Can NYPD Reform Be Raised From the Dead?

What does it take for politicians to fear their constituents more than their bosses?


I keep a photo hanging over my desk. Taken by a friend, it shows me from behind, marching with others down a crowded Brooklyn street. I’m holding a sign that reads “Black Lives Matter” on one side (if memory serves, the other side read “Abolish the Police”). On my back is a grey Jansport. Inside were five or six pairs of goggles, bottled water, and medical gauze, standard protest supplies intended to help any victims of NYPD brutality. I know the date — June 2, 2020 — because that night I wound up trapped on the Manhattan Bridge with a few thousand other marchers when the NYPD surrounded us on both sides and wouldn’t let us leave.

I looked over at that photo last month as I watched the New York City Council’s long-awaited hearing on the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group, who were, in large part, the reason BLM marchers felt the need to carry around gauze and goggles and who helped kettle us on the bridge that night. The SRG — who could be easily identified at protests by their imposing, all-black uniforms, often punctuated by Army-inspired bucket helmets, Kevlar vests, and military-style weapons — had quickly developed a reputation for unrelenting force against First Amendment enthusiasts. As Attorney General Letitia James noted in her lawsuit against New York City stemming from NYPD violence during these protests, the SRG had a practice of using “kettling, mass arrests, and the deployment of bicycle squads” against peaceful protestors. SRG officers are authorized to use pepper spray to control crowds, have used police bikes to bludgeon marchers, and got called out by no less than Human Rights Watch for the mass, indiscriminate arrests they performed at one infamous protest in the Bronx, for which the city just agreed to pay out a few million.

The NYPD declined to show up to this hearing, which had already been rescheduled twice to accommodate them. Council members gave speeches — some very good, some awful. (Vickie Paladino confused the SRG with Neighborhood Safety Teams — and she’s a member of the committee that oversees both. To clarify, the NSTs are assigned to specific neighborhoods and are focused on preventing gun crime. The SRG is deployed to specific events or incidents and is mostly reactive, not proactive. Totally different things.) Experts and advocates, including the New York Civil Liberties Union and Latino Justice, gave concise testimony about the history of the SRG, which was formed in 2015 as a means to combat terrorism, with a $13 million budget, and soon began to conflate protests with terror, eventually growing to be a 700-officer-strong weapon wielded against any “public disorder,” with a budget that ballooned to over $100 million. A long line of New Yorkers with direct, terrible experience with SRG cops told their stories to the dwindling number of council members who stuck around till the end (I counted three remaining when the hearing adjourned).

I wanted to feel invigorated by the hearing, but instead, I felt impatient. It’s been almost three years since George Floyd was killed, and since I joined the mass protests demanding change. If you want to know how that’s gone, police killed more people in 2022 than in any year prior. The NYPD’s budget is bigger than it’s ever been, having grown from $10.2 billion to $10.8 billion in the past three years. I was sick of hearings and speeches and testimony. I wanted action.


“This is just kind of what happens when there are major calls for advancement of civil rights. There’s very often a backlash that precedes that.”


In truth, I had been feeling particularly demoralized since the brutal police murder of Tyre Nichols, back in January. The killing itself was bad enough — but those, sadly, we are used to. It was the public response that gutted me. Here was a caught-on-tape torture and homicide of an innocent Black man, the same situation we faced with George Floyd, and the video created an immediate broad sense of outrage across the country. And then led to … nothing. No new calls for reform. No promises, however empty. This time, we didn’t even get Democrats kneeling in kente cloth.

So I decided to find out, once and for all, if police reform in New York City was dead … and if so, who killed it? My editor at the Voice had recently reached out and asked if I had anything cooking. It was kismet. I started sending out emails. 

The Path to Reform

Here’s the clearest statement of what I wanted to know: What are the chances that a bill would be passed by the City Council which, in some meaningful way, reduces the NYPD’s footprint and/or holds them to account? I was not interested in, for example, the failed mental health “response teams” that were sold as revolutionary but amounted to little, with EMT and social workers available for less than a fifth of mental health crisis calls and the vast majority going, as usual, to the cops. Nor did I want to hear about more hearings, or what regular New Yorkers can do to support the cause. We’ve all done enough — now it’s their turn.

For some time, I had been hearing whispers that Adrienne Adams, speaker of the City Council and a staunch ally of Mayor Eric Adams (and no relation), was uninterested in police reform at any level. Of course, I didn’t know if this was true, but it checked out in terms of her reputation. Notoriously, Speaker Adams pulled discretionary funding from the districts of six progressive council members who voted against her budget last year. In fact, the five lonely Republicans on the council (including Paladino, the flashy Queens pol who sits on the Public Safety Committee and yet didn’t know what the SRG was) took back to their districts more discretionary cash than the six anti-budget progressives.

I also knew that the Public Safety Committee was led by Kamillah Hanks, a Staten Island Democrat whose own reputation was moderate and police-friendly. The fact that Hanks leads a committee at all would appear to be a strike against her reform credentials — every committee chair on the current council is a member who backed Adrienne Adams in her bid to be speaker, introducing a loyalty dynamic. Hanks had previously spoken positively about Eric Adams’s policing plans, and described herself as “really on the same page” with Adams when it came to public safety. And Hanks’s own chief of staff is a former NYPD and Staten Island district attorney employee.

