New York

Unlike Mayor de Blasio, Council Speaker Focuses on NYPD in State of the City Address


New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito delivered her State of the City address on Tuesday, focusing substantially on policing and legal issues.

The speech played out as something of a counterweight to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s State of the City address, delivered last week, which virtually ignored the tensions over policing that have roiled the city since the summer.

Mark-Viverito, speaking at a community center at the Johnson Houses in East Harlem, began by echoing the dominant themes of de Blasio’s address, which focused on plans to provide more affordable housing across the city. But she then pivoted to reference the incident that caused a historic rift between the mayor and the NYPD, the December murders of officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos. In the wake of the attack, officers embarked on an unofficial but dramatic work slowdown, which amounted to reducing ticketing and arrests to a trickle. Mark-Viverito claimed the attack on the two officers as a broader assault on the city.

“We still mourn the loss of officers Liu and Ramos,” Mark-Viverito said. “[Police officers] are part of the fabric of our city, and essential to our success. So when someone commits an act of violence against our police officers, it is an act against all of us.”

Mark-Viverito, like de Blasio, noted that crime rates are at an all-time low in New York City, and attributed the drop to the city’s police force. But the last third of the address also acknowledged directly what de Blasio’s did not: the dissatisfaction with and lack of trust in the NYPD in some quarters. De Blasio has taken considerable criticism from progressive and police reform groups after his own address, which largely skirted the issue.

Viverito said she wanted to make sure that the system was working more fairly, and to address the fact that “far too many of our young people, mostly low-income black and Latino males, are locked up at Rikers,” the city jail at Rikers Island.

Foremost on her list of goals, she said, was to do whatever was possible to keep more offenders out of jail. Under current enforcement practices, minor crimes can easily end in arrest. Jumping a turnstile, she noted, can mean a trip to jail, and for those who can’t quickly come up with bail money, a jail stint might stretch for days or even weeks. “These are people that are accused of minor crimes,” Mark-Viverito said, “and are still innocent in the eyes of the law. This is not justice.”

She proposed creating a city bail fund that would provide money for release in the same way commercial bail bond companies do — by loaning funds and recovering them after a suspect makes a court appearance. But Mark-Viverito also wants to see fewer offenders in jail to begin with. Describing broad aims that lacked specifics, she said the council would look for areas where it “makes sense” to issue summonses or “desk appearance tickets” — essentially, an arrest without the handcuffs — in order to keep more people out of jail. “Jumping a turnstile at sixteen should not mark you for the rest of your life,” Mark-Viverito said.

Peppering her speech with Spanish phrases — the address was simultaneously broadcast in both Spanish and Chinese — Mark-Viverito called up the legacy of James Weldon Johnson, for whom the Johnson Houses are named.

“James Weldon Johnson did not write ‘lift a few voices,’ ” Mark-Viverito said. “He didn’t write ‘lift some voices.’ He wrote ‘lift every voice.’ Cada voz. And that is what we’re going to do.”

Just before she began speaking, Mark-Viverito, a prolific and enthusiastic Twitter user, snapped a picture of the crowd and duly tweeted it out before the real work began.

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