Gotham Gazette

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Criminal Justice

On Gun Control, Cuomo Trades Transparency For Results



ALBANY, N.Y. — The landmark package of gun control measures that Gov. Andrew Cuomo championed and signed into law yesterday was expedited through the state Legislature with little public review.

The governor used his executive powers to suspend a constitutionally mandated three-day waiting period between when a bill is introduced and voted on to get rank-and-file legislators to act quickly to pass the measures. In doing so, New York became the first state to pass gun control legislation since the school massacre in Newtown, Conn.

But Cuomo's move to accelerate passage of the legislation angered good government groups, elected officials and the National Rifle Association, all of whom blasted Cuomo for using a so-called "message of necessity" to get the job done.

During an over four-hour-long debate on the measures in the Assembly yesterday, Republican member Steve Katz called Cuomo’s push for the bill a “misguided, egotistic notion that this will advance his presidential aspirations” and asked, “Why are we being bullied into voting on this bill without proper, responsible due diligence?"

Several elected officials in New York City praised the passage of the measures. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said state leaders "have shown that it’s possible to act quickly — and in a bipartisan fashion — to enact gun laws that will make our communities safer."

Members of the New York state Senate received copies of the 78-page gun control package shortly before 11 p.m. Monday, and had little time to digest the measures before they were called to vote on them. It wasn't until yesterday that the Assembly got to pour over the measures.

Cuomo said that gun violence constituted an emergency, requiring fast action by legislators.

“It wouldn’t make a heck of a lot of sense to announce a ban three days later and generate hundreds and hundreds of sales in the assault weapons in the state when we’re trying to ban those sales,” Cuomo told reporters on Monday. “If there is an issue that fits the definition of necessity in the state of New York today, I believe it is reducing gun violence.”

Cuomo has commonly used messages of necessity  to get major packages of legislation passed, allowing him to get a deal that was negotiated behind closed doors to a vote before rank-and-file legislators, the public or interest groups have a chance to react. Most notably, in 2012, he used four messages to push through a series of back-room deals overnight that came to be known as "The Big Ugly"

"Three days of debate, everyone has an opinion, it’s entirely transparent, we never reach resolution,” Cuomo told The Associated Press in December 2011. “I get 100 percent for transparency. I get zero for results.”

Russ Haven of NYPIRG, which also criticized how the measures were passed, said the governor had reduced the use of messages of necessity since taking office. “But for big packages and deals, messages are used to get bills over the goal line to make sure members don’t get cold feet," Haven said.

Cuomo has used messages of necessity 35 times since taking office — 29 times during his first term in 2011, five times in 2012 and once so far this year.

But he isn't the only governor to rely on the practice, even though they are supposed to be used in the case of emergencies. In contrast, Gov. David Paterson issued 57 messages in 2010; Gov. Eliot Sptizer used 27 in his one full year in office; and Gov. George Pataki used 84 in 2004.

Haven said he believes the gun package could have used some debating. “This wasn’t a bill where everything had been proposed and sitting around for months,” he said. "There are some really novel pieces of this legislation that I do think should be debated.”

An alliance of good government groups including League of Women Voters, Common Cause and Citizens Union (Gotham Gazette's sister organization) issued a statement questioning the need for such quick action on the measures.

“The desire to act swiftly on this controversial issue and put some aspects of it immediately into effect should not undermine democracy’s need for an open and deliberative legislative process," the groups said. "An open process would have allowed for a full public discussion of the many new elements contained within the bill.”

The package includes measures that would require mental-health professionals to report patients who they think may harm themselves; another that would prevent public access to gun permit records; and an expanded ban on assault weapons.

The updated ban on assault weapons takes effect immediately.

Gun Control Debate Intensifies Following Conn. School Massacre


ALBANY, N.Y. — As the country struggles to make sense of the latest school shooting, the debate over gun control is gathering momentum in the nation’s public discourse and among policymakers.

Measures aimed at strengthening gun control laws in New York State — from microstamping to requiring a judge determine whether to take away a person’s gun license after being found mentally ill — have in recent years made it through the state Assembly only to be bottled up in committee in the Senate.

There are signs it may be no easier to move gun control legislation forward during the next session in early 2013.

Jackie Hill, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, said she was concerned that the racial makeup of the coalition in power in the Senate would shape their views on gun control legislation adversely. Senate Republicans and a breakaway group of Democrats, known as the Independent Democratic Conference, have agreed to share power; only one of their members is a person of color, Democrat Malcolm Smith, of Queens.  

“This is diminishing the racial impact of minority populations that traditionally have had problems with gun violence," Hill said of the power-sharing agreement.

She urged the coalition to take up the issue of gun violence as a way to fulfill their promise to working across party lines. "If they truly are bipartisan I think these issues should get a fair hearing," she said.

The Rev. Al Sharpton led a rally Dec. 8 with black lawmakers to protest the power-sharing agreement, saying it could disenfranchise voters, especially people of color. Before the power-sharing agreement came together, political observers thought the Senate Democrats would eke out a majority in their chamber and take control. The caucus includes 15 black and Hispanic members.

Eric Soufer, a spokesman for the IDC, said state Sen. Jeffrey Klein, the leader of the conference, and Diane J. Savino, a senator from Staten Island, supported the microstamping legislation in the last session and "will continue to support it. He declined to comment on specific anti-gun violence legislation that might come up for vote next year.

While at least three members of the IDC have publicly supported gun control initiative including microstamping, the issue could be a sore subject between them and their Republican partners.

Representatives for the state Senate Republicans did not respond to requests for comment for this article on Thursday and Friday.

In recent years, groups like the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation have been pouring tens of thousands into state Senate Republicans’ campaigns in an attempt to stem the rising push for legislation that would alter the process of buyng or,  owning  guns in the state.

Republican Sen. Marty Golden of Brooklyn was forced to talk gun policy while successfully defending his seat this year. Golden told Gotham Gazette at the time that he felt New York’s gun laws were “the strongest in the nation,” though he advocated legislation that would increase penalties for those who use guns in the commission of a crime.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, however, seemed to strike a tone of urgency in dealing with the issue. “While we don’t have all the facts and our focus must be on the victims, this is yet another senseless and horrific act of violence involving guns," he said in a statement Friday. "We as a society must unify and once and for all crack down on the guns that have cost the lives of far too many innocent Americans. Let this terrible tragedy finally be the wake-up call for aggressive action."

Cuomo, while a Democrat, has allied himself with State Republicans in the past.

On Friday morning, a previously scheduled interview with state Sen. Mike Gianaris, a backer of key gun control legislation, took place even as the news broke of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., where police say a 20-year-old man gunned down 20 children and six adults.

One of the Legislature’s most passionate proponents and sponsors of gun control legislation, Gianaris heads the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. He took over the job from Klein, who will share the Senate presidency with Republican Sen. Dean Skelos. It is likely Klein will have a wide influence over which bills come to the floor and who votes for them.

“Unfortunately, these incidents are an all too common problem. People have been crying out for a solution for years,” Gianaris said. The damage of gun violence has become an all too familiar sight for Gianaris whose district has seen more than its fair share of shootings as of late. On Tuesday two 21 year-old men were shot near Ravenswood Houses in Gianaris’ district—one in the head, one in the stomach.

Authorities said the gunman in Newton, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, committed suicide after opening fire on two classrooms. Lanza's mother was also found dead by gunshot wound at her Newton home; authorities say she was the first victim of the shooter's rampage that began Friday. It is considered the second most deadly school shooting in U.S. history.

It joins a handful of other deadly rampages this year that have led public officials to call for increased gun control. The other incidents include the killing of 12 at a movie theater in Colorado during a screening of "The Dark Knight Rises"; six at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin; and two in a mall shooting in Portland, Ore.  

State Sen. Jose Serrano, a Democrat who remains a member of his conference, said he thinks the issue of “common sense gun legislation” is becoming bigger than party affiliation.

“This has become so much bigger than party affiliation. You are basically on the fringe of any party now if you are against common sense gun legislation," he said. "We have all these communities clamoring for it.”

Gianaris said gun violence was one of the major issues that Democrats and voters support that will be subverted by the power sharing agreement in the Senate. “This is the exact problem with this arraignment,” he continued. “Republicans have opposed common sense gun laws since time immemorial. The people who won on Election Day believe in these laws. We shouldn’t deny them to the people.”

