How New York City’s ‘Progressives’ Killed a Critical Criminal Justice Reform

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. (left) with former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. (left) with former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Late on New Year’s Eve, in addition to thumbing his nose at legislation that would have provided the poor with essential legal representation, Governor Andrew Cuomo snubbed virtually every criminal justice advocacy group in the state when he vetoed a badly needed reform to New York’s deeply discriminatory "gravity knife" law.

The bill would have prevented at least 5,000 unnecessary arrests per year, according to the Legal Aid Society [LAS], 86 percent of them involving people of color. It passed the legislature with overwhelming bipartisan support in June, and had since earned endorsements from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Times editorial board, and virtually every other organization in the state that cares about protecting defendants’ rights.

The result wasn’t much of a surprise. Proponents had been bracing for a veto for several weeks now. And the fight isn’t over, the measure’s supporters say. Manhattan Democrat Dan Quart — who has sponsored knife reform bills three times now and finally pushed it through the legislature this year — says he’ll reintroduce it in the upcoming session. Attacks on the gravity knife statute continue on other fronts, too, with an ongoing federal lawsuit challenging its constitutionality and a class action suit in the works as well.

But it’s a good time to note that a bill vetoed by an ostensibly progressive governor was actually done in long ago, by two other of New York’s most prominent proponents of criminal justice reform: Mayor Bill de Blasio and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance.

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"I think it’s fair to say without Cy Vance’s involvement my legislation would have been signed," Quart told the Voice.

Cuomo may have driven the final nail in the coffin, but de Blasio and Vance have been frantically digging its grave for the better part of a year. Through a steady campaign of fearmongering and innuendo — as well as a few outright falsehoods — the two have worked in lockstep with the NYPD to prevent reasonable reforms that should have been an easy sell for any progressive leader. And Cuomo went along with the snow job.

We’ve been writing about the NYPD’s abuse of the gravity knife law since 2014, when our investigation revealed an estimated 60,000 dubious prosecutions over a decade. The law in question was originally passed in 1958, aimed at a doo-wop era weapon that’s virtually extinct on the modern market; true "gravity knives" closely resembled large switchblades, and were primarily designed as military weapons.

But because of poor wording, the existing gravity knife statute can be read, torturously, to criminalize any knife that can be opened with the flick of a wrist. As the stop-and-frisk program ramped up in the early Aughts, police, under pressure to make arrests, discovered that virtually any pocket knife can be opened with a jerk of the arm if the officer uses enough muscle, even if it was never designed to operate that way. In the decade since, cops on the beat have used the statute to collar construction workers, plumbers, and thousands of others, and prosecutions under the law have soared.

The result today is that tens of thousands of people have been arrested — some serving up to seven years in prison — for simple possession of common folding knives, the kind sold at hardware stores all over the city. The vast majority of defendants are black and Latino New Yorkers who had no idea the knife they bought at Home Depot or Ace Hardware is a potential felony. Law enforcement has still made no real effort to go after retailers, and the knives remain widely available.

Since the reform legislation was first introduced in 2013, unsuccessfully, Vance has lobbied behind the scenes to keep it from seeing the light of day, sources in the legislature told the Voice. And Cuomo’s veto statement has Vance’s fingerprints all over it; in it, he acknowledges that the current state of the law is "absurd," but says Quart’s legislation, as written, was too complicated, and would have created more confusion for officers. He also invokes the requisite scary numbers about knife crimes in New York City — 4,000 in 2015 — a favorite of both de Blasio and Vance. Cuomo does not, and cannot, say that those crimes involved "gravity knives," because the NYPD has repeatedly refused to release that data, if they’re even tracking it. An analysis by LAS found that of all their clients arrested under the law, less than 5 percent were suspected of intent to use a knife unlawfully. The other 95 percent simply had a folding knife in their pocket.

Tools like Husky utility knife are routinely sold in city stores, yet can land their owners in jail.
Tools like Husky utility knife are routinely sold in city stores, yet can land their owners in jail.

And for two years, Vance was successful in quietly scuttling the reform. In 2014 and 2015, a bill sailed through the Democratically controlled assembly, but died without a vote in the GOP-led senate. This year, with additional support from right-wing groups like Knife Rights — a sort of NRA for knives — and from the NRA itself, it finally passed both houses in June, nearly unanimously.

June was also when De Blasio sent a memo urging lawmakers to reject the bill, his first direct foray into the lobbying effort. Opposition ramped up over the summer, with a Daily News op-ed from former NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton, urging a veto. A letter to Cuomo from de Blasio’s office — in which the mayor aligned himself with such anti-reform forces as Patrick Lynch of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association — followed in October.

Since then, according to Quart, Vance has taken his case to Cuomo himself, "contact[ing] the governor’s office repeatedly and the governor directly to lobby for the veto of this legislation."

Despite his veto, Cuomo’s statement says he’d support a different approach to fixing the law, like allowing an "affirmative defense" for people who use knives at their jobs. In other words, if a defendant could prove they use their knife for work, they could beat the rap.

It’s the same empty offer of compromise that Vance offered up to Quart and other reform proponents, and amounts to little more than a poison pill. While it may sound reasonable at first blush, a work defense would have to be raised in court, and only a tiny fraction of gravity knife cases — or any other criminal prosecutions, for that matter — ever make it that far. Most defendants are pressured into plea deals. And besides, an arrest is more than enough to derail a person’s life.

"Cy Vance is wholly unserious about moving this legislation forward," Quart says of the alternatives offered. Vance prosecutes gravity knife cases at thirteen times the rate of any other D.A in the five boroughs, and has made a fight against "illegal knives" something of a personal crusade. His office is also being sued in federal court over their enforcement of the statute. So you’ll forgive Quart for being a little skeptical.

"His history of prosecutions make his suggestion that he 

wants to be part of the solution of reforming our knife laws hard to take seriously," Quart says. So he’s not going to take the bait. "We are planning to reintroduce the same bill, word for word, and will again seek its passage in this legislative session." If that doesn’t work, he’s prepared to go further.

"We’ll explore all options, whether with legislation in this next legislative session, or by seeking the federal courts’ involvement, in exploring whether Cy Vance’s practices are discriminatory in nature."

De Blasio released a congratulatory statement after Cuomo’s veto was announced. He, too, made passing reference to the notion of fairness, saying "it is incumbent upon us to discuss with the various stakeholders how best to ensure fair treatment for New Yorkers who do not intend to perpetrate an illegal act, but rather carry tools to and from work."

Those "various stakeholders" presumably include the mayor of the only city where gravity knife arrests occur in any significant number. But until he and his police department finds a way to "ensure fair treatment" for New Yorkers, arrests will continue. There will be a new one about every two hours.


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