Victor Dempsey sat next to his sister and stared ahead and spoke firmly from the testifying table at a City Council hearing on Thursday. “We had to witness our brother get murdered twice,” he told members of the Council’s Committee on Social Justice and the Committee on Public Safety, describing how his 37-year old brother Delrwan Small was shot three times by an off-duty cop on July 4, 2016 when he was in his car with his 4-month old son and teenage step-daughter. When the police officer was acquitted four months later, Dempsey added, “my brother literally got killed a second time.”
Dempsey’s testimony came during a five-hour hearing on the accountability of the New York Police Department. “The NYPD is demolishing the trust that the public can have in them, because they’re not holding anybody accountable,” he said.
Dempsey was joined by the father of Saheed Vassel, an un-armed mentally ill man from Brooklyn killed by a cop in April 2018, who believed Vaseel had a gun, and the mother of Ramarley Graham, an 18-year-old from the Bronx fatally shot by a police officer in his own home bathroom on February 2, 2012 after NYPD entered without a warrant.
At stake in the hearing: a bundle of laws, which would overturn Civil Rights Law 50-a, the NY State law blocking the release of all police discipline records and their details.
This bundle of bills, proposed by Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Chairmen Rory Lancman and Donovan Richards, and public advocate candidate Jumaane D. Williams, calls for greater transparency and accountability in the NYPD. The bills would force the NYPD to make monthly reports of the number of complaints of police misconduct, provide district attorneys and the special narcotics prosecutor with records pertaining to reportable disciplinary offenses for any NYPD employee, report on the number of arrests for obstructing governmental administration, and more.
This hearing comes after an independent panel appointed by NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill to review the state of police department regulations suggested changes to the current law. Benjamin Tucker, the NYPD’s first deputy commissioner, also testified before the City Council with a panel of top NYPD executives. He was adamant that the police department has improved very much over the years and that misdemeanors have dropped by over 70 percent.
But Donovan Richards, chairman of the Committee on Social Justice, pulled out a record of one police officer who had eight complaints of domestic violence, two of which were substantiated. “I am just astounded. Not even if there was a person with one substantiated case!” said Donovan, continuing to underline about how officers are too often let off the hook. He read out that the recent independent police department review also noted “domestic violence is not taken seriously.” Further, he argued that police officers caught driving under the influence aren’t sanctioned enough and communication to the district attorney of information about police misconduct is often delayed or records aren’t turned over at all.
“Is docking vacation days even an effective deterrent of misconduct?” said Donovan.
“So, who currently gets fired for misconduct?” said Council Speaker Corey Johnson.
Silence filled the room.
The panel of executives from the police department argued that the council members were lacking context, and details of each of the cases. Many on the panel explained that sanctioning officers without examining each case can cause an officer’s career progression to slow down.
Happening now: City council hearing about transparency and accountability in NYPD. Speaker @CoreyinNYC is not pleased with the system of discipline for officers “it feels like it’s broken”. #nycitylens @nycitylens pic.twitter.com/so37R6cOVW
— Sofia Quaglia (@SofiQuaglia) February 7, 2019
According to Tucker’s testimony, the NYPD deeply understands the need to create a better relationship of transparency between the department and the community, but also wants to protect their officers from humiliation, harassment or violence from the public, so it shouldn’t be releasing their information publicly. NYPD statistics show that 154 officers were harassed by the public in 2018, up slightly from 151 in 2017.
In addition, members on the panel disputed allegations that their communications and exchanges with the district attorney offices in the city were too slow. According to Tucker, the council’s request that all police disciplinary records be shared with the government body is an attempt by City Council to “micromanage” their work.
Votes on the proposed bills are expected later this year, and the City Council has stated they’ll be working very close with NYPD to come to conclusions.