The City Council last week unveiled 11 bills and a resolution that Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan) and members say will provide needed transparency and accountability in the Police Department.
But law enforcement professionals contacted by the Chronicle questioned the need and in some cases the wisdom of some of the measures.
“This legislative package will be just one of the steps the City Council is taking toward reforming policing,” Johnson said in a statement issued by his office last Friday. “It is critical that we redefine public safety and reduce the NYPD’s footprint. From mandating that the Council confirm incoming police commissioners to ensuring non-carceral interventions to community safety, this legislation will bring much-needed transparency and accountability to New Yorkers.”
“Without transparency and accountability, we cannot rebuild trust between the police and the communities they serve,” said Councilwoman Adrienne Adams (D-Jamaica), chairwoman of the Committee on Public Safety. Adams is the primary sponsor of a bill that would require Council confirmation of the police commissioner, which now is a mayoral appointment.
“The Council already uses its powers of advice and consent with some of the most powerful positions in the city,” Adams said. “It’s time the police commissioner gets that same level of scrutiny.”
Adams also is sponsoring a bill to require quarterly reports on all traffic stops on the road, at roadblocks or checkpoints.
A resolution, which is neither binding or enforceable at the city level, would ask the state to pass legislation that would remove the final disciplinary authority from the commissioner. Sponsor Laurie Cumbo (D-Brooklyn) wants the power transferred to the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
One bill would end qualified immunity for police officers in civil suits for matters such as accusations of excessive force; while another would require the City Commission on Human Rights to investigate the backgrounds, including work history, of NYPD employees found to have exhibited bias.
Another would transfer authority over issuing and revoking press credentials to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services.
Adams is one of many co-sponsors of a bill that would create a nonpolice emergency response to mental health emergencies.
The bill would mandate creation of an Office of Community Mental Health within the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene which would develop a Citywide Mental Health Emergency Response Protocol, wherein mental health emergencies are responded to by a Mental Health Emergency Response Unit, rather than the police.
School safety agents would be removed from the Police Department and would no longer make arrests, carry weapons or restraints; they would be refocused on de-escalation, child and youth development and other areas. Other bills would deal with response to students in emotional crisis; study turnover among school safety agents; and grant principals a larger role in the school safety program.
Another bill would remove transfer investigations of serious traffic accidents to the Department of Transportation, and require the DOT to create a new investigation and analysis unit.
But Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD sergeant and now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Robert Masters, former executive assistant district attorney in the Legal Affairs Division under the late Queens DA Richard Brown, had their doubts in interviews with the Chronicle.
Masters, who said he had not read the bills, said wording will be important for sorting out any strengths or weaknesses.
He said the package appears to be part of a growing sentiment in the national debate on policing aimed at second-guessing decisions that police officers must make in the smallest fraction of a second.
“But there could be a lot of unintended consequences,” he said. “Regardless of what happens, people are still going to be calling 911 at the same rate. That will not change — the default position will always be to have the police around.”
Giacalone said removing qualified immunity would require officers to take out the equivalent of malpractice insurance that doctors and nurses buy — and could worsen street crime.
“Good cops will flee [the NYPD],” Giacalone said. “Bad cops will continue to do what they do. The rest, the ones who are stuck in the middle, will do nothing proactive that will involve any amount of risk. They’re not going to take that risk. Cops will go back to being report-takers.”
He said the greatest fallout will be in black and Hispanic communities, which account for more than 90 percent of recent shooting victims.
“They call it reform,” he said. “But nowhere will you find that ‘reform’ is a synonym for ‘good.’”
Masters also believes mayoral appointments for police commissioner have served the city pretty well in recent history.
“Over the last quarter-century, has the commissioner really been the problem?” he asked, pointing to Bill Bratton, Ray Kelly and James O’Neill — with the exception of Bernard Kerik. He believes Council confirmation would only dilute accountability for poor performance.
Masters said Commissioner Dermot Shea, without a lot of fanfare, has been trying to codify many of the needs that have been identified, particularly in the wake of Gov. Cuomo’s statewide orders for new police reform legislation.
“I’d like to give that a chance and see if it works,” Masters said, adding that the NYPD generally is a model that other departments follow. He compared the situation to when the Federal Aviation Administration investigates plane crash.
“The aim is to find out what went wrong and make it better,” he said.
The traffic accident bill did draw praise from Transportation Alternatives, which has been critical of NYPD findings.
“This new legislation is a significant victory for our campaign to reimagine traffic enforcement and our push to remove investigations from the purview of NYPD alone,” said Executive Director Danny Harris in a press release. “ ... Physical redesigns are the best way to prevent crashes — and investigations — from occurring in the first place.”