among the city’s district attorneys, Brown was slow to adapt to the evolving conversation on restorative and alternative criminal justice approaches.

His office did take efforts to provide some alternatives to incarceration and clear thousands of open warrants for low-level crimes, but often only after others had done so, refused City Council funding to create a dedicated wrongful conviction review unit, and continued to prosecute low-level offenses such as marijuana possession and fare evasion while some counterparts announced policies not to.

The candidates running to replace Brown have pledged to different degrees to break from that tradition, making broad promises to refuse prosecutions for various minor offenses. Most have said they will not seek cash bail for a majority of crimes, and over the course of the race have taken positions on issues that would have been unheard of a few years ago, including pledging to decriminalize sex work (though candidates vary on how they would approach that particular issue).

Last week, the Queens Daily Eagle reported, the Queens County Bar Association gave its ratings to the seven candidates in the race, finding five of them “qualified” except for Cabán and Lugo. The Bar Association judiciary committee said Cabán was “not approved” while Lugo was the only candidate to not appear for an interview. Lasak was found to be “well qualified” for the position.

The New York City Bar Association, which conducted interviews simultaneously with the Queens Bar Association, released its own ratings for the candidates on Friday, giving all candidates except for Lugo an "approved" rating. Eric Friedman, a spokesperson, said in an email to Gotham Gazette, “We have a policy of not commenting regarding the specifics of our evaluation process.” Friedman noted that the process is “essentially the same” for evaluating judicial candidates.

The Queens Bar Association’s ratings immediately drew strong reactions from the campaigns. Lasak quickly began to fundraise off the designation, sending out an email with the subject line, “well qualified,” followed soon by a mailer – viewed by some, including Katz supporters, as a sexist attack – in which he juxtaposed himself with Katz, the perceived frontrunner in the race.

Lancman, who was rated “qualified” along with four others, tweeted the night of the interviews, “Purported gatekeepers for most diverse county in USA. About 40 lawyers. Every single one white. Not a person of color in room. Eyes roll when I discuss #racism in criminal justice system, no surprise.”

Cabán’s campaign quickly pushed back against the Queens Bar Association’s assessment, citing her years of work as a public defender. Throughout her campaign, the 31-year-old Latina, who identifies as queer, has painted herself as the most qualified to carry out what she believes is the right mission of the District Attorney’s office: to decarcerate and target the socioeconomic drivers of crime. What’s she outlined is little short of a revolutionary approach to the position, but one that career prosecutors like Lasak scoff at as unrealistic, indicative of her lack of experience.

The question of qualifications is far from simple. Former prosecutors say that, in order to do the job, a candidate should ideally have done it in some form before, perhaps as an assistant district attorney. But principles, management ability, and leadership skills are far from evident from a resume. Reformers and advocates argue that a former prosecutor may be the furthest from what Queens needs, and wants, in its top law enforcement official, after nearly three decades of having lived under tough-on-crime policies that disproportionately target the low-income communities of color who make up large, and growing, parts of the borough.

“It’s definitely important to have criminal law experience,” said Jennifer Rodgers, a former prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School. “You can obviously have that experience on either side. You can have it as a prosecutor, you can have it as a defense lawyer.”

Rodgers acknowledged the now widely-recognized trend of prosecutors running as progressives, focused more greatly on restorative justice and decarceration. The victories of progressive district attorneys like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Rachael Rollins in Boston signalled the beginning of that shift. (Krasner, a former public defender and longtime civil rights attorney, came to Queens to endorse Cabán on Thursday. “There are an awful lot of people who have said they’re progressive. And yet their deeds, their history, does not match their words. Tiffany’s history matches her words,” Krasner said.)

In the Queens race, all the candidates have promised they will reform the office and its punitive policies, though Cabán’s promises go the furthest (earning her a coveted New Yorker profile published on Tuesday, among many others), with Lancman and his legislative record of criminal justice reform not far afield. But Rodgers noted that even longtime prosecutors have successfully transformed their systems of criminal justice, pointing to Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez as a prime example.