But Democrats wouldn’t likely be able to pass a number of these measures on their own; upstate Democrats have been reticent to pass gun control laws. Hill said she has some hope that the new power sharing arrangement t in the Senate might allow some Republicans to vote more freely and support the bills. “I do think some Republicans could be freed up,” she said.

One member of the new coalition could play the wild card on the issue: Smith.

The senator from Queens stood with his colleague, Sen. Jose Peralta  on the steps of City Hall in late July, advocating for legislation that would allow a judge to take away a person’s gun license after being found mentally ill. The bill, S.670, was Peralta’s. Meanwhile, Smith touted a piece of legislation that would restrict the sale of high caliber magazines. Smith also spoke up about his continued support of microstamping.

“The blood stain of gun of violence will only grow larger until we resolve at every level of government — federal, state and local ‚— to bring common sense and sanity to our laws governing firearms availability, sales and possession,” Peralta said in a statement Saturday.

"Now is the time and gun violence is the issue for Republicans and Democrats to do everything possible to find common ground," he continued.

Peralta wants bipartisan action on S.670, S.725 (a bill that would extend the exception that exists in New York City to the gun laws that permits be renewed every five years) and S.7829 (which would require background checks for sale of ammunition of any amount.

"I propose these bills as a first step toward bipartisan action on this matter of life and death," Peralta said in a statement.  "I urge that we take this up in the Senate as soon as possible and debate and consider other ways to end the gun violence and bloodshed."

Some of those bills Democrats are proposing include one that would limit gun sales to one gun a month per customer, a bill that would force background checks on gun store employees and microstamping — a technology that puts identifying marks on bullets fired from guns with the technology. “The gun lobby is unreasonably opposed to these ideas,” Gianaris said.

These sort of bills have traditionally passed the heavily Democratic Assembly only to be bottled up in committee in the Senate. Microstamping legislation did finally make it to a vote in the chamber, only to fail. A number of state law enforcement groups support microstamping while that and other measures are opposed by the NRA and other state gun groups.

Serrano said he thinks the shooting in Newton will make gun laws a priority in the next session. “In many peoples' minds this is at near the top”,he said. “What happened today hit so close to home. It was so near by, it wasn't something in Arizona but right here in the tri-state area. I think this is going to make people say, “we can’t put this off.”


Image courtesy Patrick Feller, used under Creative Commons license.

Some Question Whether Police Watchdog Has Enough Muscle


NEW YORK — Even with new rules governing how it will prosecute officers in some misconduct cases, advocates and law experts question whether the city's police watchdog agency will have sufficient oversight authority over one of the country's largest police forces.

The rules set forth guidelines for how the Civilian Complaint Review Board will handle prosecutions according to the landmark memorandum of understanding between the agency and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly that was signed in April.

They were adopted at the CCRB’s public meeting yesterday, and will become law in 30 days after being published in the City Record.

The agreement emerged after the police department faced increasing criticism over its tactics aimed at containing the Occupy Wall Street protests and its “stop-and-frisk” anti-crime measures, which critics say unfairly target blacks and Latinos.  

"Stop-and-frisk" has brought a rash of complaints before the board over the past few years, though the number of such complaints actually dropped 10 percent between 2010 and 2011, according to the CCRB.

Nevertheless, the agreement between the NYPD and the CCRB has not been embraced as the final panacea to solve all the concerns about oversight of the more than 34,000-member police force.

Christopher Dunn, associate legal director at the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in an email yesterday that the rules adopted at yesterday's meeting were "just a cut-and-paste" of the memorandum of understanding.

In testimony at a public hearing on the rules held in Brooklyn on Nov. 28, Dunn reiterated his organization's position that the agreement does not go far enough in granting the CCRB, charged with investigating New Yorkers’ complaints about police misconduct, the powers it needs to hold police officers accountable for proven misconduct.

Like other critics, he said the NYCLU was particularly dissatisfied  that the police commissioner would still be able to block some CCRB prosecutions. "This authority subverts the whole point of authorizing the CCRB to prosecute substantiated cases and should be removed," he said in his testimony.

Editor's Note: This version corrects the timeline on the development of the CCRB's prosecutorial powers, which were upheld by an Appellate Court in 2003, not struck down by a lower court as was previously reported. It also corrects that the CCRB has subpeona powers and that the NYCLU was concerned about the removal of a provision regarding the agency's public reporting requirements. All updates are in bold. (3:51 p.m., Dec. 13)

Dunn also called for the removal of a provision in the rules that require the board to adhere to “[police] department disciplinary policies and standards.”

He said the NYCLU believes this provision will limit the CCRB’s ability to independently prosecute cases.

The NYCLU also despaired that the rule changes took out a provision regarding the CCRB’s public reporting policies. There are no rules explicitly requiring the CCRB to regularly report the status of complaints to those who first brought them to the board. The NYCLU requested a provision that would mandate the agency to periodically report to the general public about the statuses of their prosecutions.

Citizens Union, the sister organization of Gotham Gazette, also called for more public reporting of the prosecutions in its recommendations on Nov. 28.

Alex Camarda, public policy director at Citizens Union, said he was disappointed the agency chose not to amend the rules according to the recommendations aired at the public hearing.

"What is the point of holding a hearing and going through the process?" he said in an email. "It certainly doesn't provide an incentive for the public to participate."

The agency regularly issues performance and status reports on its website that include statistics on complaints, case closures and disposition of allegations.

Linda Sachs, a spokeswoman for the CCRB, declined to respond specific criticisms of the agency. "We have a track record of accountability and extensive public reporting on the agency's actions," she said.

The CCRB investigates complaints involving excessive force, abuse of authority, discourtesy and use of offensive language.

The "seed" for the agency's new powers to prosecute police misconduct grew out of pilot programs that began in 2008.

Daniel Chu, the chair of the CCRB, said in the agency's annual report for 2011 that "benefits derived from these programs emerged quickly."

"Public confidence in the fairness and transparency of the NYPD’s disciplinary process has been advanced," he wrote.

The Evolution of the CCRB

“My father tried to put in an independent police review board. It was shot down in court.  The CCRB is a compromise,” said Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., chair of the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety. “It’s working.”

The conservative Democrat, known for his tough stance on crime and ardent defense of the NYPD, said the ability of the CCRB to use their own prosecutors was “a great start.” Vallone’s father, Peter Vallone Sr., was the long-time speaker of the City Council. The current incarnation of the CCRB was established during Vallone Sr.’s tenure as speaker in 1993, when David Dinkins was mayor.

Versions of a police review board have existed since the 1950s. Violent clashes between civilians and police officers at Manhattan’s Tompkins Square Park in 1988 triggered public outcry over the heavy-handed tactics of the NYPD. The police commissioner at the time, Benjamin Ward, admitted that police had in essence incited a riot by charging protesters and even clubbing bystanders.

The riots of Tompkins Square Park provided the impetus for the creation of today’s mayoral-appointed CCRB, composed of 13 members who are, as the name of the board implies, civilians and not police officers. The City Council nominates five members and one must be selected from each borough. Three are nominated by the police commissioner and can be former law enforcement officials; five are nominated by the mayor.

The March agreement to amend the CCRB is actually a proposal left over from the Giuliani administration. Former Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik and the CCRB agreed to give the board the ability to prosecute officers in April of 2001. But it took several years of legal wrangling before a 2003 decision by a state Appellate Court upheld the agreement granting the CCRB "the revocable authority to administratively prosecute police officers for certain enumerated offenses."

It wasn't until the beginning of the 2008 pilot project that a CCRB attorney was allowed observer status at administrative trials; in 2011, the CCRB attorney took the lead and began conducting trials for some Board cases.

Whether today’s CCRB is “working,” as Vallone asserts, is a hotly debated issue. Even less clear is whether having prosecutors from the CCRB work on cases where the CCRB has substantiated wrongdoing is enough to lend credibility to a board that, as one law professor and criminal defense attorney put it, could sometimes “have no life.”

For its part, the police officers’ union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, has criticized the memorandum of agreement and called into question — as they often do — the CCRB’s impartiality.

