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Giving New York City’s 114,000 Homeless Children a Better Shot in School


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


As thousands of demonstrators march through the streets of New York City calling for an end to police brutality and equality of opportunity for people of color, and we are on the verge of sending our children back to school of some kind, it is time that we focus on the most vulnerable people of color, and that is homeless children.

The organization Advocates For Children estimates that there are 114,000 homeless students in the New York City school system and that 85% are Black or Hispanic. This figure includes children not only living in shelters but also those that live doubled up with family or friends. These students perform significantly lower on state tests and only 57% graduate from high school, compared to 76% of all city students who are not homeless.

If we are going to make a difference in the way people of color are treated and accomplish economic security, it is essential that major efforts be put forward to lift these currently homeless children, improve their stations, and greatly increase their rate of high school graduation. 

In the homeless shelter system we have approximately 11,000 families with children. On a relatively positive note this figure is down by 1,000 from the same time last year but still very high. However, we still have 20,000 children living in the shelter system. It is time we make a critical element of the evaluation of the work of the New York City Department of Homeless Services that children in their shelters and hotels show improved performance in school. 

In order to understand the larger circumstances that these children and their parents live in, we must look at their environment. Typically a homeless family lives in a shelter unit or hotel room that is the equivalent of a small studio apartment. There are bunk beds for the kid(s) and a bed for the parent(s). Of homeless families, 80% are headed by a single adult female. There is a small kitchen area and a table and chairs to eat on and a bathroom. However, those families residing in hotels, at a cost of roughly $200 a night, often do not have a kitchen and depend on food deliveries three times a day. 

Obviously, you can see the challenges of trying to do your schoolwork in such an environment. As a former Deputy Commissioner at the Department of Homeless Services and a senior executive at nonprofits that provide shelter and supportive housing for families, I know these circumstances all too well. It’s time that every shelter and hotel that houses homeless families be required to provide space for children to do their schoolwork. This could be accomplished in some cases, perhaps, by designating one study room for every four residential rooms.

Additionally, all homeless students should receive tutoring from a new program I am calling CUNY Students Supporting Homeless Children.

As a graduate of Brooklyn College and a New Yorker, I know that CUNY students could be extremely helpful to some of our most vulnerable students, and they could also earn some extra much-needed money. Children residing in the shelters, and those living doubled up, should also be given a laptop computer and provided with access to the internet so that they can access a wealth of important resources and also receive tutoring via Zoom as needed.

The nonprofit providers who run the shelters and the hotels would be given performance standards to ensure that their students are doing better in school and more are graduating high school. Failure to meet these standards could result in a cut to their contracts.

You may be thinking that this sounds great, but with looming budget cuts how are we going to pay for this program? We should create a public-private partnership with some of the more famous billionaires and philanthropists who live and work within our midst, like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg who is well known for his interest in education and supporting important philanthropic causes. The goal should be to raise $1 billion to fund this campaign, including reaching out to the general public, members of which often care about our most vulnerable children but don’t always know how to help them. New Yorkers could get involved through a Go Fund Me-type page. It must be understood and guaranteed by New York City government that the monies raised through this initiative cannot be diverted to other programs.

Over 100,000 homeless children are now drowning, with far too many destined to fail given current conditions. While we also work to get them all safely housed, this initiative could provide them with a lifeboat to allow them to overcome their severe challenges, improve at and enjoy school, graduate, and have more opportunity.

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Robert Mascali is former Deputy Commissioner to the New York City Department of Homeless Services and Vice President for Supportive Housing for Women in Need.

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Don’t Throw Out New York with the Police Reform


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Aftermath of looting in the Bronx (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Growing up near New York City in the 1970s and ‘80s, the city seemed a terrifying place, full of gangs, muggers, and tabloid-worthy murders.  

By the time I moved to the city for work in the mid-’90s, however, it was in the midst of a transformation. The first two neighborhoods I lived in, in Manhattan, were Murray Hill and the East Village, and both initially had terrible reputations. Murray Hill featured street prostitutes and notorious single resident occupancy hotels, and the East Village was infamous for its “needle park” in Tompkins Square.

But the SROs became boutique hotels and the prostitutes became European tourists asking for directions. Tompkins Square Park evolved into a place for concerts and young families (mixed in with some needle users). The changes were emblematic of neighborhoods all over the five boroughs.

Why? It started with order and safety. Crime famously plummeted in New York through the 1990s and people living a more ordered life centered around work and the city’s cultural and nightlife followed. And the rebirth of New York as the nation’s economic and cultural capital has continued into the new century and over the last two decades.

But that incredible transformation is threatened today. Not just because of COVID-19, but also because of an overdue reform movement that is protesting publicly for a new paradigm in the relationship between public safety and order and the rights of people of color.

It is a movement full of the passion and talent found so often in New York’s young people. But those strengths are also a risk, of going too far and destroying the very place that helps bring that passion and talent to life.

It's time for the protesting to stop and the harder work of building the city back to begin. 

I’m not some “law and order” ideologue who wants to see “rioters” put in their place. I’ve spent much of my professional career working in New York City during its transformation, for Democratic elected officials and candidates, and progressive policy issues. 

But for New York to come back after COVID-19, white collar workers from the suburbs will have to return, residents will need to keep pushing the limits of livable neighborhoods, families will have to want to stay, and tourists will need confidence New York City remains vibrant and available. 