Gonzalez was named to and then won the position after the death of Ken Thompson, who himself was a reformer and put into place progressive policies of his own. “[Gonzalez] is a lifelong assistant district attorney, the sort of person that people might look at and say, ‘Well look, this guy is just kind of poisoned from having put people in jail for his whole career. He’s never going to see the benefit of these sorts of policies,’ and yet he does. And a lot of prosecutors now are more like him,” Rodgers said.

Of the other current district attorneys, both Manhattan DA Cy Vance and Bronx DA Darcel Clark worked as assistant district attorneys before ascending to their top prosecutor jobs. Staten Island's Michael McMahon did not have prior prosecutorial experience before being elected DA, though he "was a practicing trial attorney for 30 years, appearing in courts at all levels throughout New York State," according to his website, as well as a member of the City Council and member of Congress.

Of the seven candidates in Queens, Katz, Lancman, and Cabán are the only ones who have not been prosecutors. Increasingly, the race is being viewed as a two-way battle between Katz – the establishment candidate with a solid base as borough president, strong union support, deep campaign coffers, and even the endorsement of Governor Andrew Cuomo – and Cabán, who has built a grassroots campaign, received thousands of individual campaign donations outnumbering her opponents’, and pulled in prominent endorsements from progressive organizations and elected officials, including Congressional Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Lancman’s campaign argues he has a path to victory that includes Jewish and African-American voting blocs, including from the areas he has represented in the City Council and state Assembly, and the crucial battleground of predominantly-black southeast Queens. Lasak, who was a prosecutor in the Queens DA office for 25 years before becoming a judge, has received many endorsements from law enforcement unions.

“I would not say 100% that a chief prosecutor must be a former prosecutor but I would say there should be a strong presumption that that person be a former prosecutor,” said Daniel R. Alonso, managing director and general counsel at Exiger, and formerly a prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York and chief assistant district attorney in Manhattan.

Alonso conceded that there are examples of lauded prosecutors who previously had no prosecutorial experience. For instance Robert Morgenthau, who was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Southern District in 1961, had not previously prosecuted cases. Alonso worked under Morgenthau, who went on to become the longest serving district attorney in New York State. Even Richard Brown, when he first became Queens DA, had not been a prosecutor but rather a judge, Alonso pointed out.

But, he said, “It is a very difficult job and in any job, it’s very hard to do it for the first time as the person who is in charge, particularly for something as specialized as prosecution. So you have to be constantly making decisions, weighing evidence, deciding some issues of policy but those issues of policy have to be informed by real experience in the criminal justice system and understanding what makes a good case and a bad case.”

That’s a measure that Lasak, Malik, Nieves, and Lugo have used to pitch their campaign.

Lasak’s success at homicide prosecutions in the Queens DA’s office earned him the moniker “Mr. Murder” -- mentioned in a New York Times profile in 2003. He also touts his work to set up a wrongful conviction review team, and his experience later as a state Supreme Court judge.

“Judge Lasak is the most qualified candidate in this race, bar none. And that qualification is of the utmost importance when seeking a job where lives are on the line - lives of victims, of witnesses, and of defendants who are innocent until proven guilty,” said Bill Driscoll, Lasak’s campaign chair, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “Judge Lasak has spent his career keeping us safe and freeing the innocent. The District Attorney’s office is no landing pad for a term-limited politician, nor is it a launching pad for bids for higher office.”

Some of Lasak’s opponents, chiefly Cabán and Lancman, argue he’s a relic of the old-school approach to public safety that led to mass incarceration, especially of poor people of color.

At a March 12 candidate debate, Lugo said, “My entire life I have been involved with the criminal justice system.” She emphasized her work for the Nassau County DA, Manhattan DA, and Albany County DA. Nieves, at the same debate, said he is an “18-year progressive prosecutor.” “I chose to go into criminal justice not because I wanted to charge or incarcerate, but because I wanted to change the system,” he said.