But what I didn’t know was how the City Council really works internally, and how these power dynamics play out when it comes down to legislating. So I called Stephen Levin, a former council member and the guy who was the lead sponsor on possibly the only city-based post–George Floyd reform that had any heft: the 2021 banning of qualified immunity as a defense by NYPD officers in civil lawsuits, which means that at the very least, police officers can be named in lawsuits and will need to show up and participate in trials against them, even if the city ultimately pays any damage awards on their behalf.

“[The speaker’s office] is the council in a lot of ways,” Levin told me. “Their central staff are the ones writing the bills … the council staff is working for the speaker.” When I asked Levin about how he managed to push through the qualified immunity ban, he emphasized that then-speaker Corey Johnson was personally invested in the bill and shepherded it to the finish line.


Andrew Case, general counsel for Latino Justice, noted the “false narrative” that the current crime increase in NYC is linked to bail reform or “a cut in police funding that never actually happened,” and called out police unions, specifically, for pushing this narrative: “I think that there’s an active effort by [Police Benevolent Association] activities to raise the specter of danger or crime whenever any kind of police reform is brought up.”


Levin confirmed my suspicion that the council speaker had to be on board for any NYPD reform to pass. And other interested parties detailed the importance of targeting, specifically, council leadership to get any forward momentum. I spoke with Isabelle Leyva, the NYCLU senior organizer, who is leading the anti-SRG campaign, about the NYCLU’s efforts to even get a hearing. “It ended up being more difficult than we anticipated,” she told me.  

In January 2022, the NYCLU began a pressure campaign — specifically targeted at the Public Safety Committee — with one demand: hold a hearing on the Strategic Response Group. They briefed individual council members, brought in constituents to tell their stories, canvassed, held rallies, made calls, held town halls, and spoke to community boards. Critically, Leyva understood the power dynamics of the council, and asked committee members to advocate directly to their chair, Kamillah Hanks, “because Chair Hanks obviously had to be the one to call for the hearing.” Leyva urged constituents to make this direct request to their council members as well, putting a tremendous amount of pressure on members not just to speak out but to speak up to their own leadership.

Both Levin and Leyva emphasized the difficult political dynamics currently at work when it comes to police reform. Levin expressed frustration to me that this issue seemed to be seriously discussed only in the wake of brutal videos of Black citizens murdered by police officers. Taking a historic view, Leyva noted, “This is just kind of what happens when there are major calls for advancement of civil rights. There’s very often a backlash that precedes that.” Leyva and Levin both used the word “fearmongering” to describe the efforts to scare the public into believing that any police reform — even reform that has nothing to do with street crime, such as banning the SRG or increasing officer discipline — would mean less safety, more crime. Andrew Case, general counsel for Latino Justice, who also testified at the SRG hearing, noted the “false narrative” that the current crime increase in NYC is linked to bail reform or “a cut in police funding that never actually happened,” and called out police unions, specifically, for pushing this narrative: “I think that there’s an active effort by [Police Benevolent Association] activities to raise the specter of danger or crime whenever any kind of police reform is brought up.”

I understood these dynamics — indeed, I’ve written extensively about Eric Adams’s concentrated push to strike terror in the hearts of every New Yorker. But did this fearmongering infect even the leadership of the City Council? Were they unwilling to push back? Had they too given in to the climate of paranoia?

“Concentrated Power”

Fed-up activists are often ready to dish, and so was Elias Holtz, a member of the Freedom Socialist Party and the steering committee of the Campaign for an Elected Civilian Review Board, which has been pushing the City Council to pass the Community Power Act (CPA). The CPA would replace the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which currently makes recommendations to the police commissioner concerning police discipline, with an elected board that has final authority to punish cops who commit misconduct. (Full disclosure — your author helped draft the text of the CPA, which has yet to receive a hearing in the City Council.) Holtz was blunt: “We’ve been working for over six years on this campaign. And every step of the way, our bill has been thwarted by the Democratic Party machine.”


The $270-million-plus the city has paid out for NYPD lawsuits over the past three years would be enough to reverse all the proposed Eric Adams cuts to CUNY and to public libraries.


But what about the speaker?, I wanted to know. Give me specifics. Holtz obliged: “Council members off the record have told me many times that it’s all up to the speaker, they can either make or break a bill. They can push something to the head of the line or kill it in the drafting phase, or the committee never gives it a hearing.” Holtz told me that no fewer than three council members had blamed the CPA’s lack of action on either Adrienne Adams or on prior speaker Corey Johnson, who, despite his investment in reforming qualified immunity, was disinterested in moving forward on police discipline.

I asked Holtz if the Campaign had met with Speaker Adams. He told me they had, and that she was “very cool on any police reform, and she wasn’t interested in signing on.” Like Levin, Holtz emphasized that the people who draft the bills work directly for the speaker’s office, not for committees or individual council members. “What we have with the speaker is a second executive, who has concentrated power.”