None of this can happen without a city that feels safe and orderly. That doesn't just mean keeping crime low. It means not having graffiti-covered buildings and subways, protesters destroying property in very public ways, or nightly violent confrontations with police. And it means incorporating the movement’s reforms and leaders into the healthy civic infrastructure that exists in New York.

New York City has always been a place driven by young energy. The constant influx of bright, ambitious, and creative young people is the burning heart of “the city that never sleeps.” Ultimately the success or failure of New York City's future will come down to them. 

This generation of young New Yorkers will have to decide what they want. Do they put their incredible drive behind a city that continues to thrive and grow, while it also confronts the need for public safety and public policy reform?  

If so, this generation of young New Yorkers needs to work with elected officials, and the civic, business, and labor groups that have stayed committed to New York through thick and thin. And yes, they even have to partner with the police department itself to figure out how it can do the job of ensuring a safe city without unfair and unlawful targeting of people of color. 

If not, it means expending that amazing energy on protesting alone. And that would be quite a waste. 

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Stephen Sigmund was Communications and Policy Director for the New York City Council and Chief of Public and Government Affairs for the Port Authority of NY/NJ. He is currently a public affairs consultant working on the Gateway rail program. On Twitter @ssiggy1.

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Ruling Paves Way for Massive Voting Rights Change to School Board Elections Across New York


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School Board elections may soon change across NY (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)


On May 25 in White Plains, U.S. District Court Judge Cathy Seibel ruled that the at-large system used for electing the nine members of the East Ramapo School Board denied the district’s Black and Latino voters effective choice in its elections, violating §2 of the Federal Voting Rights Act (VRA). Under an at-large system every voter votes to fill each board position, allowing a disciplined majority to control all seats. A majority of the East Ramapo district’s voting population is Hasidic Jews. The School Board has long been dominated by members recruited and endorsed by the leaders of this religious community and elected at-large through the use of block voting. 

Children of Hasidic families in the district all attend private religious schools (Yeshivas) to which the board regularly diverts resources. Meanwhile the board’s tax cutting and repeated austerity budgets have starved the district’s public schools, where most of the students are members of minority groups. To redress this bias, Judge Seibel barred further at-large elections for the nine-member school board and ordered the immediate development of a ward-based plan for conducting future school elections. Under a ward system, board members are elected from geographically defined districts, permitting the election of members supported locally but not favored by the jurisdiction-wide majority.

The decision in this case, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Spring Valley  Branch et. al. v. East Ramapo School District (17-CV-8943 (CS)), is historic for two reasons:

1. For the first time since the passage of the Voting Rights Act over a half-century ago, it has been used to require structuring choice in New York’s school board elections in a way known to be more responsive to minority communities. East Ramapo will become only the second of New York State’s 688 school districts to have ward-based elections. (The other is the City of Buffalo.) 

2. Voting Rights Act litigation has previously been used to halt the use of at-large elections in New York municipalities, but until now the necessary evidence could not be marshalled to successfully challenge the practice in school districts. Judge Seibel relied heavily on expert political science testimony employing the statistical techniques of Ecological Inference and Bayesian Improved Surname Geocoding (BISG).

She wrote: “This may be the first time that voter-preference estimates based on BISG have been admitted into evidence at a VRA trial.” If sustained on appeal, this decision will provide the basis for change elsewhere, facilitating elections of members preferred by minority-community voters. 

At-Large and Ward-Based Elections
New York law provides that all village, town, and school board elections be conducted at-large. As an alternative, towns and villages may adopt the use of wards by referendum. However, school districts may not. 

The early 20th century progressive reformers who designed New York’s school governance system sought to “separate education from politics.” For them ward-based urban political machines were anathema. They wanted governance in the hands of “better men.” At-large elections were their primary tool for achieving this end. 

These reformers were not shy about their unabashedly social and racial bias, as illustrated in the map and accompanying text below, taken from a 1916 book written by Dean and Professor Elwood Cubberly, cited by the New York State School Board Association as a framer of the New York system. Their preferred at-large system was discriminatory not only in its effect, but in its intent.

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Evidence and Statistics
The discriminatory effect of at-large election was well-known by the time the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. The challenge was to prove it denied protected minorities effective choice in elections in specific cases to the satisfaction of federal judges. The courts required that members of these minorities seeking redress under the VRA show that the manner in which their jurisdiction’s election was structured systematically precluded them from having any impact on outcomes. 

Voting is confidential. So is Census information. We do not keep individual level records about a person’s voting behavior or residence by race. Until now, therefore, proof of the invidious effect on minorities of the manner in which electoral choice is structured was built from a combination of place-specific voting records from their neighborhoods – aggregate election outcomes from Census blocks made up largely of minority group residents. 

But in New York State, school board elections, unlike those for municipalities, are not conducted in geographically specified election districts. Aggregate place-specific records of voting by members of minority groups are therefore not available to combine with Census information to provide the needed proof of structural bias. Though VRA litigation has been successful in challenging the discriminatory effect of at-large elections for municipal elections in the state, conducted in geographically defined election districts, the impossibility of gathering needed evidence has heretofore blocked mounting similar litigation challenging the at-large structure of school board elections.

To overcome this barrier, lawyers for the NAACP brought in political scientists expert in Ecological Inference and BISG. Ecological Inference, pioneered by Gary King, a graduate of SUNY New Paltz and now a professor at Harvard, permits inferring individual behavior from group-level data. BISG combines individual level information about persons’ names with the place where they live to predict their race and/or ethnicity with high probability. 