Malik, in a statement, said, prosecutorial experience is “absolutely essential” to become Queens DA. “In fact, it should be a prerequisite. You would not go to a podiatrist if you have a heart problem; you’d go to an experienced cardiologist,” she said, noting her two decades of experience, including managing staff at three different agencies and working both as a prosecutor and defense lawyer.

“We cannot play with the lives of 2.4 million Queens residents when it comes to criminal justice and the safety of our communities,” said Malik, who has at times pointedly compared herself and Cabán to highlight differences in resumes. “To be the highest ranking law enforcement agent in Queens, experience matters.”

Though they have been on the defensive at times, Katz, Lancman, and Cabán, have in some instances tried to flip the script, emphasizing the fact that they have not served as prosecutors.

In a statement to Gotham Gazette, Katz emphasized her experience as a licensed attorney for 30 years, including litigation, her time as a local and state legislator, and her work as borough president. She has not practiced in criminal court before. “But I'm not a career prosecutor who spent their career perpetuating our broken criminal justice system,” she said. “Instead, I'm the only candidate in the race with experience managing a Borough-wide office, with trusted relationships from every corner of Queens, who can walk in on day one knowing exactly how to implement the reforms we need.”

Grant Fox, a Katz campaign spokesperson, also took a shot at Cabán, her “unqualified” (really "not approved") rating from the Queens Bar Association, “her incredibly short career” and her “reckless and dishonest campaign to cover up for her total lack of managerial experience.”

Katz’s campaign has a deep bench of endorsements from elected officials and prominent unions, including 32BJ SEIU, the buildings services workers union that is also a potent political operation. “Throughout her extensive career in public service, Melinda Katz has always protected the rights and safety of the most vulnerable in our community and we are confident she has the skills and experience to continue doing so as District Attorney,” said Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU, in a statement. “Prosecutors only know how to prosecute and it’s these prosecutors who created the broken system that Melinda Katz plans to fix.”

Lancman has made a similar argument for his candidacy. “The next Queens District Attorney must have robust legal experience, be a proven public official, and boast a track record of criminal justice reform,” he said in a statement, pointing to his record representing victims of workplace harassment, wage theft, and on-the-job injuries.

As with Katz, Lancman has served as both a state and local elected official, and he touts his advocacy for closing Rikers Island jails, ending cash bail, police reform and accountability, and fighting against sexual assault. Lancman has chaired a City Council committee with oversight of the city’s five district attorney offices.

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to radically transform the criminal justice system here in Queens, but it requires a District Attorney with real litigation, public policy and criminal justice reform experience to get the job done,” he said, in part as an apparent attempt to contrast himself with Katz and Cabán.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which endorsed Lancman, said three qualifications are necessary for the next DA: “One is experience as a practicing attorney involved in litigation, because you’re running a huge law office and you need to be familiar with the courtroom and you need to be familiar with litigation. The second is to be involved in criminal justice issues. And thirdly, you have to have the right values and the right ideas for what you want to do with the office...I think that Rory has those qualifications.”

Cabán’s campaign has drawn a clear distinction from both Lancman and Katz. “As a public defender, Tiffany Cabán is the only one who has defended over 1,000 clients in court who couldn't afford to defend themselves—who are sent to Rikers simply because they couldn’t make bail; because they jumped a turnstile; because they struggled with mental health issues or substance use disorder,” said Monica Klein, a campaign spokesperson, in an email.

“Her opponents are career prosecutors who worked to throw people in jail, and career politicians that thrive in the very system they say now has to be reformed,” Klein continued. “Tiffany knows better than anyone what it will take to bring real justice to working people in Queens—because she's the only one who has been doing this work on the front lines for years.”

Several criminal justice reformers say their best hope of achieving key goals lie with Cabán.

