It’s remarkable how being under oath can simplify things.
For months, the de Blasio administration has noisily objected to any suggestion that its redoubled commitment to the rhetoric of the “sanctuary city” and the protection of undocumented New Yorkers from useless destructive deportation is in any way at odds with its equally enthusiastic commitment to a regime of “Broken Windows” policing that arrests thousands of New Yorkers for low-level misdemeanors, thereby putting them at risk of deportation.
Immigrants, their lawyers, and journalists have repeatedly pointed out that since, under Trump, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is empowered to deport immigrants — even those who are here legally — if they have been so much as arrested, the city’s commitment to a regime of heavy enforcement of minor infractions like hopping a subway turnstile or carrying a small amount of marijuana can — and indeed has — put New Yorkers on the radar of the federal deportation machine. But the mayor has refused to reconsider his policing priorities, and his police department has denied the ascendant policing philosophy puts anyone at risk.
Last month, Larry Byrne, the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters, told reporters “Nobody is getting deported for a minor offense.” J. Peter Donald, the Department’s Assistant Commissioner for Communication and Public Information, put an even finer point on it on Twitter: “Turnstile jumping won’t get you deported, despite what advocates claim.”
Yesterday, however, the tune changed somewhat, as Police Commissioner O’Neill found himself testifying under oath before City Council’s Public Safety Committee as they considered the NYPD’s budget for the coming year. City Councilmember Rory Lancman took the opportunity to pin the administration
“Let me ask you specifically about something that came up in the last two months, particularly with the election of Donald Trump and his executive orders and his focus on immigrants,” Lancman asked O’Neill. “Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters Larry Byrne was quoted as saying ‘Nobody is getting deported for jumping a turnstile.’ Now approximately 30,000 people last year were arrested and charged with the penal law misdemeanor of theft of services, jumping a turnstile. Now, you’re the commissioner, you set the policy for the Department. Do you understand that getting convicted for penal law misdemeanor theft of services can make someone subject to deportation, even a legal immigrant?”
On first pass, O’Neill didn’t answer the question. “If you are getting arrested for theft of services,” he said, “that means you’ve done it — there are a number of circumstances, but one of them is you’ve done it numerous times.”
But Lancman wasn’t to be put off. Leaving aside the more complicated questions of when civil and criminal penalties are appropriate, he asked, “Can we just have a basic understanding that when someone is charged with a misdemeanor, theft of services in particular, that that can lead to deportation?”
O’Neill, under oath, gave a short and simple answer that contrasted notably both with his deputies’ public statements and the evasiveness of the Mayor’s office: “Yes.”
Lancman carried on. Given that Trump seems eager to ramp up deportations, he asked, and given that under a compromise with City Council last year, the NYPD is committed to expanding the array of civil alternatives to criminal penalties by June, “Is there any sense of urgency about changing the departments policies about who gets the criminal charge and who gets the civil summons when it comes to fare evasion, and about expediting and getting these guidelines out before the June deadline so that we can ensure that nobody is put through the criminal justice system who shouldn’t be, and we can keep them out of Trump’s ICE hands.”
O’Neill’s response suggested that he was not on the same page as Lancman. Early in his career, he was a transit officer, he told the councilmember, and he saw first-hand how heavy fare-evasion enforcement in the early 90s drove subway crimes down to their present levels. “I don’t know if you’re suggesting we don’t do fare evasion enforcement, because I don’t know if that would work.”