Much of Judge Seibel’s compelling 77-page opinion is devoted to a careful assessment of political scientists’ expert testimony and an explanation of why she finds it compelling in proving that the at-large system used in East Ramapo is in violation of the Voting Rights Act. As the case goes forward on appeal, however, it is cautionary to recall that the judge is functioning in a system headed by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who in a redistricting case called political science expert testimony “sociological gobbledygook.”

Turnabout
Though they have long had the choice, only 14 of 932 New York State towns and 4 of 534 villages have opted for ward-based elections. But lately there has been a quickening of interest in this option in the Hudson Valley. The town of Blooming Grove switched over in 2016. Other municipalities have the matter under consideration. Special legislation has been introduced in Albany allowing the adoption of ward systems for the Chester Union Free School District, and the Washingtonville and Warwick Valley Central School Districts. General legislation has been entered by Hudson Valley state legislators to allow local choice of ward systems in Orange County and statewide. Ironically, in these jurisdictions, and increasingly in the wider region, the motivation seems not to assure effective choice by minority-group voters, but the protection of the control of schools by current majorities from a minority community growing rapidly in numbers and power – the Hasidic community – not protected under the Voting Rights Act. 

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Gerald Benjamin is Emeritus Founding Director of The Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz.

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A Housing Policy to Stimulate the New York Economy


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


After months of being on pause and the ravages of COVID-19, we need to be thinking of ways to jumpstart our New York economy. Just as one can take a seemingly dead battery and revive it with the right charge and a set of jumper cables, we too can help to restart our economy with a charge of the right stimulus: changing the condo conversion laws to make condo conversion easier again. 

Condo conversion refers to when a developer changes a rental residential building, typically owned by one landlord, to a condominium in which the units can be purchased by the current tenants or by “outside” buyers who did not live in the building before it became a condominium. 

Prior to last summer, it was required that 15 percent of the units in a building had to be purchased by a combination of existing tenants or outside purchasers in order for a building to be converted to a condominium. In summer 2019, the law was changed to require 51 percent of tenants to purchase in order to convert buildings to condominiums. This increase has effectively resulted in stopping new conversions and the economic activity related to it, as well as the opportunity for tenants to purchase their units at a discounted price.

New York should once again permit condo conversions with 15% of units sold while adding in an affordable housing component.

This would help those in need of housing assistance, an especially dire need with New York unemployment at more than 20%. An affordable housing contribution from both developers and purchasers on initial and future closings would be a source of private funds to help support this important and critical public need. 

This simple stimulus formula costs no infusion of cash from the public sector. To the contrary, it generates funds for the public sector in the form of city and state transfer taxes, income taxes, and filing fees, and most importantly at this time of high unemployment, it generates increased jobs thereby reducing unemployment and the cost of unemployment payments from the government. 

Condo conversions not only help to stabilize neighborhoods and improve old housing stock, they create jobs and work for many types of businesses. In addition to development companies,  they create work for contractors, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, security and building maintenance staff, architects and engineers, lawyers and accountants, advertising and public relations firms, advertising for newspapers, creative and web design firms, photographers, real estate brokers, mortgage brokers, lenders, title companies, furniture stores, lighting stores, decorators, appliance stores, hardware stores, and more. 

Non-eviction condo conversion plans improve the living conditions of all building residents, whether they choose to purchase their apartment or not. In addition, tenants purchasing under condo conversion plans often secure their unit at a discount to the current market rate, and can typically obtain financing with lower down-payments, making home ownership more affordable.

In summary, simply amending the condo conversion laws with these proposed changes will create jobs, reduce unemployment, generate revenue for government, reduce governmental expenditure, generate private sector income, and help those in need of housing assistance. So, what are we waiting for? Now is the time to make this change and let a public-private partnership be a spark of needed energy in our recovery economy.

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Roberta Axelrod is Director of Condo Conversions, Time Equities, Inc.

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Why It’s So Important that Cities Run Summer Youth Employment, Even During a Pandemic


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Students at a town hall (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


Early work experience — such as that provided by summer jobs — can keep teens out of trouble, improve soft skills, and build strong pathways for their futures. Based on this belief, over the past several decades policymakers and business leaders have joined together to create summer youth employment programs across many U.S. cities. Generally, these programs provide youth age 14 to 24 the opportunity to work 20-25 hours per week for a six-week period from early July through mid-August and earn the minimum wage. 

Yet the economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic placed summer jobs programs in jeopardy at the exact moment when they are needed the most. The unemployment rate for youth age 16 to 19 years nearly tripled from 11.0 percent in February to 31.9 percent in April, as many businesses that employ youth such as retail, eating, and drinking establishments were forced to shut down to reduce the spread of infection. At the same time, some cities initially canceled their summer jobs program—much to the dismay of youth and their advocates.

New York City, which typically employs upwards of 75,000 youth each year, recently reinstated its program after a grassroots movement led by youth pushed the mayor to restore funding and get more creative given social distancing protocoles.

Research clearly demonstrates that summer jobs programs develop skills among youth that lead to better long-term criminal justice, academic, and employment outcomes. Our multi-year evaluation in Boston funded by William T. Grant Foundation shows that summer jobs programs lead to significant boosts in community engagement, social skills, job readiness skills, work habits, and college aspirations that are linked to the long-term improvements in crime, school, and employment outcomes. And it’s not just Boston—studies conducted in Boston, Chicago, and New York have shown that summer jobs programs lead to a 30 to 40 percent reduction in violent and property crime and a 10 percent lower probability of incarceration. Participants also increase their school attendance and have a greater likelihood of passing statewide exams needed to graduate from high school.