Assemblymember Dan Quart, who endorsed Cabán and is rumored to be considering a run for Manhattan District Attorney next year, said in a phone interview that prosecutorial experience is not a prerequisite for becoming a district attorney (Quart has no prosecutorial experience but was a criminal defense attorney). “Each individual county’s bar association is allowed to operate under whatever rules they want but any reasonable view of Tiffany’s qualifications, she is certainly qualified. To say otherwise is ridiculous,” he said, referencing the Queens Bar Association’s ratings. “I think they made a mistake in judgement. Look at Tiffany’s experience. Seven years as a public defender...that is significant experience. Certainly significant litigation, courtroom experience that under any definition of the word ‘qualified’ would satisfy it.”

None of the candidates in the race, he pointed out, can rightfully claim to have managed an office as large as the Queens District Attorney office, with its 600-odd lawyers on staff. “So to single Tiffany out seems extremely selective to me,” he said.

Alyssa Aguilera, executive director of VOCAL-NY Action Fund, which also endorsed Cabán, said the debate around prosecutorial experience “comes from a place of gatekeeping and a desire to maintain a status quo that has fueled mass incarceration, that has perpetuated racial disparities in the criminal legal system and comes with a mindset that punishment is prioritized over finding real solutions to repair harm and create stronger communities.”

Alonso, the former federal prosecutor, did not take a position on any specific candidate but he did issue some notes of caution. He said he’d be “deeply skeptical” of someone without any courtroom experience -- a distinction that only applies to Katz in this race. And he added, “The nightmare scenario is that somebody who is an elected official or has a constituency decides, ‘Boy it would be fun to be DA.’ Unlike being a legislator and unlike being other kinds of elected officials, this is a professional job where you have to actually do a very specialized job day-to-day. It’s not primarily a policy job.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated with the New York City Bar Association's ratings for the Queens DA candidates, which were released after this article was published.

Should a Top Prosecutor Have Prior Prosecutorial Experience? 'Qualifications' Debate Rages in Queens District Attorney Race Thu, 06 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Ensuring Others Don’t Face the Injustice I Did: Why Rory Lancman is the Right Candidate for Queens DA r lancman photoop

Valerie Bell, the author, left; Rory Lancman; and Gwen Carr

On November 25, 2006, my son Sean Bell was killed in a hail of 50 bullets from the NYPD on his wedding day. The officers who killed my son were acquitted due to the lack of an unbiased relationship between the judge and the Queens district attorney. Sean never received the justice he deserved and the men that murdered my son suffered no consequences under the law.

Subsequent to this marred process of criminal justice, I worked diligently alongside other mothers who were victims of police brutality to request Governor Cuomo use his authority under the law to appoint a Special Prosecutor in the Attorney General's office to investigate police use of deadly force. The governor supported our view and a Special Prosecutor was granted.

Since meeting City Council Member Rory Lancman, I’ve learned he has always been in relentless pursuit of police accountability. He has been, and continues to be a guardian against the racial disparities of law enforcement in communities of color, and this is why I am supporting Rory Lancman to be the next District Attorney in Queens.

As I have seen firsthand, criminal justice in Queens is stuck in the past, but for the first time in almost 30 years, the people of Queens have the power to elect a new District Attorney. The current Queens DA's office led the opposition to creating a Prosecutorial Misconduct Commission, and is the only DA's office in New York City that refuses to have a wrongful conviction review unit.

The office has opposed closing Rikers Island, and refuses to follow the lead of other District Attorneys who no longer prosecute most fare evasion and marijuana possession cases; 90% of such prosecutions are people of color. Queens’ 2.3 million people deserve better than a 'lock ‘em up and throw away the key' mentality.

For these reasons and more, Rory Lancman needs to be the next District Attorney in Queens.

Rory understands that our criminal justice system is built on a foundation of institutional racism. That racism manifests itself in a number of ways: massive discrepancies in communities of color for low-level arrests, broken windows policing that terrorizes black and brown communities, and a system that sets up even innocent people to plead guilty rather than endure the nightmare of Rikers Island while waiting for their day in court.