The PBA issued the following statement from President Patrick Lynch:

Our problem with CCRB has always been first, their predisposition that police officers are always wrong, second, their inexperienced investigators who conduct faulty investigations that arrive at improper conclusions, and now those wrong conclusions will be prosecuted at these kangaroo trials.

Questioning the Change

From 2007 through 2011, the board substantiated an average of 200 cases annually that it referred to the police.  It received almost 6,000 complaints in 2011. Its current budget, a relatively modest $12,048,652, is billions of dollars less than the department it is tasked with policing.

Police officers can be put on trial by departmental lawyers before an administrative judge who also was a police department employee. This will still be the case even after changes to the CCRB become law. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly will also still be able to unilaterally block all prosecutions.

Jennifer Blasser, a clinical assistant professor of law and criminal defense attorney at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, said the agreement was "significant" because the CCRB previously lacked sufficient powers.

“The board would go through the whole process of fact-finding and interviewing and then it felt like it sort of died there,” she said. “If the Police Department didn’t want to pursue it, they didn’t. The accountability which the Civilian Complaint Review Board was supposed to impose on the police department in some ways was lacking because it didn’t have the power.”

One concern from a perspective of accountability, Blasser said, is that the administrative judge will still be from the NYPD.

But a seismic change in the outcomes of cases does not appear likely.

“It’s hard at this moment to say this one element [CCRB having its own prosecutors work on cases] is going to create substantive change in a culture of a police practice,” Blasser added.

Robert Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organization Project of the Urban Justice Center, was far more pessimistic than Blasser about the degree to which the rule changes would embolden the oversight agency.

“We’re very cynical about the value and effectiveness of the CCRB,” Gangi said. “An agency can’t be an effective monitor of the NYPD unless it’s outside the executive branch of government.”

The CCRB is an independent agency and has the power to issue subpeonas.

Some groups and elected officials have also called for the creation of an office of inspector general to oversee the NYPD and make policy recommendations.

Martha Rayner, a clinical associate professor of law at Fordham University School of Law, would like the CCRB to be armed with the type of data that the NYPD possesses with CompStat, the comprehensive crime reduction system that compiles a bevy of localized crime data. A CompStat-like system that instead helps the public understand policing practices could be beneficial, Rayner said.

Rayner does not foresee the current rule changes significantly altering the CCRB.

“This could end up just being an organizational restructuring, change without meaning,” she said. “The same systematic pressures that led to problems when the NYPD prosecutes a case may cause the same thing to happen when CCRB prosecutors pursue cases.”


Image of police badge courtesy of GerritsenBeach.Net, used under Creative Commons license. Additional reporting by Cristian Salazar.

Council's Police Reforms Could Alter NYPD Tactics, But Face Hurdles


NEW YORK — A set of bills that could dramatically alter the New York City Police Department’s tactics, including how officers conduct street stops, will likely undergo significant revisions before it can be brought to the City Council for a vote.

The bills, known collectively as the Community Safety Act, are the subject of a public hearing today before the City Council’s public safety committee. The Council has also scheduled public hearings on the bills in Brooklyn and Queens for later this month.

The bills would enable residents who believe they’ve been unlawfully stopped to sue the NYPD; prohibit officers from considering race, age, sex and other factors when deciding to stop someone; create an office of inspector general to oversee the department; and require officers to obtain proof that subjects consented to being searched after they were stopped.

The bills’ critics argue the departmental changes could have a chilling effect on police officers,  because they would be less likely to stop people for fear of being sued.

In June, City Council members proposed the bills in response to the drumbeat of criticism from civil rights groups over policing methods, including an increase in the practice of stopping, questioning and frisking civilians and the monitoring of Muslims by the NYPD’s intelligence unit.

Police “stop-and-frisk” practices have come under increased scrutiny over the past year, as reports in the New York Times showed a 600 percent increase in stops between 2002 and 2011. Critics argue that data shows the police tactic disproportionately targets blacks and Latinos, who make up 90 percent of the stops.

While the practice is legal because of a 1968 Supreme Court decision that held police can stop citizens if they believe they are armed and about to commit a crime, very few of those stopped under the city’s policy are actually armed — roughly one in 1,000 stops yields recoveries of weapons. Critics also question the legality of other policing methods, such as the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims.  

Crime rates have been brought down to unprecedented low levels over the past decade under the Bloomberg administration’s police department, led by Commissioner Ray Kelly. Both Kelly and the mayor have cited the low crime rate as a reason for continuing the practice of stopping, questioning and frisking civilians, even as they have acknowledged it may need to be reformed.

In recent months, all of the presumed mayoral candidates to replace Michael Bloomberg in 2013, including City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, have called for reforms to the city’s stop-and-frisk practices.

But Quinn has not signed on as a sponsor of any of the CSA bills and is reserving her opinion until after today’s hearing.

“I’ll be going and participating in that hearing and will have more to say about this version [of the bills] and potential other versions in the future,” she said yesterday.

And the bills won’t budge from the public safety committee without the approval of committee chairman Peter Vallone, Jr., who is skeptical of the proposed laws.  

“It will change police work as we know it,” Vallone said of the suite of bills.

Over the last few weeks, Vallone has been openly critical of one bill in particular that would allow individual lawsuits against the NYPD. He cited potential costs to the city of more than $1 billion from a projected half-million lawsuits.

Bill sponsors say they will consider an amendment that would remove monetary damages from the remedies courts could award.

“I’m sure the mayor would take this bill to court, because he’s an adult and he understands what this bill would do to the city,” Vallone said, warning that the costs could bankrupt the city. “The city doesn’t have a billion dollars extra to pay,” he said.

Vallone said he thought many of the bill’s current sponsors had signed on without knowing the potential consequences. Vallone also noted the conspicuous absence of Quinn’s imprimatur on the bill. “She’s not on the bill and she has not come out in support of this,” Vallone said. “That’s going to be an important consideration.”

But police reform advocates expressed optimism that the speaker would support the bill package, and said the bill could become law even without the mayor’s stamp.

“I’m pretty confident that a supermajority of councilmembers support these bills,” said Udi Ofer, advocacy director at the New York Civil Liberties Union.

If the mayor vetoes the bills after the Council passes them, 34 members will be required to override his veto. Even the inspector general bill, which has the broadest level of support, has just 30 co-sponsors — less than the minimum necessary to thwart a mayoral veto.

Ofer said advocacy groups would be willing to consider supporting even an amended version of the current bill package, citing Council members’ concerns over possible lawsuits. The important thing was to reform the practice, he said.

“The mayor has also recognized that stop and frisk needs to be mended. Those were his words,” Ofer said. “And Commissioner [Ray] Kelly has complained that communities are not offering solutions,” he said, adding, “Well, here it is. The community safety act is promising solutions.”

The bill to create an inspector general for the NYPD has the most council support, with 30 cosponsors, but at a news conference held yesterday before the Columbus Day parade, Mayor Michael Bloomberg cautioned against it.

“I think if you want to bring crime back, let’s go politicize control of the police department,” Bloomberg said in response to reporters’ questions on the bill, which would create an office of inspector general to independently oversee the police department and submit reports on police practices to the mayor, police commissioner, City Council and public.

Currently, the NYPD oversight is handled by the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau and the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates complaints made against city police officers. Some critics claim the department’s current oversight has not been independent enough to stem incidences of police abuses.  

“If people aren’t happy with this Police Department and what Commissioner Kelly has created, and all the 55,000 people that work in the PD, I don’t know what would make you happy,” Bloomberg said, adding, “I think this Police Department is well-supervised, it’s well-led and the last thing we need is to have some politician or judge getting involved with setting policy, because you won’t be safe anymore. But today you are.”

The Council’s public safety committee hearing on the police reform bills is scheduled for 10 a.m. today, at 250 Broadway, 16th floor, in Manhattan. Hearings will be held before the civil rights committee in Brooklyn on Oct. 23 and in Queens on Oct. 24.


Laura Nahmias is a freelance political reporter. She can be found here on Twitter.

Image of police officers by cons.maximus, used under Creative Commons license.

An earlier version misspelled Udi Ofer's name.

The Political Reality of Gun Control


NEW YORK — The movie theater massacre by an assault rifle-toting suspect in Aurora, Colo. The slaughter of Sikhs at a temple in Milwaukee by a white supremacist with a handgun. An uptick in shootings in New York City, including the stray-bullet killing of a 4-year-old boy.

