NYPD Reform Bills Magically Disappear: 'It Feels Like the Police Department Has Veto Power'

Brooklyn City Council Member Jumaane Williams at a press conference calling for the passage of the Right to Know Act.
Brooklyn City Council Member Jumaane Williams at a press conference calling for the passage of the Right to Know Act.
Jon Campbell / Village Voice

A set of modest police reforms that the City Council was supposed to vote on has been scrapped by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who instead quietly made a deal with the NYPD that allows the department to police themselves.

Supporters of the reforms — known collectively as the Right to Know Act — gathered outside City Hall today to protest what they called an undemocratic "backroom deal."

"This act is supported by a majority of city council members," said Anthonine Pierre with Communities United for Police Reform, one of the organizations involved in pushing the reforms. "And what’s happening today is that we have our speaker working against the city council, working with Police Commissioner Bratton to make a weaker version" of the reforms.

Despite the overwhelming support the rest of the council has expressed for Right to Know, Mark-Viverito has refused to let the reform package come up for a vote since its introduction last year. While her bargain incorporates many of the principles the legislation was set to enshrine — cops will now have to get a more formal statement of consent before performing searches, and will be required to hand out business cards during many interactions — the changes will only be added to the department's "patrol guide," essentially a rule book for officers, rather than codified in law.

That’s not good enough, said Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams, who supports the measures and introduced some parts of the package in 2012.

"The policies of the patrol guide have not saved us before," Williams said. "The policies in the patrol guide are routinely ignored with impunity. They do not have the force of law."

As Tina Luongo of the Legal Aid Society points out, the guide is called a guide "for a reason." The deal struck by Mark-Viverito amounts to self-regulation.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said while she's sympathetic to the need for compromise in government, she thought the episode demonstrated in troubling ways just where the balance of power resides in New York City.

"There comes a point when it feels like the police department has veto power," Lieberman told the Voice, "instead of being subject to the policies and priorities of a progressive agenda."

According to the New York Times, Mark-Viverito announced her deal last week in a closed-door session, on a day when the primary sponsors of the legislation – Ritchie Torres and Antonio Reynoso — were conveniently out of town. What followed was an hour’s worth of bickering, "as some objected, others fumed, and few spoke in favor." Torres told Politico that he hadn’t agreed to the compromise, and that there were significant gaps between the substance of the agreement struck by Mark-Viverito and the legislation as written.

"The intention of the proposal is laudable, but the substance of it is a far cry from the Right to Know Act," Torres told the Daily News.

Williams said it seemed like the deal was a way to avoid a contentious fight between the mayor and council.

"It avoids a difficult set of legislation, while saying that we’ve done something," Williams told the Voice.

Even as introduced, the reforms were modest. Police are already required to offer up their names and badge numbers when asked, and current department guidelines — not to mention the Fourth Amendment — already demand consent for searches when officers don’t have probable cause to perform one.

But advocates say Mark-Viverito's compromise is even more tepid. While the bills as written require police to identify themselves and explain a person's rights in virtually every police encounter, the deal struck by Mark-Viverito would reportedly only apply in situations when a formal detention has occurred. But hundreds of thousands of police encounters never rise to the level of a formal stop. And in many cases, it's the low-level hassling that cases the most tension between police and communities of color.

When the full slate of bills was first introduced last year, Bratton appeared before the city council to oppose all nine measures, objecting to everything from use of force reports to the identification requirements currently at issue.

Bratton instead argued that concerns about police behavior were best addressed internally, by the department itself, and all but told the council to mind its own business, calling their efforts "unprecedented intrusions into the operational management of the Police Department."

Now it seems Bratton has gotten his way, with helpful cover from the mayor, in a pattern that’s played out since he was elected in 2013; while he ran largely on a platform of police reform, de Blasio has consistently disappointed advocates by walking in lockstep with his commissioner on most issues since.

Mark-Viverito says she sees the package as a significant step forward.

"I believe that this is the right approach," she told NY1. "I believe we are getting reforms done. There are changes administratively and in procedures and operations that the NYPD will be implementing immediately." A spokesperson in the speaker's office told the Voice the measure would be phased in over the next six to nine months. The spokesperson also said Mark-Viverito "has not ruled out future legislative action"

At today's rally, Williams seemed to take a shot at Mark-Viverito and the mayor for betraying the principles that earned them their jobs to begin with.

"Almost this entire city government was elected precisely because of police and police reform," Williams continued. "Don’t get it twisted up. When people went into that voting booth they were thinking about police and police reform."

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