This lined up nearly exactly with what Levin told me, and what Leyva seemed to know to be true — the speaker calls the shots. But I wanted a current council member to confirm this. I knew this would be a heavy lift: Why would a council member badmouth, in public, the person who could make or break their legislative career? But I had to try.

I managed to reach two council members. I asked Tiffany Caban, prominent leftist and outspoken Defund advocate, what the holdup was on police reform, whether we should expect to see something passed anytime soon, and whether the speaker was to blame. She wouldn’t bite, but did provide a statement telling me that the mayor was “continu[ing] to throw police at every problem facing our city and push budget cuts for housing, education, and public health agencies.” She’s right, of course, but that isn’t exactly breaking news.

Council member Carmen De La Rosa, who gave an eloquent speech about SRG abuses at the hearing, did go on the record. Taking a break from the more recent budget hearing, which the NYPD actually did attend (they show up when their dough is on the line), De La Rosa was quick to point out that the $270-million-plus the city has paid out for NYPD lawsuits over the past three years would be enough to reverse all the cuts to CUNY and to public libraries that Mayor Adams has proposed. When I asked about the next steps for reining in the NYPD, De La Rosa told me it would all have to be done through the budget, where, for example, NYPD overtime spending could be cut or capped. She was also on board with discipline reform, and wondered “why there’s this need to have the commissioner come in and say, well, in this case, I’m going to overturn [CCRB findings], or punishment is going to be different.”


“Everybody wants to please the speaker. She’s got immense power.”


But when I pushed on the obstacles to reform, and specifically asked about the speaker, as with Caban, De La Rosa wouldn’t give up the goods. She even defended Eric Adams, to an extent, telling me that the mayor was someone who “did take on some reform-minded changes” as an NYPD officer.

Okay, so members weren’t willing to go against their speaker, which left me in something of a quandary. I still didn’t know what the odds were that NYPD reform could actually move forward — and I still didn’t really know who was blocking it.

“Absolutely Not Going to Happen”

Ultimately,  two current council staffers agreed to speak to me on background. Without compromising their identities, both are well-placed enough to understand the political dynamics of the current City Council. The first staffer, even on background, would only obliquely talk about the speaker. When I asked about Adrienne Adams, they referred me to her own statement on her budget priorities, which did not mention shrinking the NYPD. Point taken. But the second staffer was more willing to talk. “The speaker has immense power in the council … and almost nobody else has much power at all,” they told me, confirming everything Levin and Holtz had said. The speaker, explained my source, approves any committee decisions to hold hearings on bills — the final decision isn’t in the hands of the committee chairs. Even after a bill gets voted out of committee, the speaker decides whether to bring it to a full vote. “Everybody wants to please the speaker. She’s got immense power.”

This staffer told me it was their belief that Speaker Adams would not bring up any bills for a vote that the mayor doesn’t already approve of, or that enjoys a veto-proof majority in the City Council (which would mean two-thirds of the council’s 51 members). I went for it: What’s the deal with police reform? “[Any substantive change to the NYPD] is absolutely not going to happen. There’s absolutely no appetite for that in City Hall, apart from a very small, maybe 10 or fewer, left council members.” We went down the line, one by one: “I don’t think they’re gonna disband the SRG … I highly doubt there will be any real overtime reform….” The Community Power Act? “I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”

My source didn’t mention only Adrienne Adams, though. “Chair Hanks has offered no evidence that she has any appetite for considering measures that the NYPD brass and police unions would oppose.” Damn.

Obviously, my source, however well-placed, isn’t omniscient. They don’t know what’s happening in Speaker Adams’s head. But after everything I had already heard, and everything I knew about Adams and Hanks, I was inclined to believe them.

So is police reform dead in New York? A political cause isn’t a corporeal body — we can’t take its pulse and call the time. I’d like to believe there’s still some life in it somewhere. Certainly, activists like Leyva, Case, and Holtz aren’t about to let up. And I do believe that politicians, at the end of the day, are looking for the path of least resistance. We just need to make them fear their constituents more than their bosses — no small task, but not impossible. 

Just this month, Speaker Adams called an NYPD judge’s decision to dismiss a disciplinary charge against the officers who killed Kawaski Trawick in his own kitchen “an outrageous subversion of civilian oversight for police misconduct.”  City Comptroller Brad Lander called out the NYPD’s “total disregard for their overtime budget,” and pointedly noted that teachers have no such overtime. Maybe that’s a good sign — maybe it’s more bullshit. But as Levin told me as we were ending our conversation: “Where there’s a will there’s a way…. It goes back to the question of having the political will to do it.” And if Adrienne Adams and Kamillah Hanks don’t have the will, well, City Council elections are right around the corner.  

John Teufel is an attorney and freelance writer. His work has been featured in StreetsBlogThe IndypendentCity & State NY, City Limits, and other publications. He successfully sued the city of New York over police disciplinary records, resulting in those records being made public for the first time. He is on Twitter at @JohnTeufelNYC.

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