For opportunity youth -- young adults neither in school or the labor market -- age 19-24 years, both employment and wages were higher one year after participating in the program relative to their peers who did not participate in the program. Despite a price tag of roughly $2,000 per participant, these positive long-term impacts mean that the benefits of summer jobs programs certainly exceed the costs.

Summer jobs programs provide both greater opportunity as well as income support for low-income youth and their families. Survey data show that roughly half of youth participating in the Boston program indicate that they help pay one or more household bills and one in five report that they are saving for college tuition. Moreover, our evaluation has shown that the impacts appear to be greater for Black and brown youth from low-income city neighborhoods.

Take José for example. Jose had been part of the summer jobs program through the Boston Private Industry Council since his sophomore year of high school, starting with a community-based camp job his first summer. The next year, he landed a job as a customer service representative at a local branch of a large bank. His supervisor was so impressed by his professionalism and bilingual Spanish and English skills when it came to assisting customers that he hired José back the following summer, after which José stayed on part-time while in college. 

This is just one example of the types of transformative experiences that thousands of youth encounter very summer through the program.

Yet, due to the global pandemic and economic recession, city and state governments have faced steep budget shortfalls and large logistical hurdles to funding their summer jobs programs this year. Several cities have developed a range of options to preserve as much of the summer youth experience for as many youth as possible. Some, like in New York City, are still just starting as July turns to August.

In designing this summer’s programming, we should aim to replicate the skills that youth typically gain from having a summer job that we know are linked to better outcomes down the road. It’s likely that cities will need to develop multiple tracks to employ the same number of youth and provide greater flexibility as re-opening conditions unfold.

In Boston, Major Walsh invested an additional $4.1 million to fund four new tracks including “earn and learn” opportunities where youth take college courses for credit, virtual internships using an established platform and ready-made projects, a peer-to-peer COVID-19 campaign to educate youth about COVID-19 and safe practices, and a new public works program to engage youth in helping to maintain parks and other outdoor recreational spaces.

The summer months are often cited as a crucial time to engage our youth in positive ways, and that is especially true for the summer of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic presents new and profound challenges and we must rethink how to adapt workforce development to this new reality. This summer provides an opportunity for us to understand what works with an eye towards shaping year-round programs that start in the fall. For our cities, continuing to invest in youth throughout the current crisis will help create a strong workforce that continues to pay dividends years down the road.

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Alicia Sasser Modestino is an Associate Professor in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. She studies youth labor markets and is currently leading a multi-year evaluation of the summer jobs program in Boston funded by the William T. Grant Foundation. On Twitter @SasserModestino.

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It's Time to Ensure Everyday New Yorkers Can Afford to Run for Office


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The 2021 elections have begun (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


Running for office is an exciting endeavor and the already-underway 2021 New York City election cycle will be filled with new candidates, but the thing no one talks about is the difficulty of deciding to run for office or being a first-time candidate when it comes to quitting your job. Very few people can afford to leave their jobs behind without having to worry about paying for basic living expenses, such as rent, food, transportation, and health insurance. This barrier disproportionately prevents a slew of New Yorkers who are representative of our city from holding elected office, like young people, women, people with disabilities, and candidates of color. 

We need to elect leaders who understand the challenges of everyday New Yorkers through lived experience, especially at a time when so many folks are struggling. It is time to support a new generation of leaders to effectuate policy changes at City Hall. 

Current New York City leadership should move to further level the playing field and attract under-represented candidates reflecting our diverse communities. And one key way this should be done is by expanding the New York City Campaign Finance Board’s qualified campaign expenditures definition to include vital personal living costs. 

Under my proposal, candidates who don’t hold elected office would be permitted to dedicate up to $20,000 of privately-raised funds toward reasonable living expenses.  These funds could be used for rent, utilities, food, health insurance, public transportation, and other reasonable basic life expenses as approved by the Campaign Finance Board, as long as the candidate proves the need for each expense. Any amount spent above $20,000 would be used against the spending limit in the candidate’s race, limits that vary based on the elected office sought.  

Precedent already exists to alleviate a candidates’ living expenses. Namely, the City Council passed Local Law 196 of 2018, sponsored by Council Member Keith Powers, allowing candidates to make campaign expenditures covering child-care services for children under 13 years of age, as long as public funds are not used. This landmark legislation helped pave the way for more primary caregivers, especially women, to run for office. Under this law, candidates could spend up to $20,000 on child care, though any expenditures in excess of this amount are subject to applicable spending limits.

Beside the obvious benefits, expanding permissible campaign spending to cover basic living expenses is sound public policy. It would not cost the city tax dollars, since the enumerated expenditures would be covered by privately raised cash, not the city’s public matching funds program. 

Additionally, safeguards would adequately prevent abuse of the law by ensuring that candidates who fail to prove their need to use campaign funds for living expenses do not qualify to do so. As with child-care services, candidates would qualify for other living expenditures only if they provide a statement to the CFB and substantiation documents, requiring CFB approval. To prove that you lack the means to cover living expenses, candidates would have to produce documents detailing their assets, if any, as well as any relevant legal documents, such as a lease or a student debt note, among other things.

And, candidates would of course have to be able to raise the money that would be used to cover the basic living expenses, ensuring such funds are coming from private sources who support the candidate’s run for office.

