Privacy Meets Public Safety


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.

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.

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.

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.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting the Village Voice and our advertisers.