Privacy Meets Public Safety

A 'Pragmatic Progressive' Emerges from Queens

It is an ambitious measure that, if it passes, could become the ?rst enforceable law in the country to block local participation in aspects of the post-September 11 federal information-gathering efforts that have alarmed civil liberties watchdogs.

In fact, Monserrate has been a vocal civil liberties activist over the years. He joined the Marines in 1984 and the NYPD in 1988, serving in the 111th police precinct in Queens. But he became a law enforcement pariah when he began to speak out against police brutality beginning with the 1994 choking of Anthony Baez, who died, by of?cer Francis Livoti. Over the years Monserrate made complaints against the police department for discrimination, harassment, and retaliatory discipline. In 1999 he won a $107,973 settlement in a harassment suit against the city and soon after took early retirement after 12 years on the force.

His outspokenness earned him a spot, which he no longer occupies, on the NYCLU board.

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

But while he speaks with pride about his past rabble-rousing, Monserrate has been more measured in his positions regarding police since taking of?ce in 2001. In his most forceful act, he brokered a meeting between Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly himself and constituent Altagracia Mayi—who has for years criticized police efforts in her son's unsolved 1991 murder, which she insists was a bias beating by white youths. But he declined to support a recent proposal requiring that police videotape the full duration of all interrogations. (Councilmember Bill Perkins had launched the idea following speculation that police had coerced the confessions that resulted in the now overturned convictions in the 1989 Central Park jogger rape case.) Monserrate says the measure is too broad and would create a major "administrative burden."

Monserrate's political care has paid off in the past. To great fanfare, he became the ?rst Latino of?cial ever elected in Queens, a distinction his staff is glad to reiterate all the time. Under the co-chairmanship of Monserrate and Helen Foster of the Bronx, the council's Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus has captured press attention and won a budget, if quite small, to hire permanent staff.

His privacy measure, which he calls the "Access Without Fear" bill, has drawn 30 co-sponsors to date, a voting majority of the 51-member legislature. His practical message—ensuring vital services to all New Yorkers—has won over union UNITE and the politically in?uential Central Labor Council. Monserrate is optimistic he will also convince health care workers union 1199, which has many immigrant members, and other groups with relevant memberships.

To win passage, however, the bill will need support from Mayor Bloomberg, whose office told the Voice in May that the administration would explore federally compliant options for reinstating the purposes of the 1989 executive order. But it has yet to announce any action, and a spokesperson said Monday that it was still too early in the legislative process for the mayor to weigh in on Monserrate's bill.

Monserrate admits he and Bloomberg have "different perspectives" on some issues, but he hopes his pragmatic arguments on privacy will sway the avowed pragmatist who heads City Hall.

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