Privacy Meets Public Safety

A 'Pragmatic Progressive' Emerges from Queens

Since the September 11 attacks, law enforcement authorities have been bickering with civil libertarians over how much access to people's private information they need to maintain national security. The debate usually pits public safety against principle. But one local pol, who is both an ex-cop and a former board member of the New York Civil Liberties Union, says the two priorities are inseparable.

Hiram Monserrate of Queens, one of a historic influx of newcomers elected to the City Council in November 2001 after a term limits law booted out some two-thirds of the old body, calls himself a "pragmatic progressive" who advocates both law and order and individual rights. Recently he demanded that more cops come out to his streets, claiming that the cheery headlines about lessening crime did not re?ect the reality in all neighborhoods. Yet he is also spearheading an ambitious piece of legislation to restrict the police and other city agencies from funneling New Yorkers' private information to federal authorities like the FBI and INS.

Last Friday Monserrate announced a 90-day agreement he had helped to win from the police department to assign a late-night force of 40 extra of?cers to a crime-ridden stretch of Roosevelt Avenue in his district, Corona, Queens. In that region of the city, which trails off into LaGuardia Airport and Flushing Bay, major felonies boomed even as the NYPD publicly boasted that crime had plummeted citywide.

Cop turned councilmember Hiram Monserrate
photo: Jay Muhlin
Cop turned councilmember Hiram Monserrate

Police statistics from the last week of December show that in one of the district's two precincts, the 110th, burglary shot up 30 percent in 2002, and rapes, while down 18 percent in 2002, had actually increased 24 percent from the 2000 rate. In the 115th, rapes were up 42 percent and murder an astonishing 75 percent from 2001. Corona needs more cops on a permanent basis, said Monserrate in an interview last week at his storefront district of?ce, set among the auto-body repair shops on one stretch of Northern Boulevard.

Twice in the past three months, "people tried to sell me narcotics when I walked down Roosevelt Avenue—me, a councilman," he says. "If I'm seeing it, I know other people are seeing it."

But those people are not reporting drug traf?cking or other major crimes, he says, because since September 11 many of his constituents have been afraid that cops will report them to the INS. "This district has one of the highest concentrations of immigrants in this city," he says. "Many people won't report crimes or testify even if they're witnesses." His South Asian constituents especially "have concerns about detention," he says, given the widely reported acceleration of INS enforcement against people from Muslim nations.

Residents have reported serious incidents to his of?ce—where the small staff re?ects the area's 70 percent Latino and 15 percent Asian makeup—rather than go to the police, he says. Those complaints have included "a couple cases of young girls raped by managers at work," "delivery guys being robbed," and domestic violence, according to Monserrate. "We have a huge domestic violence problem in this district," he said. "We have to deal with it on a community education level, but it's a police issue, too."

A spokesperson for the NYPD disputed that there was a problem with what Monserrate calls "unreported crime." Chief Michael Collins said police commanders in Queens told him, "They've never heard the complaint that people in that community have been afraid to report crimes because of their immigration status."

Collins showed the Voice written department rules citing a 1989 mayoral order that prohibited city employees from disclosing to federal authorities the status of an immigrant seeking city services. He said, "There is a misconception out there. We don't inquire on or report the possible [immigration] violations of victims or others seeking assistance."

But the 1989 order, originally issued by Mayor Edward Koch, was invalidated by the passage of federal welfare and immigration laws in 1996. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani fought the feds in court—concerned that frightened immigrants would fail to seek police, medical, and economic services and thereby jeopardize the health and safety of their neighbors as well—and lost.

Still, Collins insisted, the NYPD follows an internal policy of non-reporting.

Such policy is best made official through enforceable legislation, Monserrate says. Without it, he says, "you just can't give people reassurances that they can't get deported if they deal with the city." He stresses that the lack of privacy guarantees also keeps constituents other than immigrants from seeking vital services as well, including HIV patients, gay and lesbian hate-crime victims, and the disabled.

With the aid of such nonpro?t groups as the New York Immigration Coalition and Legal Aid Society, Monserrate crafted a measure to circumvent the court ruling against the Giuliani administration and introduced it in the City Council last month. The bill seeks to preserve the con?dentiality of a broad range of information that constituents might reveal in the course of routine contact with the city, except when there is suspicion of a crime. Supporters believe the proposal's careful wording and broader protections—applying not only to immigration status but also to a range of health and ?nancial information—will hold up.

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