Elected officials have had plenty of reasons to tout the need for more gun control this summer. Political solutions, however, have been blocked.

Last week, Democratic state Sen. Mike Gianaris and a number of his fellow legislators introduced a package of 10 bills designed to combat gun violence. The centerpiece of that package would limit the purchase and sale of firearms to one individual to one per month. Another bill would institute a universal background check for gun sales — including private sales — along with a 10-day waiting period.

The bills would, Gianaris said, “set an example for the rest of the states in the country.” If passed, they would make New York number one in a list of states doing the most to prevent gun violence, according to The Brady Campaign, which supports the measures.

But Gianaris and his bills face a gigantic obstacle — the cold, hard cash of the influential gun lobby.

In recent years, groups like the National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation have been pouring tens of thousands into state Senate Republicans’ campaigns in an attempt to stem the rising push for legislation that would make it more difficult to own guns in the state.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the battle over microstamping.

A technology that labels each bullet fired with markings unique to the gun that fired it, microstamping has been derided by critics who say the technology is untested and expensive. But it enjoys support from major law enforcement groups that say the technology would make it easier to trace shooters and solve gun crimes.

Democratic Assemblywoman Michelle Schimmel has introduced a bill to enact microstamping each year since 2008. But the bill only came to a vote once — in 2010. Yet the measure failed in spite of backing from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Police Department Commissioner Raymond Kelly. The two even met with the Senate Republican leadership and city-based senators to win over their support for the measure.

But, in the end, Democrats failed to muster the 32 votes they needed to pass the bill as three upstate Democrats voted against it.

Schimmel said the money pouring in from groups like the NRA has had an impact. “There’s been no significant gun laws enacted in over a decade in New York State,” she said.
Scott Rief, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, declined to comment on the Democrats’ proposed legislation. He said that his conference was open to working on some sort of legislation.

“We agree with the governor that more can be done to combat criminals who use illegal guns,” he said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said earlier this summer that he is only prepared to back a winner when it comes to addressing gun violence.

“We’ll discuss all the legislative proposals and see if we can come up with a consensus package,” Cuomo said during an August 7 press conference.

Republican senators face a dilemma: While they do receive campaign cash from the NRA, they also enjoy even more generous financial support from Bloomberg, who founded the Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition and generally supports gun crime prevention initiatives.

But Republicans are loathe to address the issue of gun violence in the same way Democrats are. Part of their tight-rope walk is making sure any legislation they propose is presented in a way that the NRA and other gun lobbyists can tolerate.

Sen. Martin Golden, who represents Brooklyn, is the only Senate Republican to put forward a bill in recent memory that would in some way regulate guns. His measure would increasing the penalty for criminals who use “community guns,” which are weapons stowed away for gang members to share. Bloomberg has announced his support for Golden’s measure.

Golden’s opponent, Andrew Gounardes, has questioned Golden’s commitment to fighting gun violence.

"If Marty Golden were serious about gun control, he would have fought to pass several gun control bills over the past few years. Instead, he worked to turn his 2008 NRA rating of 'B' into an 'A' in 2010. Golden acted against the wishes of police unions everywhere when he walked out of the chamber during a microstamping bill in 2010,” Gounardes said in a statement.

Golden did not respond to a request for comment.

It is unclear how Golden’s bill will fare in comparison with measures backed by Democrats over the past few years.

For her part, Democratic state Sen. Liz Kreuger said the struggle to pass gun control bills indicates the need for campaign finance reform.

“A small minority is spending too much money in political campaigns across the country preventing the political will from moving forward to doing the right thing,” she said.

Gianaris said he thinks there is no reason for Republicans or the gun lobby to oppose his bills.

“There is nothing in any of these bills that would hinder a sportsman, a hunter, a collector from doing what they want with firearms, this is targeting specifically to illegal gun sales, illegal gun purchases … and that’s why we’ve had so much support, even from gun owners,” Gianaris said.


Kamelia Kilawan contributed to this report.

Gun Violence as Public Health Threat


Photo courtesy Save Our Streets, used with permission.

NEW YORK — Amid debate over the New York Police Department's "stop-and-frisk" policy and following a rash of fatal shootings — including the recent death of a young child by a stray bullet — city lawmakers are giving money to programs that approach gun violence as a public health threat.

The City Council said yesterday it would fund programs in South Jamaica, the South Bronx and at Richmond University Medical Center that use the CeaseFire model that has been nationally recognized for reducing violence in Boston and in Chicago.

The city is already home to at least two programs modeled after CeaseFire — one in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, called Save Our Streets, and another, called SNUG, in Harlem and Brooklyn.

The new programs will be funded through the Council's anti-gun violence initiative, which received $4.8 million in June. Two additional CeaseFire programs in Harlem and East New York are expected to be funded by the city Department of Health.

The CeaseFire model approaches gun violence as a public health crisis, as epidemiologists might address obesity or any other disease.

The model calls for trained, street-smart individuals to intervene in group disputes to avoid violence. Outcomes are tracked extensively. The goal is to prevent violence.

Councilman Jumaane Williams, the co-chair of the anti-gun violence task force, says that a strategy of "focused deterrence" — getting police to target specific individuals or networks that have been determined to pose a threat — will help the initiative achieve that goal.

"It puts police resources into the members of the community who are known to have had run-ins with the law, instead of focusing on the entire community," Williams said.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn said in a statement yesterday that CeaseFire focuses "on both rapid response and early prevention."

"We believe this initiative will complement the work of the NYPD and help save lives," she said.

Focus on Prevention

The city's most debated tool for combating gun violence — stop-and-frisk — has been criticized for a heavy reliance on scattershot policing and for affecting predominantly black and Latino youth. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the NYPD have defended it.

The spike in shootings has complicated the narrative, throwing the stop-and-frisk debate into a new light, with some former critics announcing their newfound support for it.

"If the stop-and-frisk policy can make a difference, then we need to realize that it’s time to support stop-and-frisk," wrote Senator Ruben Diaz in a statement posted on his website on July 23rd, the day after 4-year-old Lloyd Morgan was killed in Morrisania. Bronx Assemblyman Eric Stevenson shared the sentiment. “There is a 4-year-old dead. Now we should really consider not stopping stop-and-frisk,” Stevenson told the New York Post.

In recent days, police reported that stop-and-frisk encounters had declined by 34 percent in the past three months, compared to the first three months of the year.

As part of the public health approach, the Council-funded initiatives will attempt to treat entire communities stricken by violence, with a sort of "holistic cure." That means offering training and job-placement services, therapy, and conflict mediation classes for public school students.

"The cause isn't one thing, so the answer isn't going to be just one thing," Williams said.  

Robert Gangi of the Urban Justice Center, an outspoken critic of stop-and-frisk, is another advocate for focused deterrence.

"One of the factors that contributes to street crime is lack of services," Gangi said. "The failure of schools, the lack of jobs, those are the issues and the problems that should be directly addressed … Addressing those problems would be more effective in stopping crime than any policing activity."

Dr. Mark Rosenberg, editor of "Violence in America: A Public Health Approach," said the public health focus shifts the problem to prevention. It also demands rigorous evaluation.

"It's very easy to spend $5 million on a problem and not learn anything about it, to get inconclusive results," Dr. Rosenberg said. "If we don't evaluate, there's a risk we will implement policies based on bad data."

It is not yet clear whether the Council has or will set aside for evaluation a portion of the $4.8 million allocated to the anti-gun violence initiative.

The Model in Action

Save Our Streets, a Crown Heights community organization, is one New York City program that has already adopted the public health approach. It is a project of the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center and the Center for Court Innovation.

Founded in 2004 with a grant from the federal government to replicate the Chicago program, like that pioneering effort, S.O.S. organizes community responses each time a shooting takes place in the neighborhood, and employs "violence interrupters" who spend their overnight shifts trying to learn of conflicts early enough to prevent them from turning violent.

The organization also recruits local businesses and residents to join in the mission to "articulate that shooting is an unacceptable behavior," namely by posting the flyers — ubiquitous on Kingston and Brooklyn avenues — that keep track of how many days the neighborhood has gone without a shooting.

That community engagement helps boost the neighborhood morale, said S.O.S. Director Amy Ellenbogen.

