New Yorkers are denied the “right to know”

July 20, 2016

Julian Guerrero reports on a craven compromise by New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito that will entrust the NYPD to police itself.

IN DECEMBER 2014, New York City exploded in protest when NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo wasn't indicted for strangling to death Eric Garner despite clear video evidence, and the city's liberal leaders were eager to express their sympathy.

Mayor Bill de Blasio offered tacit support to demonstrators and spoke about his fears of losing his African American son to a police stop gone wrong. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito showed up to work wearing a T-shirt bearing Garner's last words "I can't breathe."

A year and a half later, de Blasio and Mark-Viverito, both Democrats, have teamed up to stifle a police accountability bill that many critics of the NYPD believed was too watered-down to begin with.

EARLIER THIS month, Mark-Viverito, with de Blasio's support, used her power as Speaker to withhold the Right to Know Act from being put to a vote by the entire City Council, where it had the support of a majority of members and was widely expected to pass.

The Right to Know Act is a package of bills that, among other things, would require cops to identify themselves to whoever they stop, justify the reasons for the stop, and ask for consent before searching civilians.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks to reporters
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks to reporters

Communities United for Police Reform (CPR), a coalition of non-profit organizations, has worked for years with the families of Garner and Ramarley Graham, an 18-year-old Black teenager murdered by the NYPD in 2012, to win police reform bills such as the Right to Know Act and other similar transparency-oriented police accountability bills.

Mark-Viverito derailed a vote on the Right to Know Act after a compromise was struck with de Blasio and his police Commissioner Bill Bratton. The compromise would allow the NYPD to internally implement these accountability and transparency measures themselves, rather than have them be mandated on the department by the force of law.

City leaders claimed that it doesn't matter whether the changes in police practice come from inside the NYPD or outside via legislation. But if it truly didn't matter, Bratton wouldn't have fought the bill. As it stands, the NYPD can backpedal on any internal policies that aren't imposed through legislation.

In a statement released from CPR, Ramarley Graham's mother Constance Malcolm denounced the hypocrisy of Mark-Viverito's rotten deal:

The NYPD busted into my home without a warrant and shot and killed my son, with a range of misconduct committed by over 12 officers that probably violated nearly every part of the NYPD Patrol Guide.

Four years later, none of the officers have been held accountable or disciplined in any real way by this mayor and commissioner. Speaker Mark-Viverito wants us to believe that the routine abuses in everyday interactions are somehow now going to end because of a conversation with Bratton and some additional language in a Patrol Guide that's already continually violated.

The compromise also doesn't cover all the types of interactions in which the Right to Know Act required cops to identify themselves and provide justification for their stop to civilians. The deal also frees the NYPD from the bill's intention to obligate police to inform civilians of the need for their consent before searching them.

So at a time when Black Lives Matter mobilizations are resurgent across the country in response to continued police murders caught on video, NYPD officers know they can continue their daily violence, and the city's liberal political establishment will do its best to protect them from greater public scrutiny.

Indeed, just days before the police murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile galvanized national protests, off-duty Brooklyn cop Wayne Isaacs shot and killed Delrawn Small--yet Isaacs wasn't arrested, even though surveillance video showed his alibi of self-defense to be a lie.

City Council members who sponsored the Right to Know Act, such as Jumane Williams and Ritchie Torres, have vowed to challenge Mark-Viverito's decision But the combined forces of the mayor and Council Speaker, and their backers in the NYPD and business community, make this a remote possibility.

IN THE days leading up to the compromise, many police reform advocates had been critical of the Right to Know Act for being too focused on getting the NYPD to report on its patrol activities, rather than changing the immediate behavior of the NYPD when interacting with the public.

As Ileana Mendez-Penate, director of programs for the the Audre Lorde Project, a nonprofit advocacy group for LGBTQ people of color, told Gothamist:

Our general concern about bills that emphasize data collection, is that they don't result in changes in how officers are acting on the streets. They often have the impact of increasing funding for training, and that actually pours more money into the police. What we're looking for is less police on the street.

Mendez-Penate hits on a key point. Every response of de Blasio and Mark-Viverito to demands for police accountability seems to involve more police, from the addition of 1,300 more cops to a force that was already 34,000 strong, to the expansion of the presence of police on patrol through the "community policing" model, to the creation of more task forces within the NYPD.

De Blasio campaigned for mayor in 2013 on the promise to reform a police department whose notorious racial profiling was epitomized by its infamous "stop-and-frisk" program. But he betrayed those promises the minute he hired Bratton, who helped develop the "Broken Windows" theory of policing that created stop-and-frisk.

Facing re-election next year, it's likely de Blasio believes that throwing his lot in with the police will turn down some of the heat from the conservative critics attempting to label him as "soft on crime." Of course, nothing de Blasio does will stop him from being relentlessly attacked by the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the cop union that wages war on any effort to impose any accountability on police.

For her part, Mark-Viverito's decision to side with the NYPD follows a pattern of politicians across the country--from President Obama on down--emphasizing the need to "mend police-community relations."

These elected officials act as if they are neutral mediators between the police and the public, rather than the very people who are charged with the responsibility of holding the police accountable to the public.

Rather than fire and/or convict cops who commit crimes against those they are paid to protect, state and city governments budget for millions each year to spend in payouts to those who sue them for police misconduct.

Anybody who believes that the NYPD will honor its deal with the City Council and hold itself accountable should consider the NYPD's track record over the last two years.

In October of last year, a scathing critique issued by the department's independent Inspector General revealed that between 2010 and 2013, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton failed to discipline 36 percent of cops found to have inappropriately used violent force against New Yorkers.

Also last year, a class action lawsuit by a small number of Black and Latino cops raised--again--the accusation that the NYPD relies on a quota system and racial profiling. Bratton has vehemently denied these accusations, even as more cops come forward to admit the existence of a quota system.

Then there's the major scandal roiling the upper ranks of the department and providing further questions about who the NYPD really protects and serves. Some of the department's top brass are under federal investigation for acting as a "private police force" for two real estate magnates--and de Blasio donors--in exchange for money, expensive gifts, sexual services and travel expenses.

THERE IS a pro-police backlash building across the country, evidenced by Louisiana's law to treat any violence against police as hate crimes and declarations of right-wing media pundits, politicians and police chiefs about a "war on cops."

All of this comes on top of a pro-police bias that has always been the norm--from the veneration of the police in the mainstream media and popular culture, to the kid-gloves treatment that cops get from the criminal justice system--which demonstrates the reliance of elites on the police keeping order in a society divided by poverty and obscene wealth.

New York City, despite the progressive words that flow from the mouths of its politicians, is no different. When tens of thousands of New Yorkers from all walks of life marched in the streets in late 2014 to protest Eric Garner's death and other acts of police terror, the city's 1 Percent pressed hard on the political class to find a way to end the unrest.

The Wall Street Journal reported about a meeting between de Blasio and corporate executives who urged him to more show stronger public support for the NYPD--and even to stop talking about his personal fears as the father of Black children.

Rather than tell the CEOs where they could stick their advice about how he should talk about his family, de Blasio seemed to heed their counsel, the article noted.

It goes without saying that these business leaders never sought a meeting at City Hall to discuss the urgent problem of violence against working people, particularly poor Black and Brown people.

This is the power structure that the movement for Black Lives finds itself up against: a system so determined to protect cops that even its self-styled "progressive" liberals like Bill de Blasio and Melissa Mark-Viverito oppose passing laws to provide mild transparency.

Taking on this structure will require a movement strong enough to wage a concerted campaign--locally and nationally--to demilitarize, disarm and defund police departments and dismantle the system of mass incarceration.

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