Police reforms locked in place, but nobody’s happy

Stephon Johnson | 4/1/2021, midnight
The New York City Council and the mayor pushed for police reform and got it. But many aren’t satisfied with ...

The New York City Council and the mayor pushed for police reform and got it. But many aren’t satisfied with the results.

Last week, the City Council and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio passed a series of bills as part of the New York City Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative Plan that includes prohibiting qualified immunity as a defense for civil violations by New York Police Department officers. In doing so, New York becomes the first city that allows citizens to sue the department for unreasonable search and seizure and/or excessive force.

Parts of the legislative package include requiring the police to track the demographics of those pulled over for traffic violations. Other parts of the legislations and resolutions call for New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state government to require that police officers live in New York City and remove disciplinary action away from the NYPD and hand the duties to the Civilian Complaint Review Board. The board does have the power to investigate police with a history of bias and profiling; there is a move by activists and City Councilwoman Inez Barron to create the Elected Civilian Review Board. (See story on page 3).

A Cuomo executive order from 2020 gave local governments an April 1 deadline to pass some kind of police reform.

“The specific item on qualified immunity, a lot of work went into aligning that with the federal legislation that’s passed the House, the George Floyd Act, and I think that the way it’s been aligned is strong,” said de Blasio during a media briefing.

New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson took to social media to give the public an education on qualified immunity.

“Qualified immunity was established in 1967 in Mississippi to prevent Freedom Riders from holding public officials liable even when they broke the law,” said Johnson on Twitter. “Rooted in our nation’s history of systemic racism, qualified immunity denied Freedom Riders justice and has been used to deny justice to victims of police abuse for decades. It should never have been allowed, but I’m proud that we took action today to end it here in NYC.”

The legislative package received immediate pushback from the police union. Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch said that the City Council is worried about the wrong things.

“New Yorkers are getting shot and police officers are out on the street, all day and all night, trying to stop the bloodshed,” said Lynch. “Where are these City Council members? Safe at home, hiding behind their screens and dreaming up new ways to give criminals a free pass. It won’t get better unless New Yorkers shame the politicians into doing their job.”

The first draft of the legislation would have given New Yorkers the right to sue officers directly for violations, but groups of lawyers said the legislation would have made it harder for victims of police misconduct to receive financial compensation.

But Justine Olderman, executive director of The Bronx Defenders, deemed the final plan empty and toothless.

“This weak and unimaginative plan will do nothing to address the NYPD’s endemic racism, nor will it reduce the footprint of policing in communities of color,” said Olderman. “Instead, the proposals funnel more funding towards failed policing strategies and will increase the control and power of the NYPD. More fundamentally, the city’s decision to ignore the voices of communities—in favor of a process controlled by the NYPD and defined by a lack of transparency— makes clear that the purpose of this process was never reimagination of policing but rather reinvestment in the status quo.”

Eileen Maher, VOCAL-NY community leader, said that the city failed to reinvest in services and effective programs, and instead they’ve just expanded the police’s power.

“They’ve tried to reform the NYPD and it’s not working,” said Maher. “Police are doing what they want. The chokehold used by the officer who killed Eric Garner was illegal and it still happened. The reform they need is to actually follow through with firing them and taking their pensions. They can have all the extra classes on how to be nice to people, and how not to lie, and how not to set people up to boost arrest numbers and the problems are still going to stay the same. There’s still going to be the dirty cop, the lazy cop, and the cop who just wants to put people in prison. More money won’t help.

“They already have a bloated budget. We need to take that money away and give it to communities and organizations that will actually solve the problem.”

Last July 14, officials from the Police Benevolent Association, Correction Officers Benevolent Association, the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York and a host of other law enforcement unions filed a lawsuit to block New York City’s government from publishing databases of police misconduct via the repealing of law 50-a, which shielded police records from public view.

In the wake of the George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Black Lives Matter protests, calls for defunding the police and reforming the force grew louder around the country and in the city. The recent legislation, some feel, doesn’t live up to the desires of reformists.

“Mayor de Blasio had a genuine opportunity to implement urgently needed policing reforms. He failed to do that and instead produced a plan that at best glosses over the deeply rooted systemic problems within the NYPD that plague the New Yorkers we serve,” added Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society.

“We need to move beyond this failed process, listen to the demands of impacted communities for investment in non-police resources for improving public safety, and acknowledge that true change cannot be built on ‘reforms’ that entirely fail to address the underlying and long-standing problems.”