"Until this approach there was a feeling of hopelessness, there wasn't really a job for people to do," she said. "With this model, people can get involved."

That involvement took a creative turn this June, when the organization's youth component, known as Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets, pitched in to contribute to the S.O.S. "Week of Peace."

The youth organizers, a group of teenagers aged 13 to 17 who live in Crown Heights, were gathered at a neighborhood corner when two of them began to argue.

The conflict quickly escalated, and soon a shouting group of teenagers had gathered around the pair and seemed ready to join in as soon as the situation called for backup.

It was a familiar sight for most onlookers, but this conflict was different, because it was staged.

Just as violence seemed imminent, the "fight" morphed into a coordinated dance routine to "Waving Flag" by K'naan. It was a flash mob, meant to convey a very specific message to the teens' peers and community.

"They feel an urgent need to prove that when young people gather it is not always for malice," said Ruby-Beth Buitekant, a case manager for YO S.O.S. "They used a current trend and brought it to their neighborhood to say, 'enough is enough. We are sick of the guns.' "

"After we finished dancing everybody came [to] us, they took our pictures, and some of them was crying," said Reean Charles, a youth member of YO S.O.S. "They were shocked."  

The S.O.S.'s sister organization in the South Bronx will receive $500,000 in Council funding to create a similar CeaseFire program, also run by the Center for Court Innovation.

The Council has also allocated $500,000 to the South Jamaica, Queens, program to be run by Life Camp, Inc.; and $100,000 for a hospital-based program out of Richmond University Medical Center.  

Ellenbogen said she's been lucky to work with elected officials who have been open to the organization's non-traditional approach.

"Every time I've sat down with a politician and they've heard me explain the model, they've been very interested," she said. "People are desperate for innovative approaches, and this one not only sounds right to a lot of people, but there's a growing body of evidence that indicates it's effective."

That evidence has caught the attention of experts outside of the criminal justice field as well.

In April, the Institute of Medicine held a two-day workshop where professionals in the health field met to consider the merits of treating violence as a disease. And, in Philadelphia, a consortium of hospitals collaborate on the Healing Hurt People, a violence intervention program, which counsels shooting victims to try to prevent retaliation.

"The fact that this is a public health issue is definitely accepted within the task force, and is becoming accepted more widely," Councilman Williams said. After all, he added, "what we've been doing is not working."

How the NYPD overstated its counterterrorism record

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The NYPD is regularly held up as one of the most sophisticated and significant counterterrorism operations in the country. As evidence of the NYPD's excellence, the department, its allies and the media have repeatedly said the department has thwarted or helped thwart 14 terrorist plots against New York since Sept 11.

In a glowing profile of Commissioner Ray Kelly published in Newsweek last month, for example, journalist Christopher Dickey wrote of the commissioner's tenure since taking office in 2002: The record "is hard to argue with: at least 14 full-blown terrorist attacks have been prevented or failed on Kelly's watch."

The figure has been cited repeatedly in the media, by New York congressmen, and by Kelly himself. The NYPD itself has published the full list, saying terrorists have "attempted to kill New Yorkers in 14 different plots."

As Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in March: "We have the best police department in the world and I think they show that every single day and we have stopped 14 attacks since 9/11 fortunately without anybody dying."

Is it true?

In a word, no.

A review of the list shows a much more complicated reality 2014 that the 14 figure overstates both the number of serious, developed terrorist plots against New York and exaggerates the NYPD's role in stopping attacks.

The list includes two and perhaps three clear-cut terrorist plots, including a failed attempt to bomb Times Square by a Pakistani-American in 2010 that the NYPD did not stop.

Of the 11 other cases, there are three in which government informants played a significant or dominant role (by, for example, providing money and fakes bombs to future defendants); four cases whose credibility or seriousness has been questioned by law enforcement officials, including episodes in which skeptical federal officials declined to bring charges; and another four cases in which an idea for a plot was abandoned or not pursued beyond discussion.

In addition, the NYPD itself does not appear to have played a major role in breaking up most of the alleged plots on the list. In several cases, it played no role at all.

The NYPD did not respond to requests for comment on the list of 14 alleged plots and how it was assembled. A spokesman for Bloomberg declined to comment.

The following is a breakdown of the plots on the NYPD's list.

Substantially developed or executed plots:

  • The failed 2010 attempt by Faisal Shahzad to set off a crude car bomb in an SUV in Times Square. Shahzad was in contact with the Pakistani Taliban before and after the attempt, according to the government, and he pleaded guilty to charges stemming from his role in the attempt.

    The plot was widely seen as a law enforcement failure, as Shahzad was able to plant the rigged car in Times Square without being on the radar of the NYPD and other agencies.

  • The thwarted 2009 plot by three former high school classmates from Queens to set off bombs in the subway system. One of the plotters, an Afghan immigrant named Najibullah Zazi, testified in court this year that he and the others had received training from "Al Qaeda leaders" in Pakistan. He also admitted bringing bomb-making materials into New York. All three men have pleaded guilty or been convicted of terrorism charges. According to the AP, the plot was uncovered not by the NYPD, but rather by an email intercepted by U.S. intelligence.

  • Transatlantic Plot In August 2006, British authorities arrested a group of men who were later charged with plotting to blow up planes bound for North America from London with liquid explosives. (This is the plot that led to restrictions on carrying liquids aboard planes.)

    The plot is included on the NYPD's list of 14 because, according to British authorities, one of the men had a memory stick that had information on flights bound for several Canadian and American cities, including, in one case, New York. The plan was to blow up the planes over the ocean.

    During the trial, there were questions about whether the men were going to act on the plan imminently. Three consecutive trials in the case ultimately resulted in eight convictions. The NYPD was not involved in thwarting the plot.

Cases with significant or dominant role by government informants:

  • The case of the Newburgh Four, in which four men from upstate New York planted what they thought were real bombs outside synagogues in the Bronx. The men were found guilty in the case in 2010 after the jury rejected an entrapment defense. The bombs were fakes supplied by the government.

    An informant posing as a Pakistani terrorist recruited Walmart employee and Muslim convert James Cromitie over nearly a year, giving him gifts, including rent money and a trip to an Islamic conference. The informant plied Cromitie with offers of $250,000, a luxury car and a barbershop. An FBI agent on the case acknowledged under cross-examination during the trial that the government was essentially in control of what the four were doing while they were with the informant. The government maintained that Cromitie was an anti-Semite who talked about committing acts of violence and posed a real threat.

    A judge who rejected an appeal last year nevertheless called the government's conduct in the case "decidedly troubling."

  • Herald Square Pakistani immigrant Shahawar Matin Siraj was arrested in 2004 and convicted in 2006 at the age of 23 of conspiracy to bomb the Herald Square subway station in Manhattan. The jury rejected an entrapment defense.

    An informant for the NYPD's Intelligence Division played a key role in the case and was paid $100,000 by the government over a roughly three-year period. He told Siraj he was a member of a (made-up) group called "the Brotherhood" that would support a bomb plot. Siraj was recorded talking to the informant about blowing up bridges and other places in New York, including the Herald Square subway station. The informant later told Siraj that the Brotherhood had approved the plot and that a leader of the group was "very happy, very, very impressed" with the idea. The informant told Siraj the group wanted him to put backpack bombs in the station, and he drove Siraj and another man to the station to do surveillance.

    At his sentencing, Siraj apologized to the judge but maintained he had been "manipulated" by the NYPD informant. Siraj did not obtain explosives, there was no timetable for the plot, and there was no link to any foreign terrorist group, according to the Times.

  • JFK Airport Russell Defreitas, a naturalized American citizen from Guyana and former airport cargo handler, and Abdul Kadir, of Guyana, were arrested in 2007 and convicted in 2010 of conspiring to blow up fuel tanks at JFK airport.

    At the press conference announcing the charges, a federal prosecutor said the public was never at risk. A law enforcement official described Defreitas, 63 at the time of his arrest, to the New York Times as "a sad sack" and "not a Grade A terrorist." Pipeline experts told the paper that the men's plan to blow up a wide area was not feasible.

    Defreitas was recorded making odd comments talking to the informant, saying he wanted the attack to be "ninja-style" and that the airport was a good target because "They love JFK -- he's like the man. If you hit that, the whole country will be in mourning."