In a city as expensive as New York, advanced financial planning and saving in preparation for a run for elected office may be a fanciful idea for far too many potential candidates. Many people are simply unable to save in significant sums given their wages and expenses. We must make it possible for single parents and working-class people to run for elected office. We need more young adults to run for office. You should not have to be able to save - or borrow - $10,000 or more in order to run for the City Council. And candidates should not have to work full-time while running for office in the lead-up to their election day. 

As for me, I was fortunate to be able to save enough to cover the five months of rent leading up to the June primary I'm running in, for City Council in Upper Manhattan, but when I leave my job as a tenants’ rights attorney early next year, it remains unclear how I will pay for health insurance, food, or utilities for all of 2021. It shouldn’t be this way. 

It’s time to further transform our campaign finance regulations to reduce inequalities that burden under-resourced candidates. Now is the time, just as the 2021 city election cycle is approaching and while the city faces a dire economic picture on top of existing crises, like unaffordable housing and generational poverty.

We must take additional steps to ensure that all potential candidates have an equitable opportunity at running for office, culminating in a diverse legislative body of people who understand what it is like to live under financial constraints and are reflective of the communities they’re elected to represent. 

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Shaun Abreu is a tenants’ rights attorney and a candidate for City Council in Manhattan’s District 7. On Twitter @ShaunAbreu.

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Supporting Law Enforcement and Reforming the NYPD are Not Mutually Exclusive — I Know From Experience


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Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD in focus (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


When I joined the NYPD in 2013, I was an unlikely candidate for law enforcement.  Nearly a decade earlier, during the 2004 Republican National Convention, I was a passerby arrested at a protest in Union Square. At the invitation of the New York Civil Liberties Union, I joined a class action lawsuit against the City related to those widespread arrests. Then, for several years after graduating from Harvard Law, I worked at a law firm and volunteered as a board member at the Bronx Defenders, a zealous criminal defense organization.  

Many colleagues and friends were surprised when I joined the NYPD as a lawyer in the Intelligence Bureau, which had some vocal critics, including litigants who alleged the City had unfairly targeted Muslim communities in its counter-terrorism efforts.  However, I saw it as an amazing opportunity to support the NYPD’s public safety mission, while also scraping away at any unfair or overly-broad practices.  

Indeed, I spent much of my time at the Department over the past several years meeting with lawyers and advocates to discuss their concerns, share information about department practices, and work towards policy solutions that balance public safety and civil liberties, especially in the context of protests and other political activity. In these negotiations, the parties around the table often disagreed, but the dialogue was, almost invariably, respectful and productive, and we all left better informed and more appreciative of one another’s perspectives.  

When I moved to my most recent role as counsel in the Police Commissioner’s Office, which I left a week before George Floyd’s death, I continued working on issues that require balancing civil rights and public safety, such as facial recognition and the local DNA database. Significantly, I was not a lone soldier in this work, but rather found it widely supported throughout the organization, especially at its highest levels. NYPD leaders often asked important, thoughtful questions: Is this policy fair, and is it the right thing to do? And when devising policy in response to social problems like drug abuse or mental illness: How do we really help people?

Following the senseless death of Mr. Floyd in Minnesota, the positive standing the NYPD enjoyed among most New Yorkers was overtaken by a tsunami of anti-police sentiment driven by a handful of recent brutal incidents. That these incidents occurred hundreds of miles from New York City did not blunt the rage unleashed against police officers in New York. The unrest was amplified by the social dislocation, anxiety, and hardship wrought by the pandemic. People were open to rage, had plenty of time to do it, and the NYPD presented a highly visible, omnipresent target. 

The rage and vitriol directed towards officers was astounding and without modern precedent in New York. Yet through this windstorm, the NYPD sought to protect the rights of peaceful protesters and worked hard to distinguish among the various currents of activity pulsing through the city: the thousands marching in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, the violent agitators bent on destabilizing city life through arson and vandalism, and the scores of opportunists brazenly looting and burglarizing city businesses.   

Even so, scorn from the public and many media outlets mounted and whipped, creating an echo chamber in which seemingly all police officers—even those at the NYPD, a majority-minority department for over a decade—were viewed as suspected racists or oppressors. Worse still, many public officials in New York City pandered to the protesting crowds, even though they have access to facts that inform a more nuanced view.   

Certain voices were greatly amplified and some rightly so. However, others were excluded from the conversation about policing, including many people who live and work in New York and put a premium on public safety. They do not want to “throw the baby out with the bath water” when it comes to the NYPD and the maintenance of public safety. Some privately emailed me, expressing dismay. No doubt people of this mindset express their views in muted tones, if at all, for fear of being targeted and labeled by the pernicious, intolerant political culture that marks our day.  

But make no mistake: despite current false narratives that police are broadly racist, trigger-happy, or both, it is not morally inconsistent to respect police (and the rule of law) and to oppose brutality and prejudice in all its forms. Yet many people feel backed into choosing between two positions: pro-law enforcement or anti-racism.  

This stark choice is forced on us by political opportunists and by individuals who are prone to selectively defending free speech while seeking to ostracize people with opposing views. They rarely mention crime victims or the NYPD’s role in suppressing violent crime. In our increasingly brittle political environment, it’s unsurprising that few, even among our elected leaders, seek to articulate a more nuanced, fact-based view.  

That is not to minimize the reality that some officers exhibit prejudiced behavior or even engage in criminal violence. But these officers are the few, not the many, and clear-cut remedies exist: better training, and where necessary, discipline or criminal prosecution. What we know is that blaming a whole group of people, who share a race, religion, or in this case a vocation, for the bad acts of a few leads to unjust results and divisiveness. But this is what has happened.