My family never received justice for what happened to Sean. Gwen Carr and her family never received justice for what happened to Eric Garner. Instead of just lamenting problems, Rory has gotten to work. He’s sponsored legislation that would outlaw police chokeholds, and has fought against the misuse of New York's so-called “50-A Law” to shield police officers from public scrutiny of prior misconduct. As our next Queens District Attorney, Rory will not tolerate police malfeasance, whether it is violence against law-abiding citizens or perjury in the courtroom.

Finally, Rory will be a true criminal justice reformer at a time when Queens desperately needs it. Rory’s vision is simple: create a fair system that treats everyone equally, and that views incarceration as a last resort for real crimes. Too many of our young people are given criminal records for the rest of their lives that make it hard for them to get an education, job, and housing.

On June 25, Queens will face a stark choice in choosing a new District Attorney. The District Attorney has incredible power over people's lives. Queens is long overdue for a true reformer who will make sure the law works for everyone, and will hold even the powerful accountable. That person is Rory Lancman.

Valerie Bell is the mother of Sean Bell.

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

Ensuring Others Don’t Face the Injustice I Did: Why Rory Lancman is the Right Candidate for Queens DA Wed, 29 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
The Money Picture in the Queens DA Race, One Month to Primary Day queens da seven

(l-r)Tiffany Cabán, Melinda Katz, Rory Lancman, Greg Lasak, Betty Lugo, Mina Malik, & Jose Nieves

Candidates running for the Democratic nomination for Queens District Attorney have filed their first pre-election campaign finance disclosures since January, showing their fundraising and expenditure from the last four months with just under a month to go until the all-important primary.

There are seven Democrats competing in the June 25 primary to replace the late Queens DA Richard Brown, who passed away earlier this month. Brown had already announced his intention to resign, prompting the first competitive primary for the seat in nearly 30 years. The candidates include former prosecutors and those without any courtroom experience at all, well-funded politicians with big money donors and first-time candidates with grassroots support.

Presumptive favorite Queens Borough President Melinda Katz outraised her opponents, bringing in just over $560,151 and spending $512,224 over the last four months. Though Katz closed out the fundraising period with $907,000 in the bank -- in part owing to large transfers that she made from separate state and city fundraising accounts -- she owes $306,000 in unpaid bills, mostly to Red Horse Strategies, a consulting firm, making her actual balance as of the filing closer to $600,000. She has received about 300 donations from individuals for her DA campaign.

Council Member Rory Lancman raised $246,158 in the same period and spent $655,371. He had $529,116 left in cash on hand (Lancman also transferred funds from separate accounts late last year and in January) as of the filing. Lancman reported just 101 individual donors to his campaign.

Gregory Lasak, a former state Supreme Court judge and long-time prosecutor in the Queens DA office, was the most prolific spender among all the candidates. He raised $445,314 in the period but spent $747,849 since January, leaving him with $380,571 in cash on hand. He spent massively on digital and television ads, polling, and campaign mailers. Lasak has received donations from nearly 600 individuals.

Public defender Tiffany Cabán has emerged as the insurgent progressive in the race and has picked up several prominent endorsements in the last few days, including from Congressional Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Cabán reported raising a relatively impressive $256,673 from many more individual donors than her competitors, and showed a comparatively small expenditure.

The filing shows her campaign has spent about $105,317 on the borough-wide race, leaving her with $151,356 with just a month to go. A spokesperson for Cabán indicated that the campaign is driven by volunteers and running a bare-bones grassroots effort, bolstered by well over 2,000 individual donations, and that there are no outstanding bills to be paid other than the spokesperson’s own invoice coming in the next few days. The numbers also don’t reflect the expected ‘AOC bump’ that the campaign anticipates given the star-congressional representative, whose district spans parts of Queens and the Bronx, has now sent multiple emails asking for donations for Cabán and the endorsement news itself likely generated significant interest in the race and Cabán.