    An informant on the case was a convicted drug dealer paid by the government and worked in exchange for a lighter sentence in a pending drug case. He drove Defreitas to the airport several times to do surveillance with a camera that the informant had purchased for Defreitas. The informant also provided plane tickets to South America and, with the help of the FBI, secured a New York City Housing Authority apartment for Defreitas (that was under surveillance).

U.S. officials (often anonymous) question credibility or seriousness of cases:

  • The case of Jose Pimentel, a Manhattan Muslim convert who was arrested in November 2011 on "rarely used state-level terrorism charges" after federal authorities took a pass on the case.

    Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. alleged that Pimentel had been "building pipe bombs to be used against our citizens." City authorities said Pimentel had no contacts with foreign terrorist groups and called him a "lone wolf."

    In a series of leaks, federal authorities expressed skepticism that Pimentel was a threat. A federal source told the New York Post that Pimentel was a "'stoner' who wasn't a real danger to anybody other than himself." Another source cited by the Post questioned his mental faculties, saying he had once tried to circumcise himself. A federal source told DNAInfo criminal justice editor Murray Weiss: "Let's just say there were issues whether [Pimentel] had the ability to do this without the intercession of the confidential informant." Weiss also noted that the informant went shopping with Pimentel at Home Depot to buy pipe bomb materials, and the bomb was constructed at the informant's apartment. Pimentel, who reportedly could not afford to even pay his cell phone bill, has pleaded not guilty.

  • The case of Ahmed Ferhani and Mohamed Mamdouh, alleged "Islamic extremists" and "lone wolves" who lived in Queens and were arrested in May 2011 after buying guns, ammo, and an inert grenade from an undercover police agent. The authorities alleged that the two men were planning to attack a New York synagogue because they were upset with how Muslims were being treated around the world.

    But the case was another example of an alleged plot that the FBI took a pass on. Citing federal law enforcement sources, WNYC reported that the FBI passed on the case because the bureau found the undercover operation "problematic" and the allegations "over-hyped." And the website NYPD Confidential reported that Ferhani has a history of mental illness.

    The AP noted the case faltered early on when a grand jury declined to indict the two men on a high-level terrorism conspiracy charge. Both have pleaded not guilty to lesser terrorism charges.

  • Brooklyn Bridge Ohio truck driver Iyman Faris pleaded guilty in 2003 to providing material support to al Qaeda; he met with senior al Qaeda leaders abroad and researched how to attack the Brooklyn Bridge. Terrorism analyst Peter Bergen has called Faris "an actual al Qaeda foot soldier living in the United States who had the serious intention to wreak havoc in America" but "not much of a competent terrorist." Bergen wrote the plan Faris researched to sever the bridge's cables with a blowtorch as "akin to demolishing the Empire State Building with a firecracker."

    The plot never got off the ground. According to the Justice Department, Faris sent messages to Pakistan "indicating he had been unsuccessful in his attempts to obtain the necessary equipment." According to the DOJ, Faris also concluded after a trip to New York that the idea "was very unlikely to succeed because of the bridge's security and structure."

  • PATH Train In 2006, 31-year-old Assem Hammoud was arrested in Lebanon. FBI officials announced that he and others 2014 who had never met but communicated on the Internet 2014 had been plotting a suicide attack on subway tubes under the Hudson River.

    The Washington Post quoted U.S. counterterrorism officials questioning the credibility of the plot, reporting that they "discounted the ability of the conspirators to carry out an attack." One official described the matter as "jihadi bravado," adding, "somebody talks about tunnels, it lights people up." A counterterrorism official told the Times, "[t]hese are bad guys in Canada and a bad guy in Lebanon talking, but it never advanced beyond that."

    Hammoud never visited the U.S., and there were no charges brought against him here. In 2012, Hammoud was sentenced to two years in prison in Lebanon, which he had already served.

Cases in which an alleged idea for an attack was not pursued:

  • "Subway cyanide" This alleged plot, first detailed by journalist Ron Suskind in 2006, was reportedly for a chemical attack on the New York subway system. Suskind reported that a U.S. intelligence source had said that al Qaeda was considering such an attack in 2003 but ultimately abandoned the idea. There is no evidence that the NYPD or any other law enforcement agency played any role in al Qaeda's decision to abandon the idea. There were also reported doubts about the quality of the intelligence and the credibility of the alleged plot.

    "None of it has been confirmed in three years," a U.S. official told the Times, "who these guys were, whether they in fact had a weapon, or whether they were able to put together a weapon, whether that weapon has been defined and what it would cause or whether they were even in New York."

  • "NYSE/ Citi HQ" A British citizen named Dhiren Barot or Issa al-Hindi was arrested in the U.K. in 2004 and pleaded guilty two years later to conspiracy to murder. He had attended terrorist training camps and had contacts with Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, according to the government. He had taken video and photos of landmark sites in New York in 2000 and 2001 including the New York Stock Exchange and the headquarters of Citigroup.

    An appeals court later reduced his sentence from 40 to 30 years, citing the "uncertainty" as to whether Barot's conspiracy would ever have amounted to an actual attempted attack, and the court's conclusion that one of the ideas for an attack in the United Kingdom was "amateurish." The appeals ruling also noted that after Sept. 11, Barot's plans for any attack in the U.S. "may have been 'shelved'" to focus on the U.K. The court also noted that there was no evidence that al Qaeda leadership had endorsed any of the ideas. Prosecutors also accepted that there was no money or equipment lined up for any of the ideas.

    There is no evidence the NYPD had any role in the investigation that led to Barot's capture.

  • Garment District Uzair Paracha, a young Pakistani living in the United States, was convicted in 2005 of providing material support to al Qaeda. Prosecutors said that Paracha had tried to help a Pakistani al Qaeda member named Majid Khan gain entrance to the U.S., including a scheme to fool immigration authorities into letting Khan into the country.

    The NYPD list says that "Paracha is reported to have discussed with top al Qaeda leaders the prospect of smuggling weapons and explosives 2014 possibly even a nuclear device 2014 into Manhattan's Garment District through his father's import-export business." But the indictment against him makes no mention of any such plot.

    Instead the NYPD appears to be referencing a claim by Khalid Sheik Mohammed to American interrogators that Paracha's father, who is currently a Guantanamo detainee, discussed a plan with KSM to smuggle explosives into the U.S. through an import business he co-owned in Manhattan's Garment District.

    KSM said he wasn't sure of the son's involvement and neither the father nor son has been charged with anything related to it.

    According to the government's detainee assessment on the father, Saifullah Paracha, KSM said he wanted to use the explosives "against U.S. economic targets" but New York is not mentioned. KSM told interrogators that another man was to "rent a storage space in whatever part of the U.S. he chose" to hide the explosives. There is no claim in the detainee assessment that the idea ever got beyond discussion. Saifullah Paracha has denied the accusation. Mohammed also later told the Red Cross that in the period when he made the claims about the Paracha, shortly after his capture in March 2003 when he was apparently being subject to torture, he gave "a lot of false information" to interrogators.

  • Long Island Railroad Bryant Neal Vinas, an American Muslim convert from Long Island, was arrested in 2008 in Pakistan by authorities there. In 2009, then 26, he pleaded guilty to providing material support to and receiving training from al Qaeda. He told the court he "consulted with a senior al Qaeda leader and provided detailed information" about the Long Island Railroad in a discussion of a possible attack.

    But in a trial in 2012 in an unrelated terrorism case, Vinas testified that to his knowledge the railroad idea was not pursued beyond discussion. Published reports do not mention any NYPD role in the case.


Are there alternatives to stop-and-frisk?

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NEW YORK — In a manila envelope on the table in front of Marlene Steele are hundreds of letters from businesses, churches and foundations politely rejecting her request for help to fund a gun buy-back program at a nearby public housing complex. “No one wants to help me,” she says. “Is it something I’m doing wrong?”

The question prompts tears and a quick exit to the bathroom. Resurfacing, Steele tells how, in two weeks, her son and only child would have turned 20. Last July, according to news reports, hours after leaving a barbecue at the Queensbridge Houses, her son, 19-year-old Mark Torres, died from a gunshot wound to the head.

She is now working to get guns off the street so that no other children should die.