Scathing, dehumanizing depictions of our City’s officers by certain activists, politicians, and media outlets bear no resemblance to the Department I came to know through years of service. Rather its members are predominantly committed, hardworking public servants. They come from many different racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. Most come from working-class backgrounds. Many are immigrants or the children of immigrants. While many among them are idealistic, their job is complicated by harsh realities with historical underpinnings, including significant racially-disparate patterns in crime victims and perpetrators. 

The NYPD that I know responds to criticism, continually strives for improvement, and is fundamentally guided by a commitment to the public good that we can all respect. Forced to decide between the NYPD and standing against brutality and racism, I choose both.

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Ashley Waters served as NYPD Counsel for Intelligence Affairs from 2013 to 2018 before becoming Counsel to the NYPD Police Commissioner from 2018-2020. She is now an adjunct professor of law at University of Virginia School of Law.

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We are Justice-Involved Women of Color; And We are 2020 College Graduates and Innovators


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Graduates (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)


Plagued by a pandemic and confronted by a national outcry against racial injustice, our final semester in college was challenging at best. As nontraditional students and Black women directly impacted by a deeply-flawed criminal legal system, we are no strangers to adversity. We consistently prove, time and again, that we can succeed despite our backgrounds.

That success is predicated on an unmovable foundation that reframes our relationship with the world and the issues we face today – a college degree. A college degree is transformative. A college degree is a means to a better life that reverberates hope and opportunity across generations and throughout communities. 

Even in the current economic climate, our degrees provide a critical buffer against unemployment and financial volatility. Not only does this stabilizing effect demonstrate the importance of higher education to our families but it also increases the chances relatives and others we know will seek out a college degree, breaking the cycle of multi-generational poverty

However, while the motivation to earn our degrees was always present, the systemic barriers limiting our ability to successfully achieve that outcome were pervasive. How would we pay for college? What colleges and universities will even accept us? 

These questions, while not uncommon for most Americans, become even more damning when you have a criminal conviction. Just ask the millions of Americans currently struggling to surmount the lifetime of collateral consequences that come with their conviction status. Most will never find the crucial social supports required to access opportunities that extend beyond their present circumstances. 

Our pathway to and through college would not have been possible without community-based organizations that delivered the necessary resources and tools to help guarantee our success. These spaces offered structure and community that empower women of color to recognize our worth and, ultimately, to achieve our goals. 

They provided one-on-one academic counseling that guided us through institutional bureaucracies, community meetings that gave us safe spaces to ask difficult questions, and advocacy training that taught us how to build a movement. All of the programming was tailor-made for justice-involved women like us.

We became part of a sisterhood of women supporting women and our voices, which often go unheard, were not only heard but valued. This enabled us to break out of the box society had put us in and define ourselves for who we truly are – women who can create change. 

That change includes empowering other marginalized people to embrace their intimate understanding of oppression, mass criminalization, and intergenerational poverty. In doing so, they too can recognize that they are best positioned to find the most effective solutions to the problems facing their families and communities.

Coupled with our lived experience and the full power of our degrees, we are committed to creating similar spaces that teach other justice-involved people that their criminal conviction status is not a terminal diagnosis. A space where people with criminal histories can achieve the same confidence and credentials to realize their full potential and pay it forward.

Robert Merton, considered to be the founding father of modern sociology and a contributor to the subfield of criminology, created the Strain Theory — a theory that puts society in five classes: conformity, ritualism, retreat, rebellion, and deviance.  A deviant was once considered a criminal, people whose behavior fell out of society's norms. Now, when you look up Merton’s theory, deviant is replaced with innovator: people who have created promise, opportunities outside of society's norms. 

As we’ve replaced our caps and gowns with masks and cardboard signs, we’ve begun our new, fully realized futures, invoking our role as innovators. With our degrees in hand, we’ve set out on a mission to build a better path for those that come after us by disrupting and dismantling a system where only few can succeed. We do not forget our past, but now, because of our education, we demand access to a promised future that provides opportunity for all.

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Chermaine Black graduated this year from Columbia University with her Master of Social Work and is an alumna and 2020 Valedictorian of College & Community Fellowship – an organization working to help justice-involved women earn their college degrees. Shannon McCarroll graduated this year from Lehman College with her Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and is an alumna and 2020 Salutatorian of College & Community Fellowship.

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Removing NYPD from Homeless Outreach is a Long-Overdue Positive Step; Here’s What Must Come Next


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


As the city gradually reopens, we’ve seen many homeless New Yorkers kicked off the subways without being offered a safe, private alternative place to sleep. In some recent cases, we have seen police officers use unacceptable violence to drag homeless New Yorkers off the train. Fortunately, after repeated calls from homeless New Yorkers and advocates, New York City finally announced homeless outreach will be shifted away from the NYPD and be done entirely by the City’s social services agency.

Though we are grateful the city made a right decision after months of failed policies, significant damage has been done since the overnight subway shutdowns began in May. Removing police from homeless outreach must be only the first step -- now, we need to gain the trust of our homeless neighbors and actually offer them the safe shelter options and permanent housing they need and deserve. 

For months, we have raised concerns about the subway shutdowns, only for Mayor de Blasio to brush off our criticism and spin his own message. After the first three weeks of the nightly subway shutdowns, the mayor boasted that 1,700 people were engaged, 506 unique individuals accepted shelter placement, and 281 of them remained in shelters. He declared success, and has continued to point to the nightly shutdowns as a welcome opportunity to engage homeless New Yorkers.

