Rights Revival?


In a year when Mayor Bloomberg has proposed cutting school funding by $350 million, police department funding by more than $100 million, and fire department funding by more than $50 million, one small agency has escaped budget cuts altogether: the Human Rights Commission. In a strong sign of support for an agency virtually shut down in the Giuliani era, Bloomberg seems to be following through on his inauguration-day pledge to “fight bigotry in any form, wherever it may happen” by defending the beleaguered HRC.

The Giuliani cuts reduced the size of the enforcement staff by 83 percent, which left more staff focused on community relations than on law enforcement. City funds that supported law enforcement were cut just as drastically, while outside grants designated for community relations remained stable.

In a dramatic departure from his predecessor’s strategy, Bloomberg has proposed a modest budget increase in the HRC’s law enforcement budget that will allow the HRC to hire six new, and desperately needed, attorneys, raising the lawyer pool to 21. Bill de Blasio, chair of the General Welfare Committee that oversees the HRC, applauds Bloomberg’s support and says, “If ever there was a case for making up for the mistakes of others, this has to be it.”

Even so, the commission’s budget is tiny—$7.8 million, only one hundredth of 1 percent of the city’s budget. Yet Patricia Gatling, the new HRC commissioner, says that “our immediate needs have been met,” and vows that under her control, the long-dormant commission will become an effective law enforcement agency.

Gatling, an outspoken African American who grew up in segregated Mississippi during the Civil Rights era, cited leaders like Thurgood Marshall and Medgar Evers as her inspirations. Gatling previously worked in the Brooklyn D.A.’s office as First Assistant D.A., where she led the Major Narcotics Investigation Bureau. Bloomberg’s appointment of the seasoned prosecutor shows that from now on the agency will be focusing on law enforcement rather than mediation or community relations. Gatling has pledged to prosecute discriminators to the fullest extent of the law.

“She can be frightening to people who don’t want to do the right thing,” said Reverend Lonnie McLeod, a Harlem pastor who worked with her on a project called ComALERT that coordinated the efforts of community-service providers. Congressman Ed Towns said through a spokesperson that Gatling is “compassionate, has a lot of integrity, and will bring a fresh approach.”

Gatling’s predecessor at HRC during the Giuliani years, Marta Varela, had a background in finance and politics (including heading fundraising campaigns for Giuliani and Bush Sr.) and none of the prosecutorial experience that Gatling brings to the commission.

Under Giuliani and Varela, the HRC did little to deter discrimination. Cases languished for years, often until witnesses and plaintiffs could no longer be located. When cases did settle, the average compensation was a mere $2000—hardly the type of punishment that discouraged discriminators or made headlines. The commission didn’t initiate its own investigations and took less than half of 1 percent of complaints to trial in the fiscal years between 1998 and 2001.

“The commission will be focusing on initiating investigations and enforcing our human rights law,” Gatling told the City Council in a March hearing. “Make no mistake about it—the commission is a law enforcement agency.” Revisions made in New York City human rights laws in 1991 have made them stronger than both New York State and federal laws and have widened the scope to protect virtually all public interactions and public services from discrimination. Under Giuliani, however, the HRC left large portions of the law unenforced. Unlike federal and state law, city law holds individuals liable for their discriminatory acts, and companies are strictly liable for the acts of their managers and supervisors.

Gatling has spent her first months in office attacking the 4500-complaint backlog. Gatling calls the situation “unacceptable,” and hopes to have sifted through the entire waiting list by the end of summer. She has set the goal of a one-year limit between the initiation of a complaint and its resolution. Critics commend Gatling’s energy, but worry that the limit is unrealistic and even dangerous.

“The commission has to be careful,” says Craig Gurian, former legal director and chief counsel of HRC’s law enforcement bureau, and primary author of a scathing report from the Bar Association of the City of New York enumerating HRC’s failings during the Giuliani administration. Once the HRC becomes more active and aggressive, Gurian argues, the cases will get more complex, investigations more difficult, and the one-year limit is unlikely to be enough time for to take a legitimate complaint from filing to resolution.

Hiring six new lawyers is a step in the right direction, says Gurian, who was also principal author of the revised 1991 city human rights law, but he worries that an estimated 50 cases per lawyer is too much.

In order to adequately fight housing and employment discrimination, Gatling gave testimony that the commission must have investigators out on the street conducting bias tests. Standard tests include sending black and white undercover investigators with identical socioeconomic backgrounds to real estate offices, for example, to see if they are treated equally.

Tests during the Giuliani administration were largely unproductive, as those who remember the 1995 arson in Harlem of Jewish-owned Freddy’s Fashion Mart can attest. “We were trying to assess the temper of the protesters, and we did find that there were anti-Semitic comments,” Varela said at the time, but investigators who had been dispatched to the scene days before were still unable to do anything to ease the tension or notify authorities of the situation.

Before the City Council, Gatling cited daily testing as a goal, but has no timetable as to when the process will begin. Systemic or individual cases of discrimination will be investigated and possibly tried, with the defendants facing stiff penalties, the likes of which were unheard of in previous administrations. If the agency is able to prove discrimination, fines of up to $100,000 can be imposed, money that goes directly to the city.

Critics wholeheartedly agree with Gatling’s call for daily testing, but argue that it is not in itself the solution to the city’s problems. “Take the analogy of having police on the street,” says Gurian. “It’s not as if having one officer on the street is enough; it’s just that not even having one is ridiculous. Daily testing is the starting line, not the finish line.”

Gatling promises to keep the city’s fiscal crisis in mind as the commission investigates discrimination, but she was noncommittal in front of City Council about the agency’s revenue generating potential. She sees the HRC as playing an important, but indirect, role in strengthening the city. “Creating and maintaining an open city in terms of housing, lending, employment, and public accommodations is a critical part of attracting businesses and individuals to New York City and keeping them here,” she told the council.