Police say that getting gun violence is one of the main justifications for stop-and-frisk -- of the 500 homicides the city averages annually, 60 percent are committed with a firearm.

But critics of the stop-and-frisk say it illegally targets mostly black and Latino youth, an argument supported by the police department's own statistics: Of the nearly nearly 700,000 stops last year, 87 percent of those stopped by officers were black or Hispanic. And their opposition of the crime reduction strategy grows louder each day.

Yesterday, thousands of people marched silently down Fifth Avenue from Harlem to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Upper East Side town house to call for an end to stop-and-frisk.

But what, exactly, could take its place? Gun buybacks like the one Steele is trying to raise money for are seen by some community residents as an alternative, though criminal justice experts say there is little evidence that they work to get illegal firearms off the street. Other alternatives include anti-gang initiatives and gun control programs that have proven successful in some big cities – but for each of these, like gun buybacks, the obstacle is one of resources.

Bloomberg has said stop-and-frisk needs to be modified, not ended. Speakingat the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn yesterday, he said he understood why some people want the city to end the strategy.

“Innocent people who are stopped can be treated disrespectfully. That is not acceptable," he said. "If you’ve done nothing wrong, you deserve nothing but respect and courtesy from the police. Police Commissioner Kelly and I both believe we can do a better job in this area – and he’s instituted a number of reforms to do that."

In a letter to the City Council speaker last month, Kelly outlined a number of changes to the policing strategy, including requiring top-ranking officers in each precinct to audit reports of street stops by patrol officers. 

A Search For Alternatives

Unimpressed by stop-and-frisk, however, Steele, who is the director of operations for Gifted Community Services, took the initiative late last year to pursue what she considered a more effective solution: gun buybacks. She was excited at first. But then the rejection letters started to pile up. Phone calls to local churches went unreturned.

At a standing room only forum of about 150 Harlem residents this May convened to debate the alternatives to stop-and-frisk, the loudest applause of the evening went to one passionate young man who wanted to know why gun buybacks – with one-day takes rivaling those of a year of stop and frisk – weren’t “happening 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.”

But experts say buyback events, or more accurately, amnesty programs for turning guns over to local police for a gift card, no questions asked, are ineffective.

“There isn’t any evidence that [they] reduce street crime,” says Jon Vernick, co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Returned guns tend to be non-working or older weapons like revolvers, not the newer pistols used in street crime, participants tend not to be the young black and Latino males who’re most affected by violence and, finally, they don’t get that many guns off the street.

They are also extremely costly. It helps to explain why, at most, only up to four buybacks have been held each year in each borough since NYPD implemented the program in 2008. With a $184,000 price tag and a yield of 919 weapons, Queens’ last buyback was three years ago.

Steele remains undeterred. For her, the buyback is a high-profile teaser to gather her target audience for a main course of community dialogue, on-site therapy and advising from formerly incarcerated men and women. “I want to show people how good life could be without a gun,” she says.

At the Harlem forum in May, David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention at John Jay College said an alternative might be “focused deterrence,” or, the opposite of what critics describe as stop-and-frisk’s dragnet approach.

Kennedy’s policing methods enlist community members to zero in on specific suspects in high crime neighborhoods—never more than a few people, he theorizes—and it has been proven successful in cities like Cincinnati, Boston and Chicago. New York City may be next.

This February, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced an anti-gun initiative, which includes testing Kennedy’s approach for the first time in six sites around the state, three of which are in Brownsville, and parts of the Bronx and Manhattan.

A second promising option is the precariously funded Operation SNUG (“guns spelled backwards”) anti-gang and guns program.

Currently based in 10 sites throughout the state, including three in New York City, it replicates the successful Chicago model featured in the documentary “The Interrupters,’ and employs ex-convicts to work the scenes of violence and dissuade escalations.

“SNUG gets to the root of the problem, the person’s motivation for wanting to shoot in the first place,” says state senator Malcolm Smith, a Democrat from Queens.

He also sees another advantage to the program. “Unlike stops, which can leave anger, the SNUG approach to gun violence requires that communities join forces with the police department,” he says.

A Modified Stop-and-Frisk

Some critics says that ending stop-and-frisk altogether is not only a bad idea but impossible.

“Police officers need stop-and-frisk,” says retired NYPD Detective Carlton “Chucky” Berkeley, who regularly counsels youth and adults on how to have safe encounters with police officers. “When you stop someone, you don’t know what they’re carrying. If they have a bulge, for the safety of the officer, you have to frisk.”

In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. Officer safety – not seizing weapons – was the often cited rationale behind the court's landmark Terry v. Ohio decision, which lowered the standard for performing a street stop from probable cause to reasonable suspicion.

The case gave officers legal leeway to briefly detain anyone reasonably suspected of having committed, being in the process of or about to commit a crime – and pat them down if they also reasonably suspected the person carried a weapon.

New York state’s stop-and-frisk law predated the Terry decision by about four years and, from the beginning, it was controversial.

In one of many government-commissioned reports examining the roots of social unrest, civil rights activist and Harlemite Bayard Rustin describes the tactic as a permit to harass “the poor and minorities like Negroes and Puerto Ricans.” Retired NYPD Detective Ray Figueroa says, in practice “we didn’t stop-and-frisk without first having a lot of probable cause. And I mean, a lot – like actually seeing the weapon.”

Other than anecdotal evidence, between 1964 and 1997, it is impossible to know how often the practice occurred, the rationale behind those stops or whether, as Rustin claimed, it was tailored to target minorities. It took the shooting death of unarmed 23-year-old immigrant, Amadou Diallo by four police officers in 1999 and the ensuing citywide outcry to launch the first state and federal investigations into stop-and-frisk. That year also saw the first public release of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk data, which had been collected since at least 1986.

But even by 2002, the year that mandatory reporting of stop data to the city council took effect, the policy had not been deployed to the extent that it is today. Stops have increased 600 percent, after the crime rate had already fallen to historic lows.

Criminologists, retired police officers and recent whistleblowers like officers Adrian Schoolcraft and Adil Polanco allege the exponential uptick in stops can be traced to COMPSTAT, the computerized system that police have used to track and target crime.

Beginning in 1994, critics charge that the NYPD’s widely-replicated crime metrics system fostered a department-wide reliance on quotas to measure performance.

“Officers are being ordered to do things that many find ethically dubious,” says John Jay criminologist Eugene O’Donnell, also a former police officer and prosecutor. “If I frisk you for no good reason, then I’m filling out paperwork that may not be accurate, I have to go to court and swear to things that are not accurate.”

Whether the NYPD boosted stops to meet set performance targets is central to the upcoming federal trial, Floyd v. City of New York. Amid growing public scrutiny, Mayor Bloomberg conceded at a Brownsville church last Sunday that stop-and-frisk encounters should emphasize professionalism. But critics want reforms to go further.

“Every school and corporation in America goes through an accreditation process, but we don’t require that of our police departments," says John Eterno, a former NYPD captain and stop-and-frisk trainer, who is now chair of criminal justice at Molloy College. "It’s time to question why not, and demand that oversight of the NYPD and transparency be a part of stop-and-frisk reform." 

They mayor and police have argued that there is sufficient oversight of the NYPD. 

John Jay criminologist Eugene O’Donnell, also a former police officer and prosecutor, laments the way that the city has abandoned social policies other than criminal justice since the Giuliani era, and maintains that stop-and-frisk abuses are rising, in part, because “the police have been pressed into action to cover a gaping hole in our gun policy.”

“It is unethical,” he says, “to promise that we can pave the way to a great city with police, jails and courts. You cannot rely on the criminal justice system to make everything better.”


Carla Murphy is an independent journalist. Follow her at

Cab driver sex trafficking bill passed by Council

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A sex trafficking victim testifies anonymously at Council hearing in December 2011. Photo by William Alatriste.

NEW YORK – Cab drivers caught willingly transporting sex trafficking victims could face a fine of $10,000 and have their license automatically revoked under legislation passed by the City Council today.

The legislation passed at the Council's stated meeting also calls on the Taxi and Limousine Commission to develop a program to educate city-licensed drivers on laws prohibiting the use of taxis for trafficking.

"We are recognizing in this legislation the unconscionable and cruel role that taxi drivers and livery drivers are playing in this brutal attack that keeps people trapped, takes their lives away from them," Council Speak Christine Quinn said at a news conference before the legislation was passed.

