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Police Commissioner Ray Kelly didn’t attend Wednesday’s City Council hearing to discuss a raft of bills aimed at reining his department. In fact, no one from the NYPD showed up to the meeting.
The only person the Bloomberg administration did send to testify on the bills was mayoral counsel Michael Best, who, facing a room of angry city councilors alone, parried their questions and challenges as best he could.
Best had been sent to the council with an unpopular message: that in the administration’s opinion, the four bills under consideration are illegal and unnecessary.
“The proposed bills are all attempts to regulate the powers and duties of police officers when they are engaged in law-enforcement activity,” Best said. “But as a statutory matter, these issues are governed entirely by state law…. it leaves no room for local legislation in this area.”
That argument didn’t go over well with the Council. Speaker Christine Quinn, a candidate for mayor who has until now been cautious in taking a position on police reform, was forceful in dismissing Best’s argument, pointing out that Bloomberg himself signed legislation banning racial profiling in 2004.
“Isn’t that an area where the state already occupies the field?” Quinn asked. “How could the mayor have signed that racial profiling bill… and not sign this?”
Councilman Brad Lander reeled off a list of other municipal codes across the state that regulate police conduct, including Rensselaer, Westchester County, Buffalo, Jamestown, Norwich, Jervis.
“How is it that all these municipalities in New York state have legislated on the terrain that you say is covered by NY state criminal procedure law?” Lander asked.
Best responded that he was unfamiliar with those laws, and could not answer.
Councilman Robert Jackson angrily challenged Best over his defense of stop-and-frisk policies. “What I’m saying to you is this,” Jackson said, his voice rising to a shout: “It’s not working! And it needs to be totally reformed.”
Best argued that
“They can not show up as much as they want,” Williams said. “We’re not quitting.”
“We have a 35,000-person police force,” Best said. “Will people make mistakes? Sure, but it’s not policy.”
Council member Deborah Rose asked Best whether there was any correlation between the NYPD’s use of arrest quotas — thoroughly documented in the Voice‘s NYPD Tapes reports — and the department’s rate of stop-and-frisks.
“The NYPD does not set quotas, counselor,” Best answered. “I think we disagree about that.”
Council member Tish James strongly disputed Best’s defense of stop-and-frisk policies as a critical component of the city’s policing strategy.
“There is no objective research that has ever proven the effectiveness of New York’s stop-and-frisk program in the reduction of crime,” James said, and quoted to Best Kelly’s own remarks on the policy from 2000:
”A large reservoir of good will was under construction when I left the Police Department in 1994,” Mr. Kelly said. ”It was called community policing. But it was quickly abandoned for tough-sounding rhetoric and dubious stop-and-frisk tactics that sowed new seeds of community mistrust.”
After more than two hours of back and forth, half a dozen city councilors had yet to get their turn with Best, but he said he had to go, and the questioning came to an end.
In a recess after he left, Williams said he was frustrated by what he considers the administration’s refusal to cooperate with the City Council on this issue.
“I was surprised at how much they refused to engage on the merits,” Williams said. “It’s irresponsible and disrespectful to the whole city not to send someone who can actually talk about the bills on their merits.”
Still, Williams said, he’s optimistic that the movement for greater oversight of the NYPD is gaining momentum, and pointed to active participation of Speaker Quinn.
“This is a huge step in the process,” he said. “I’m very her thankful for the attention she’s giving this.”
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, was also heartened by what she saw in the hearing.
“The City Council is really focused on this now,” she said. “Their constituents are talking about it. For a long time, the city got by on fear-mongering, convincing people that hyper-oppressive stop-and-frisk intimidation of entire communities was necessary for public safety. But now, with four class action suts and policy studies by the NYCLU and John Jay and civic leaders coming forward to talk about this abusive policing, the tide is turning.”