New York City council members and senior police officials argued Tuesday in a virtual meeting over a dozen bills intended to restructure the department in response to racial justice protests.
In a heated, four-hour Public Safety Committee hearing, lawmakers and police attorneys had one of the first public debates on the subject of police reform. The city must submit a police reform plan by April 1 or face budget cuts through an executive order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The issue has been controversial and at one point, Tuesday’s hearing turned into a shouting match.
Democratic leadership on City Council has blasted Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration for acting too slowly, without public input, on the reform plan due in six weeks. In late January, lawmakers unveiled 12 bills on police reform to coincide with hearings on the mandated plan.
“New Yorkers have yet to see a draft of the administration’s plan,” said Council Member Adrienne Adams, a Queens Democrat who chairs the Public Safety Committee. “For this reason, the council has stepped in and introduced a slate of a dozen reforms that would make structural changes, increase transparency and reduce the NYPD’s footprint.”
The legislative package — much of which must go through Adams’ committee — aims to require that the position of the police commissioner be confirmed by the City Council, instead of leaving it to the mayor’s sole discretion. Other proposals include an end qualified immunity for officers, a reduction of police roles in schools, and traffic enforcement.
Meanwhile, the City Council also rolled out symbolic resolutions urging state lawmakers to strip exclusive disciplinary authority away from the commissioner, Dermot Shea, and put these kinds of issues into the hands of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent body with little ability to remove police if it wanted to.
But before the committee heard testimonies from senior officials in the de Blasio administration or in the police department, members heard from Elizabeth Rivera, whose daughter, Tonie Wells, 22, was killed by her spouse in front of their baby daughter, despite 911 calls for help, in December 2017. The two responding police officers sat in their cars, according to the New York Daily News.
“My daughter made a call,” Rivera said, while holding back tears. “She feared for her life because she was scared. She waited for help, she wanted to be rescued, and it was never sent to her.”
The officers were placed on a brief probation but allowed to return to their jobs, Adams said.
After Rivera told the committee on Tuesday she had not received an apology from police, Chief of Patrol Juanita Holmes apologized to Rivera. Holmes, in her fourth month on the job, said punishment for the failure to properly respond to calls has now been changed, though it wasn’t clear if this applied to officers in Wells’ death.
Chelsea Davis, a senior strategy officer, who has represented the de Blasio administration during the hearings, told the committee that a reform plan would be released in the coming days. She touted the administration’s reforms, such as a new police disciplinary matrix, community input for selecting precinct commanders, and new training for officers with local residents to better understand the neighborhoods they serve.
“We know that one plan alone will not address longstanding concerns raised by communities that have historically borne the brunt of over-policing,” Davis said. “We must and we will continue to seek public input and work to ensure that policing reflects the needs of communities long past the April 1st deadline to submit this reform plan.”
Still, the de Blasio administration opposed the City Council’s proposal to leave the confirmation of police commissioners in the City Council’s hands and it objected to the plan to strip disciplinary authority from the commissioner. Davis, the mayor ‘s representative said reforming disciplinary procedures would result in unintended consequences over collective bargaining for police.
The hearing later devolved into shouting, particularly over Brooklyn Democrat Stephen Levin’s bill to end qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that shields police from liability even if they break the law. The bill would make a police officer accused of misconduct personally liable for $25,000 or five percent of any civil judgment, whichever is less.
Senior counsel for the NYPD said the bill was unnecessary since qualified immunity was a federal issue. The de Blasio administration concurred. Both said it would dis-incentivize officers from even joining the force, let alone responding to calls.
“It’s fatally flawed,” said Oleg Chernyavsky, a senior attorney for the police department. “It’s completely unfair and it will endanger New Yorkers as written.”
The New York City Police Benevolent Association, which represents sworn police officers, opposed the legislative package. Union officials pointed to rising crime and the latest high-profile crime involving four stabbings on the subway over the weekend, which resulted in two deaths.
“Today’s Public Safety Committee hearing should have been devoted to a serious discussion of the strategies, resources and support we need to stop the violence — topics on which the committee hasn’t held a single hearing in at least eight months,” PBA President Patrick Lynch said in a statement. “Instead, we get another raft of absurd bills meant to help lame-duck Council members pad out their anti-cop resumes for their next political job.”
Shea, the police commissioner, was notably absent Tuesday. Council members said he hadn’t attended a meeting since before Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s death by Minneapolis police.
When asked by Adams, the committee chair, why Shea wasn’t present, Davis, of the de Blasio administration, deferred to police officials, who didn’t respond.
“Once again, we are missing the commissioner for another very important hearing, specifically on police reform,” Adams said.