The New York City Council passed a spate of policing bills last month that Mayor Bill de Blasio hailed as “a very, very strong reform package.”
Disappointingly, the package – with a couple minor exceptions – is a combination of warmed-over old initiatives we know don’t work with new plans designed to keep the NYPD’s power and budget growing.
Much of the legislation was sparked by an executive order issued by Gov. Cuomo in June that required local governments to approve reforms by April 1. The bills were also informed by the Mayor’s plan to “reinvent policing” announced last month.
Overall, there is less to the package of legislation than meets the eye. For example, a bill which purports to limit qualified immunity – a legal doctrine that’s been used to shield police officers when they are sued for misconduct – has been touted by proponents as an especially significant reform. Getting rid of qualified immunity would indeed be an important step towards police accountability. But this legislation does not do this.
While this bill might provide a new basis for certain lawsuits in state court, qualified immunity is a federal issue that must ultimately be addressed by Congress or the Supreme Court. The Council’s bill also covers only a fraction of the full universe of potential misconduct claims against officers. The legislation was further weakened when an earlier provision that would have made officers financially responsible for harming civilians was dropped from the final bill.
Even after this bill becomes law, claims against officers will continue to be paid out using money from the City’s general fund – not from individual officers or the NYPD’s budget. NYPD officers won’t have to spend a dime of their own money if a jury finds they acted improperly, and the agency that employs them won’t have to foot the bill for the hundreds of millions of dollars in damages owing to NYPD misdeeds.
Beyond qualified immunity, much of the police reform package revolves around initiatives – like more training – that have been proven ineffective at changing the toxic culture of policing. New Yorkers may recall that – in the midst of nationwide protests following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson – de Blasio promised NYPD officers would be retrained.
Overall, there is less to the package of legislation than meets the eye.
Now, seven years later – after Black Lives Matter marchers called out the lack of progress in creating real accountability and change – city leaders once again see training as a primary solution, potentially driving up the Department’s $11 billion annual budget.
The truth is we can’t train police to be something they are not. They are not, for example, school counselors or experts in how to deal with youthful misbehavior. Yet the Mayor’s plan envisions keeping all 5,300 school safety officers in the City’s schools, despite the expense and the harms of treating kids like criminals. These officers are much more likely to arrest Black and Latinx students, while doing little to promote student wellbeing.
Many parts of the reform package and the Mayor’s effort sound encouraging, until you look at the details. The language around “decriminalizing” sex work in the Mayor’s plan, for example, does nothing of the sort. It includes claims about the NYPD’s Vice Enforcement Division “already” pivoting from arresting sex workers to focusing on human trafficking. But there is no evidence to show this pivot has actually happened.
There are decades-worth of documented accounts of Vice officers weaponizing their badges to exploit Black, Brown, and Asian sex workers and their clients. De Blasio’s reform effort does little to change this paradigm.
Finally, for all of its faults, there are two pieces of the legislative package worth praising. One bill would require comprehensive reporting on the NYPD’s enforcement of traffic stops. This will allow for better scrutiny of the department’s practices.
The Council also moved to strip the NYPD of its authority to decide which reporters are given media credentials – which allow journalists to do things like take pictures of crime scenes. The legislation gives this authority instead to the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. While a less political office would have been preferable, the fact that the NYPD will no longer decide which reporters get special privileges is ultimately a good thing.
On the whole, the City’s reforms tinker around the edges, when what we need is transformational change. The legislative package coopts the powerful language of advocates and uses it to sell weak tea reforms that will do little to change the status quo.
We must reduce the power, responsibilities, and budget of the NYPD if we want to truly reimagine public safety and put an end to police violence.