According to the Department of Homeless Services, between May 5 and July 19, 2,823 individuals accepted referrals to shelters from the subways, 955 individuals accepted placements after they were transported from the subway, and 437 of these individuals remain in shelter placements. Yet, the mayor has failed to acknowledge the reasons why people bed down in the subways in the first place, and has ignored the distrust and anxiety homeless New Yorkers experience due to being kicked off the trains every night.

For example, hours before the first nightly subway shutdown was scheduled to begin, we received a desperate email from a homeless New Yorker who had been sleeping in the subway system for two years: “Please, if you can find a way to get me into one of these hotel rooms, I’d be very grateful. Tonight, I may visit the ER, and fake some chest pains, just to have a place to relax for a bit. But, I can't do that every night. I legitimately have PTSD from the shelter system, from my last time on Wards Island. It is not an option for me. I am begging you, if you can, please help me.”

Despite the existence of tens of thousands of vacant hotel rooms, Mayor de Blasio has largely resisted calls to offer direct hotel placements for people being kicked off the subways. He has argued that they could not get services in hotels – contrary to the belief of several outreach workers – and instead offers them transportation to the same crowded, congregate shelters many of them have made a conscious decision to avoid due to the risk of exposure to COVID-19, among other reasons. In recent weeks, the city has opened some low-threshold shelter beds in hotels, but they have not been consistently offered to everyone being removed from the subways. 

Even so, Mayor de Blasio has gone on about the number of homeless New Yorkers brought to shelters or hospitals without mentioning the overcrowded chaos often found in shelters. 

When these individual human stories of the subway shutdown are reduced to numbers, the reality can be easily distorted, even portrayed as a success. Through the past few months, Coalition for the Homeless monitors have witnessed homeless New Yorkers being kicked off the subway without being given adequate alternatives. Police, rather than outreach workers, are usually the ones who wake people and tell them to leave the train. In fact, at many stations, there are only police officers present, no outreach workers.

Mayor de Blasio’s rosy proclamations ignore the fact that shuffling people between crowded congregate shelters and hospitals during a deadly pandemic is no victory. The role of police in the nightly subway shutdown has been one more example of the mayor’s reliance on the NYPD to move homeless New Yorkers along, rather than addressing the root causes of homelessness -- and his defense of aggressive police actions against homeless New Yorkers reveals his failure to grasp the negative ramifications of these misguided policies, which understandably make people more distrustful of outreach workers and others seeking to help them. 

Now, with outreach finally shifted away from the NYPD and into the hands of social services, we hope to see an end to the criminalization of homelessness. But we must go further and give outreach workers the critical tools needed to help homeless New Yorkers obtain permanent housing, a vital resource that, now more than ever, fundamentally serves as health care. New York City must provide housing assistance to help people relocate out of the transit system, off the streets, and out of crowded shelters, and into homes of their own.

For years, we have called on Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio to invest in housing as a solution to homelessness. We have long argued that to reduce the tragedy of people sleeping on the streets and in the subways, they must be offered somewhere better to go. New Yorkers should not have to endure nightly removal from the subways without being provided with a safe, private place to protect themselves.

Moving away from police reliance is a massive step. We owe it to our homeless neighbors to keep fighting for something better, during and after the pandemic.

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Jacquelyn Simone is Policy Analyst at Coalition for the Homeless. On Twitter @NYHomeless.

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What Prosecutors Must Do To Fight Anti-Semitism


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Security at a yeshivah (photo: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


A newly-released report by the Anti-Defamation League paints a stark and troubling picture: anti-Semitism is on the rise, with incidents of assault seeing the largest increase. Rising coronavirus-related hate crimes, coupled with the not-too-distant memory of the death of Rabbi Josef Neumann, a victim of the Hanukkah attack in Monsey, New York, are powerful reminders of the urgency needed to identify and implement improved solutions for acts of hatred.

Beyond violent attacks like those in Jersey City, Pittsburgh, Poway, and Monsey, incidents of anti-Semitic crime in New York City and across the country have spiked to their highest levels in recent memory. But the troubling rise of anti-Semitic hate crimes goes beyond New York, extending across the county and the world. 

Prosecutors, the elected standard bearers for fairness and justice in our communities, can rise to the occasion and treat this issue with the urgency and gravity that it demands, but they must also be supported through the creation of tools for increased reporting of such crimes, and legislative change to facilitate prosecution. The Anti-Semitism Accountability Project’s recently-launched portal for victims of hate crimes and New York State’s Hate Crimes Domestic Terrorism Act are positive examples of creative solutions to support the prosecution of this ancient and pervasive scourge.  

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that, with memories of World War II fading and Holocaust survivors dwindling in number, anti-Semitic people have felt emboldened to reignite centuries of hate. The relative silence in the face of these acts should be of concern to us all. I have written about the need to identify hate crimes and domestic terror for what they are in order to prosecute white supremacist violence, and the same principles should apply to anti-Semitic conduct.

As anti-Semitic conduct tends to be under-reported and underestimated, inadequate law enforcement resources are directed towards addressing the problem. Encouraging victims of anti-Semitism to come forward requires open communication between communities and prosecutors, and assurances that hatred will not be tolerated. Increased reporting will better improve understanding and tracking of and response to the alarming rise in anti-Semitic crime.

