City Council Passes Bills on Police Behavior Amid Outcry on Both Sides
Posted December 19, 2017 8:48 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — By a slim margin, the New York City Council on Tuesday approved two bills requiring changes to day-to-day interactions between police officers and those they encounter on the street, measures that drew strong opposition from both criminal justice reform groups and the city’s largest officers’ union.
The bills, together referred to as the Right to Know Act, were voted into law along with 36 other measures brought forward by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in her final full council meeting before her term as a council member expires at the end of the year. Before the vote, Mark-Viverito waxed nostalgic about her work atop the council, which she called “the most productive” during her tenure, and she received praise, cheers and hugs from her colleagues.
“I don’t have regrets,” she said in the council chambers before the vote. “We’re making this city a better city for all New Yorkers.”
The sprint-to-the-finish feeling of the final meeting capped an unusually active four-year session in which the council passed more than 700 bills, far more than in recent sessions. It came as eight members continued to compete to succeed Mark-Viverito as speaker.
Mark-Viverito has often favored working with Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow Democrat, and his administration to reach compromises on difficult measures, which helped ensure that no bills were vetoed by the mayor during her tenure. She said Tuesday that she and her staff had spent “hundreds of hours” negotiating over the policing bills.
But that tendency rankled many police-reform advocates and some on the council, particularly its black and Hispanic members, when it came to legislating police reform.
On Tuesday, they protested on the steps of City Hall, urging a “no” vote on a compromise bill sponsored by Councilman Ritchie Torres of the Bronx that requires officers to provide business cards and a reason for stopping a person on the street in many interactions. Separately, they praised the other policing bill, sponsored by Councilman Antonio Reynoso, to compel officers to inform people of their right not to consent to a search, if consent would be necessary to perform the search.
Advocates and council members like Jumaane D. Williams and Robert E. Cornegy Jr. of Brooklyn and Donovan Richards Jr. of Queens — all candidates to be speaker — objected to the final version of Torres’ bill because, they said, it left out many common street encounters, including car stops and questioning by officers in the absence of any reasonable suspicion of a crime.
In explaining his opposition before the vote, Richards, described his own history of being stopped by the police for no apparent reason other than his race. “As a father of a 2-year-old black boy and as a black man who has had my share of this experience, I am not going to vote for 182-D,” referring to the number of Torres’ bill.
Versions of the two policing bills languished for much of Mark-Viverito’s tenure. She had tried to put the issue to rest last year by engineering a deal with the de Blasio administration to have the Police Department voluntarily adopt some of the changes called for in the legislation.
For supporters of police reform, the voluntary changes were not enough, and they urged new laws to change officers’ behavior. Torres, also a speaker candidate, spoke Tuesday about his own experience with being stopped by the police, and he suggested that the final bill was a balance — one that avoided a possible “revolt” from police officers.
“We all have searing memories of 2014, when there was an open revolt in the rank and file of the New York City Police Department,” Torres said Tuesday, referring to an unofficial work action by officers in response to the killing of two officers. “And so if we have an opportunity to pursue a path to police reform without provoking an upheaval in the New York City Police Department, then why not do it?”
He said that the next council, which will have 10 new and more politically centrist members, would be “more conservative” than the current one and that the mayor might have refused to enforce the bill if passed without compromise.
The legislation approved Tuesday is supported by de Blasio, who has said it simply codifies what the department was already doing after its deal with Mark-Viverito. He was expected to sign the bills into law.
The council had prepared 42 measures in time for Tuesday’s voting, including a contentious bill favored by Mark-Viverito that would have increased the number of street vendors, changed the rules that govern them and created an office to oversee enforcement.
But amid an outcry from real estate interests and business groups, as well as public opposition from the mayor, Mark-Viverito decided against putting the vendor legislation — three bills in total — up for a vote and shelved it for the next council speaker to deal with. Advocates for street vendors blamed de Blasio, saying that he had expressed reservations early on in the process, that the bill had been changed to accommodate them, and that the mayor still said he would not go along with the bill, sealing its fate.
“I deeply respect the vendors,” de Blasio said in his weekly interview on NY1 on Monday, “but that’s just a mischaracterization.” He added that he was “very aware” of struggling brick-and-mortar stores and did not want to create “an undue amount of competition for those brick-and-mortar stores.”
“We can start again next month,” the mayor added.
Among the other measures adopted: a rewriting of the city’s Human Rights Law in an effort to strengthen it; new rules for construction noise and mold abatement; a requirement for certain buildings to post energy efficiency grades; and an initiative in which the city will determine if it can provide the option of a gender-neutral pronoun on some of its official forms. There were also reporting bills on school applications and homeless shelter data, and a higher reward for New Yorkers who report illegal vehicle idling.
But the policing bills remained the most contentious up until the moment of the vote. Several council members flipped from being supportive to voting against one or both, including several initial sponsors. In the end, Torres’ measure passed by 27-20, with three abstentions. The search bill passed, 37-13.
“It’s a shame what we’re doing,” said Williams, who had his microphone turned off when he refused to stop speaking in opposition as his time expired. “It’s a sham, and it’s a shame.”