Advocates for victims of sex trafficking said the legislation targets both traffickers and demand.

“Taxi drivers and livery drivers are often middlemen between trafficked people and the customers that create the demand,” said Sonia Ossorio, president of National Organization of Women New York City.

Currently, city-licensed taxi drivers could face a hearing if they commit a sex trafficking crime.

TLC spokesman Allan Fromberg said the agency was working with the Council to develop the educational component of the legislation. "The TLC will develop the most effective, and most cost-effective, program possible once the bill becomes law," he said.

In April, Manhattan prosecutors charged a father and his son with running a sex-trafficking ring, with livery cab drivers transporting prostitutes and arranging meetings with clients. The father and son, who have pleaded not guilty, were accused of threatening violence against the women for being late or failing to meet quotas.

Advocates said the case had highlighted the problem of livery drivers aiding sex trafficking.

Dorchen Leidholt, the legal director of Sanctuary for Families, a leading nonprofit that helps victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking, said a growing number of its clients had been "victimized not only by their traffickers but by drivers who were driving them from customer to customer, taking half the money that was earned and working very closely with the traffickers."

Bharavai Desai, the executive director of the Taxi Workers Alliance, said unlicensed cab drivers were most often linked to such crimes.

"There is no iota of evidence linking yellow medallion taxi cabs to sex trafficking," she said. "They are scapegoating our name. The City Council should address the issue but not scapegoat or link illegal services to legal services."

The Council also passed a resolution, created by 23 council members, that strongly recommends that the state Legislature pass the Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act. If passed, the bill would amend a 2007 anti-trafficking law that the Council resolution says does not go far enough.

The bill would remove the need for prosecutors to prove that underage victims of trafficking were coerced into prostitution; elevate penalties for patronizing underage prostitutes to the level of statutory rape; and require that anyone under 18 arrested for a prostitution offense be tried in family court rather than criminal court. 

Making Phones Harder to Steal


Following pressure from New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Sen. Charles Schumer, all four of the nation’s largest phone companies made an agreement with the Federal Communications Commission to help crack down on smartphone thefts by targeting demand for stolen phones.

Each phone comes equipped with an internal ID number which is different from the phone number or SIM card activation code. People who have had phones stolen will now be able to report the thefts, causing their phone ID to show up as stolen in a master database. This will make it impossible for someone else to buy a new sim card for a stolen phone and use it normally.

“We’re gonna make a [stolen] cellphone about as valuable as an empty wallet,” said Schumer who helped broker the agreement by putting pressure on FCC head Julius Genachowski, who used to work for Schumer.

“New technologies create risks,” Genachowski was quoted as saying.

The new rule is not the same thing as a law but all major cell phone carriers agreed to abide by it. Details are still pending for the database timetable.

Smartphones today cost an average of $400 to $600, are small, easy to carry and often held in plain sight, making it the most cost effective target for thieves and muggers. According to Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who was among the first chiefs to recommend the new program, cell phone thefts went up from 8 percent to over 40 percent of all grand larcenies and robberies in NYC, even as total crime rates continue to fall. According to the Daily News, that is 81 percent of all electronics thefts in 2011.

In the case of AT&T and T-Mobile, phone users can shut off their SIM cards but in most cases, their phone remains an active device, which can be equipped with a new card and taken right back into use. Verizon Communications and Sprint-Nextel already use stolen phone directories.

Under the agreement, all phone companies will maintain shared directories of every physical device’s unique ID number and track its purchase and use, at their own expense. If the owner of that phone ever reports it stolen, whoever tries to reactivate that phone with major phone carriers in the future, will be denied. These kinds of directories are widely used in European countries such as the U.K., France and Germany.

The phones can still be used as miniature computers with WiFi but since most of a smartphone’s utility comes from its connection to telephone and 4G networks, Schumer and his allies believe that stolen phones will drastically lose their value.

“Like draining the swamp to get rid of malaria, we’re going to dry out the market for stolen phones,” said Kelly.

Thieves can circumvent the blacklist by selling the phones abroad or hacking into the phone and changing its ID number. Schumer said that he will introduce legislation to make phone tampering of the sort punishable by up to 5 years in prison.

The phone companies also agreed to increase incentives for users to password-protect their phones and further deter theft.

Recent Ruling Changes Real Estate Law


An opinion issued by New York's highest court has changed real estate law as it has been understood and applied for hundreds of years. The majority of the Court of Appeals has decided that a landlord can interfere with a tenant's exclusive possession of real property and the tenant is no longer necessarily entitled to a full abatement of rent. In the case of east side exhibition Corp v 210 east 86th street Corp., the court found that the interference was trivial or de minimus and did not warrant the withholding or abatement of rent.

The dispute arose in 2002 when the landlord of tenant's multiplex theater on east 86th St. in Manhattan installed cross-bracing between two steel support columns on each of the tenant’s two floors changing the flow of patrons and slightly reducing a seating area on the second floor. The work was done in anticipation of landlord's plan to add two floors to the building and resulted in a diminution of approximately 12square feet or one tenth of one percent of the leased property.

The real property law which goes back to feudal times originally applied to land, where diminution of tenant's possessory interest generally meant less farm land, but was until this case applied to modern development or improvement of the land.

Prominent real estate lawyer, David Rosenberg argued that his client had suffered "an actual partial eviction" which relived them of the obligation to pay rent. But a mid-level appellate court had already heard the case and said that " current landlord/tenant realities make it particularly untoward tp apply harsh and oppressive strictures derived from feudal law that mirror the policies and concerns of that earlier society."

Before adopting the prior court's reasoning, the high court acknowledged that "the withholding of the entire amount of rent is the proper remedy when there has been a partial eviction by a landlord." Citing long-standing law, the court continued, "If such an eviction, though partial only, is the act of the landlord because the landlord is not allowed to apportion his own wrong." In other words "the tenant has beebread deprived of the enjoyment of the demises premises by the wrongful act of the landlord" and the basis of the agreement to pay rent has collapsed. These principles have been in place even while the tenant remains in possession.

Reverting to an 1865 case decided in the same court, but ignored for the last century and a half, the majority opinion wrote "not every intrusion amounts to an eviction which warrants a full rent abatement ... when there has been no substantial interference with the use of the premises." Judge Ciparick's opinion further cites similar language applied by courts in other states to conclude that "the interference must be more than trivial," and there musts be "some deliberate disturbance of the possession depriving the tenant of the beneficial enjoyment of the demised premises ... to extinguish the rent." Since it was undisputed that the taking was of less than one-tenth of one percent of the space, even though there was some impediment to the flow of foot traffic and the cross-bracing was unattractive, it was "merely a trivial interference," and there was "no measurable effect on the tenant's use."

An unusual dissent followed, in which Judge Read, in a footnote, described her colleagues’' opinion as "schizophrenic." She criticized it for blaming the tenant for not having negotiated a lease which would have given the theater the right to withhold all rent based upon any intrusion, saying, "Why was it not incumbent on the landlord to negotiate" the term. The dissent was committed to following the line of cases which supported the tenant's position and which came long after the Civil War-era case relied upon in the majority opinion, Lounsbery v Snyder. She pointed out that Lounsbery involved a landlord placing firewood on the tenant's rented property. This, Judge Read, wrote was not a permanent taking of land or real estate, unlike the cross-breaching in the theater lobby. Meaning, she concluded, that there was no exclusion or expulsion, trivial or not. "In short," she wrote," a physical expulsion or exclusion is, by definition, non-trivial. Moreover, the intrusion or trespass is permanent, not transitory.

Siding with the theater, and describing the bracings as "an eyesore,” the dissent "would not characterize landlord's unwanted reaming of the lobby as trifling in amount or trivial in effect" and is "considerably different from what tenant bargained for in the lease. Going forward, according to Judge Read, "At least unt [commercial] tenants have the opportunity to negotiate lease terms that account for the change in the laws they have no effective way to combat unauthorized takings by landlords and in leases already entered, there was no way to anticipate this change in the law.

Landlord was represented by David Rosenberg, Tenant by Howard Grun.

The judges concurring with the majority opinion are judges Lippman, Graffeo, Smith, Pigott and Jones.

Emily Jane Goodman is a New York State Supreme Court Justice

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