In the latest push for police reform, the New York City Council approved a collection of bills on Thursday that will bring some big changes to the New York Police Department, including banning chokeholds and having the department publicly disclose its use of surveillance technology.
After initially saying he wouldn't sign the so-called POST Act without caveats, Mayor Bill de Blasio this weeks changed course and expressed his support for the initiatives before the council approved them.
"I am now convinced this is the right legislation to move forward with, and I will sign it," the mayor said.
The chokehold bill, which also bans other methods of restraint such as kneeling on a person's neck while conducting an arrest, expands upon the ban the state already enacted earlier this month, which says that officers would be charged if the maneuver leads to serious injury or death. The City Council's bill stipulates that the officer would be charged with a misdemeanor no matter if an injury was sustained or not.
Among the bills also passed are two aimed at increasing police transparency with the public, such as one that guarantees civilians are allowed to record interactions with officers. The other prevents cops from shielding their badge numbers in public, ensuring they are always displayed.
The Council approved a "disciplinary matrix" that provides a system for disciplining NYPD personnel, something that hadn't existed before and may have led to claims of inconsistent or unfair punishments for employees. A fifth bill passed requires the department to improve their ways of identifying officers with performance issues that have led to complaints, while the sixth would implement civilian oversight of the NYPD's use of surveillance technologies — something the department fought vehemently.
The NYPD has said information about the use of surveillance devices and other technology may jeopardize the work of undercover officers and informants if revealed publicly. Most of the public has been well aware of some of the technology the NYPD uses, like license plate readers, cell phone trackers, drones and facial recognition, but the soon-to-be law would list all the devices — something that police unions says puts their cops' lives at risk.
In a statement, the police department said that "the bill, as currently proposed, would literally require the NYPD to advertise on its website the covert means and equipment used by undercover officers who risk their lives everyday. No reasonable citizen on New York City would ever support that."
Police unions in the city echoed that sentiment, with Detectives Endowment Association President Paul DiGiacomo saying that the equipment "is the lifeline, and must not be made public. It's the lifeline for New York City undercover detectives."
Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch went even further, asking "When is the endless anti-police pile-on going to stop? The City Council's only accomplishment today was to duplicate laws that were just passed in Albany and further vilify the police officers who protect their constituents."
Council Speaker Corey Johnson disagreed, and said that these bills are just the first stop. He has championed a call to have $1 billion cut from the NYPD's budget, as Black Lives Matter protesters demand police departments be defunded across America.
"We are not going to go along with a budget ... that doesn't cut the NYPD in a necessary way," Johnson said.
The council stressed that the bills, which languished in committee for years, are not meant to be anti-police, but rather efforts to hold police accountable — the very reason protesters have continued to march for a third straight, sparked by the death of George Floyd.
Among the changes is an online database that will let New Yorkers track disciplinary cases against police officers accused of excessive force and other violations and view their administrative records, Mayor de Blasio said Wednesday.
The NYPD will also adopt tighter deadlines to speed up the disciplinary process, the mayor said. The reforms are meant to bring more transparency to a system long criticized for being too secretive and plagued by lengthy delays in holding police officers accountable for misconduct.
“We have to know that if something’s done right, it will be recognized and when something’s done wrong, it will be acted on,” de Blasio said. “When people know that, that’s what helps them have greater faith.”
He added: “I want everything we have to be put on online.”
The move drew a swift rebuke from the head of the city’s largest police union, who said it undermines privacy protections.
“It allows employers to release whatever they want, whenever and however they want,” PBA President Lynch said in a statement. Lynch also labeled the measures to expedite cases “arbitrary” and vulnerable to predetermined outcomes driven by politics.
“In the current environment, every police officer knows what that outcome will be,” he said.
Tina Luongo, a top attorney with The Legal Aid Society, said the public defender organization would “monitor this process to ensure that any database is comprehensive, complete, and includes officers’ full histories of misconduct.”
The mayor’s announcement followed decisions in recent days to make officers’ body-camera footage more widely available and to disband a plainclothes anti-crime unit that critics said was too aggressive. Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo also signed legislation barring the NYPD and other police departments in the state from keeping the public in the dark about disciplinary records.
De Blasio said that going forward, outcomes of the NYPD’s administrative proceedings against officers and their disciplinary records will be posted online. Next month, the public also will have access to information on about 1,100 pending cases, including names of officers, charges and hearing dates, the mayor said.
In addition, the new measures call for NYPD officials to decide within 48 hours whether to suspend or impose desk duty on officers accused of causing “substantial injury.” The department would then have two weeks to decide on charges, as opposed to having no specific deadlines in the past.
The changes on Thursday meanwhile came amid harrowing testimony about New York City police officers slamming peaceful protesters to the ground, kicking a woman in the face and beating people with batons. The state’s attorney general blasted the NYPD and the mayor Thursday for ignoring repeated invitations to testify.
Attorney General Letitia James said the police department was falsely telling the news media that it was not invited to participate, even though its legal bureau was notified of the hearing on June 10 and in subsequent follow up emails and phone calls.
“Let me be clear, the NYPD and the mayor were invited to participate in this hearing,” said James. “But in case there is any confusion. Let me take this moment to once again, invite them. I will accommodate them at any point, they can contact me.”
“We are fully complying with the Attorney General’s investigation to get to the truth of what happened at the protests, and will review the comments made by the public to help deepen our reforms,” de Blasio said. “This is only the beginning, and we will never stop fighting to make New York a fairer city.”
James is investigating allegations that officers used excessive force to quell unrest and enforce a citywide curfew in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. She is expected to issue a report on her findings by the end of the month.
Originally scheduled for one day, James extended the hearing into a second day Thursday because so many people wanted to participate. Witnesses testified by video because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Among them was Kyla Savino, who said she suffered a black eye when an officer threw her to the ground during a Bronx protest in early June. She testified that officers were “beating people with a smile on their face.”
Dana Kopel said she struggled to open her mouth wide for several days after a police officer kicked her in the face while she was lying prone on the ground during a mass arrest in the Bronx on June 4. She now wears a wrist brace to deal with pain and nerve damage from officers tightly zip tying her hands behind her back, which caused them to turn blue and swell to double their size.
Both women said officers roughed them up without provocation after surrounding demonstrators and preventing them from going home when the city’s curfew took effect. The NYPD has been criticized for penning protesters with a technique known as kettling, essentially trapping them and giving them no choice but to break the curfew then in effect.
Angel Ramos, an NYPD sergeant representing the National Latino Officers Association, testified that officers were told to arrest people immediately for breaking the curfew, despite de Blasio’s public assertions that people would first be warned and told to go home. Other protests kept going well into the curfew hours without conflict.
Kopel said she and other demonstrators from the Bronx protest were hauled away in jail buses and kept in custody for about 11 hours. Kopel said one young black woman with her was having a panic attack and feared she would be killed.
They were forced to stand in the rain for several hours, she said, and could not access a bathroom until just before they were released. Even then, she said, they had to beg for toilet paper and assist one another with their garments because their hands were still zip tied.
Kopel said the experience “reaffirms my feeling that there is absolutely no role for police in our society.”