With improved reporting, prosecutors can also address the increase in these crimes by proactively working with communities to provide education on the issues; indeed where anti-Semitism is driven by ignorance or lack of social proximity and connection, prosecutors may direct resources to build bridges between faith-based and other communities. By working to address the underlying cause of the increases in anti-Semitic crime, prosecutors can help keep communities safe by preventing further crime.

Once crimes are properly reported, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent legislation, which characterizes some hate crimes as domestic terror, is a model for how to provide enhanced tools to law enforcement to investigate and prosecute these crimes. It also serves as another step towards achieving the cultural shift that real lasting change requires, expressing the core American values of tolerance and inclusivity. And now as much as ever, with a rising tide of anti-Semitism, prosecutors can be advocates for the right of the Jewish people -- and indeed, all people -- to live peacefully and free from insidious hate.

As with all hate crimes, prosecutors’ responses to anti-Semitism must be tailored to ensure an effective criminal justice system response that values the long-term safety of all community members, and this may include and go beyond traditional law enforcement tools.

As in all crimes, people charged may suffer from mental health challenges, and the appropriate redress may include treatment, pro-social programming, community service, or even restorative justice -- the ancient practice in which a person who has caused harm meets with a trained professional and the survivor of a crime to learn about the harm they have caused and begin to take responsibility and try to facilitate the survivor's healing.

The integration of educational and restorative principles may prove particularly useful when a perpetrator lacks understanding of the damage anti-Semitism has wrought over the centuries and the harm it continues to inflict. This approach has been met with some success abroad for handling anti-Semitic crimes. Much as they should do with any impacted group, prosecutors should collaborate with community leaders and crime victims, and should tailor the criminal justice response to consider the harm caused, as well as the overall safety of all.  

Throughout history Jewish people have often been forced to live in fear, whether from the apparatuses of government or from social ostracism. At this daunting moment in our history, with accurate information and adequate legal tools, our local prosecutors -- the elected ministers of justice in our communities -- can be bastions of good in the face of hate. 

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Lucy Lang is the Director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College, and a former Assistant District Attorney for Manhattan. On Twitter @LucyLangNYC.

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Two Keys to Solving the City’s School Crisis


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Students at work (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)


The way our children are being educated has changed dramatically by this COVID-19 pandemic. As a working mom, it feels like I’ve been running a marathon and someone keeps moving the finish line. Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza have thus far been unable to give working families a clear plan for how our children can safely return to school in the fall. 

The options offered by the de Blasio administration are to either continue with full-time remote learning or a hybrid model with two or three days of learning in the classroom and the others at home. Both options pose major challenges for working parents who can't afford child care, though the mayor also says the city is working on a supplemental child care plan.

All of this lacks essential details just weeks before the start of the school year.

One thing is clear, though: the pandemic has illuminated decades of inaction. New York City’s neglect to adequately fund education and address overcrowded schools is now exacerbating a public health crisis. COVID-19 may not go away for the next several years and we need to start coming up with better and sustainable solutions that will ensure our kids can continue to receive a high-quality education. It's about time we address key issues once and for all.

Short-term, deal with the remote learning model.

If parents are now required to fill the role of teachers when they pay hard-earned tax dollars for education in this city, then at the very least, they should be given a child-care subsidy in the short-term while the city works on more long-term solutions of smaller class sizes. It’s only equitable to reallocate tax dollars to working families, as they will either have to pay for a caregiver or tutor, or take time off of work to ensure their children stay on track. 

Each family with children in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade should receive a voucher per child for the year that would cover the costs of child-care, and parents with older children would receive a voucher to hire in-person tutors. 

Long-term, the city must finally deal with overcrowded schools.

Overcrowding is not a new problem, but the neglect of politicians has now become an added layer to the public health crisis that stands in the way of our children receiving quality education, and will further perpetuate the growing inequality in the education system. 

According to estimates from Class Size Matters, we need about 100,000 more seats to fix overcrowding, and Queens is the borough with the most overcrowded schools. In order to truly eradicate poverty and build a more equitable city, we have to do everything we can to ensure high quality education for the 1.1 million kids in our school system.

We need to start by hiring more teachers. 

Class Size Matters proposed allocating $200 million of the $26.9 billion New York City Department of Education budget toward class size reduction by hiring 1,000 new teachers, starting in kindergarten through third grades. Not only is this the right thing to do, we should also explore using parochial schools or other spaces that could be leveraged into public school classrooms if needed, and advocate for the construction of new school campuses.  

According to Class Size Matters, class sizes in New York City schools are 15-30% larger than in other parts of the state, and the number of children in first through third grades in classes of 30 or more students has risen by nearly 3,000% since 2007.

Former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone established an initiative that forced the city to cap all classes at 28 students but the DOE no longer follows those guidelines. Those guidelines must be revisited and enforced through legislation. Class size reduction means quality education for our children, and according to a United Federation of Teachers survey, 99% of New York City teachers believe class size reduction would be an effective reform to improve city schools as over 336,000 students are currently in classes of 30 or more.

As a mother of two I can say one thing is certain: this situation serves as a reminder of just how vitally important it is that parents, particularly mothers, have a place at the table to fight for our kids. New York City families cannot have a repeat of what happened in the spring, or this city will continue to see families exit. It will be interesting to see if the demographics of young families will change, but my hope is that we can create a solution that will help us retain families that build into our city.

The last thing we need is a generation of students falling behind, and the systemic inequalities that will grow as a result.

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Felicia Kalan is a candidate for the New York City Council in District 22 in Queens. On Twitter @KalanforQNS.

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