An analysis of Caban's fundraising by THE CITY, however, shows that several donors gave many times in small amounts, inflating the number of individual contributors the campaign claimed -- the actual number is 1,822, still well above the field. But THE CITY also showed that most of Caban's money is coming from outside Queens, in part showing her status as a progressive rising star, but raising questions about the actual depth of her support in the borough she needs to win, though she still has more in-borough donors than all of the other candidates have donors.

Mina Malik, a Harvard professor and former prosecutor, was a late entrant to the race but she has raised $608,644 and spent $543,748 already, with $64,896 left in her campaign account as of the filing. She does, however, have $210,000 in liabilities, all of which were personal loans she and her husband made to the campaign. Malik reported more than 350 individual donors.

Jose Nieves, an army veteran who formerly worked in the state Attorney General’s office, raised $69,647 over the disclosure period and spent about $76,438, leaving him just $5,339 in cash on hand.

Betty Lugo, a former Nassau County assistant district attorney, raised about $97,627, spent $76,562, and has a balance of $21,064 as of the filing.

The final weeks of the primary campaign are expected to see a blitz of spending from candidates, to the extent they can afford it, with fundraising throughout. It's unclear to what extent candidates will purchase targeted television airtime, which can be the most expensive form of advertising, as they try to reach all corners of the vasy borough of Queens. The winner of the Democratic primary on June 25 is widely expected to cruise to victory in the general election given how heavily blue Queens is, though it is unclear how the general election may play out, especially with an extended timeline after the primary was moved from September to June starting this year.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max & Joey Fox contributed to this story.

Note: this article has been updated with information based on the analysis by THE CITY.

The Money Picture in the Queens DA Race, One Month to Primary Day Tue, 28 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Campaign Ads: Queens District Attorney Candidates Provide Video Evidence queens da seven

(l-r)Tiffany Cabán, Melinda Katz, Rory Lancman, Greg Lasak, Betty Lugo, Mina Malik, & Jose Nieves

There is just over a month till the June 25 Democratic primary election for Queens District Attorney, which will effectively decide who wins the November general election in the overwhelmingly Democratic borough.

Seven Democratic candidates are vying for the open seat -- long-time Queens District Attorney Richard Brown recently passed away at the age of 86, just short of his planned retirement date.

The seven candidates have been appearing at many local forums and debates, and each has released at least one short video ad of some kind to make their campaign pitch. The better-funded candidates have been able to afford commercials more suited to television airtime and may air them in the expensive New York City media market, while the upstarts in the race -- Tiffany Cabán, Betty Lugo, Mina Malik, and Jose Nieves -- seem to hope that social media will effectively get their message out despite the cash advantage enjoyed by Melinda Katz, Rory Lancman, and Greg Lasak.

Here’s a look at video ads put out by the candidates so far:

Tiffany Cabán
Cabán, a public defender, is undoubtedly the most progressive and furthest to the left in a race where most of the candidates are running as reformers. With a campaign focused on “people-powered reform,” Cabán is pitching a vision of restorative justice and a need to move away from the punitive practices that have defined the Queens DA’s office for decades. She promises to pursue a “decarceral” approach to law enforcement.

“On day one, by changing policy, you can change lives,” Cabán said in a minute-long video on Twitter in January. “You can have a very real impact, not just on the criminal justice system but on education, on healthcare, on housing.”

She has promised “full transparency and accountability” and emphasized that she would work to “decriminalize” poverty, mental illness, drug addiction, sex workers and the sex work industry. She is also a fervent opponent of ICE, the federal customs enforcement agency,

“We’re not trying to get convictions, we’re trying to do justice and what that means is strengthening and stabilizing communities,” Cabán said in the video.


Melinda Katz
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz is the candidate most closely associated with the borough’s Democratic establishment, and she has the funding that comes with it. But she has seemed to downplay that association, perhaps acknowledging it could be somewhat toxic after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s defeat of former Rep. and Queens County Democratic leader Joe Crowley (Ocasio-Cortez has endorsed Cabán).

In fact, in a campaign ad running just over two minutes that is heavy on personal biography, Katz emphasizes that she was an outsider when she first successfully ran for the City Council, which preceded her election to the state Assembly and the borough presidency.

Walking the streets of Queens, Katz speaks in the video of the personal experiences motivating her to run -- her mother’s death in a car accident involving a drunk driver, and her father’s struggle with cancer before he died. “I wanted to use the law to bring justice to people in a way that I never got,” she says.

Though she lacks prosecutorial experience, Katz pitched her record as a legislator and as borough president, and she touts her work for women’s rights, worker protections, anti-gun initiatives, her push for sealing convictions and clearing outstanding warrants, opposition to President Trump, and, her top stated priority, protecting immigrants.

“We need a way to keep our kids out of jail, out of the system as well as give them fairness and equity while in the system,” she says.

Rory Lancman
New York City Council Member Rory Lancman has touted himself as an aggressive reformer, leaning on his legislative record in the city and previously in the state Assembly. He argues that his agenda for the district attorney office is nearly as progressive as Cabán’s. Lancman, who like Katz has no prosecutorial experience, has been a frequent critic of the NYPD, and its policing practices that have disproportionately harmed communities of color.

After NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo’s chokehold led to the death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner in 2014, Lancman introduced a bill to make it illegal for police officers to employ chokeholds to restrain a subject (they are currently banned by department protocol, though they are still used).

Lancman has put out two video spots: one with more biographical and resume information, and another about his work holding the NYPD accountable. His advocacy has earned him the endorsement of Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, who appears in a 30-second spot released by Lancman’s campaign. “He’s the candidate who will fight for reform. He’ll fight for all of us,” Carr says in the ad.

Greg Lasak
A veteran prosecutor, Greg Lasak rose up through the ranks of the Queens DA’s office. His tough-on-crime attitude and his successful record in prosecuting homicide suspects earned him the nickname “Mr. Murder.” Most recently, he served as a State Supreme Court Justice.

Lasak has emphasized that he is the best candidate to reform the DA’s office because he is intimately familiar with its inner workings and that he’s alway had a reformer’s streak -- but that he will also keep the borough safe. He has also pointed to his work on reversing wrongful convictions when he worked for the Queens DA, leaning heavily on that aspect of his career in a campaign ad that features a family that benefited from his efforts. “Greg Lasak is my family’s angel, in our time of need, in our time of despair and time of darkness,” says Dwayne Palmer, whose relative was set free by Lasak’s unit.

Betty Lugo
Betty Lugo is a former Nassau County assistant district attorney and founding partner at Pacheco & Lugo PLLC, the city’s first Latina-owned law firm. She also previously worked for the Manhattan and Albany DAs.

She is running on a campaign theme of “True Justice For All” and promises to be “firm but fair” in fighting crime. “Everyone, whether they’re victims, defendants or community groups, the District Attorney must represent them all,” Lugo said in video on Twitter.

Mina Malik
Harvard professor Mina Malik is another candidate with experience in the Queens DA’s office, having served there as an assistant district attorney. Malik has had a variety of experience, including as head of the city’s police oversight Civilian Complaint Review Board.

In a Twitter video, Malik stresses her diverse experience and the fact that she is a first-time candidate as positives for her campaign. “I’m not a career politician...I have spent decades working in our criminal justice system, fighting for fairness and an often deserved second chance, while being tough on violent criminals who prey on women, children and the elderly,” she said.

Jose Nieves
An army combat veteran and community leader, Nieves was formerly deputy chief in the Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit at the Office of the New York State Attorney General. He has also worked for the New York City Department of Correction and, before that, the Federal Aviation Administration.

The DA’s office “is not just about charging and incarcerating. That’s one aspect of what we do. The other aspect is trying to empower the community,” he said in a video posted to Twitter.


by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Campaign Ads: Queens District Attorney Candidates Provide Video Evidence Wed, 22 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000