A New York City Council hearing yesterday on the Community Safety Act, a package of reforms to the city’s police department, was marked by polarizing viewpoints, passionate grandstanding and at times a notable lack of decorum.
Councilman Peter Vallone, Jr., the chair of the Public Safety Committee, had the first word in the debate, calling the legislation one of the most “irresponsible bills to ever be presented to the City Council.”
The Community Safety Act is made up of four measures, the most notable one addressing the police department’s stop, question and frisk policy.
Vallone, who had previously gone public with his opposition to the proposed legislation in various interviews, reiterated his refrain that the Intro 800 bill (which allows individuals who were wrongly stopped and frisked to sue for injunctive relief) would cost the city millions of dollars by taking NYPD officers off the street to appear in court and raising overtime costs.
Councilman Jumaane Williams, a prime sponsor of the proposed bills and a vocal critic of the NYPD who has been subjected to stop-and-frisk, expressed his disappointment that the police department was not represented at the hearing.
“Commissioner Kelly challenged this council back in March to provide solutions that would make our community safer,” Williams said. “We believe today’s hearings addresses part of that solution and it’s a shame that neither he nor his department are here to discuss it. And the administration unfortunately has a tendency not to engage in these discussions, an administration that can apparently do no wrong.”
In a later interview, Vallone said that Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s office had reached out to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to appear at the hearing but was not aware of whether Kelly responded to the request or not.
Quinn added that while stop and frisk should be used with discretion, the unfair targeting of African-Americans and Latinos as a result of the policy has created a dangerous schism between these communities and the police force. She noted that a low percentage of stops have yielded guns being taken off the street.
The Council spent the morning portion of the hearing hammering Michael Best, the chief counsel to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Best, the administration’s sole representative, walked into the lion’s den and offered a defense of the NYPD’s policies, repeatedly asserting that the police department is “doing its job very well.”
The crux of Best’s argument was centered around the fact that the proposed bills limiting stop and frisk were pre-empted by state law and would be invalid if enacted. He said that bill Intro 881–which would establish an inspector general’s office to oversee the police department–would “curtail” the mayor’s authority, primarily the authority to appoint officials at his discretion.
At one point, Best endured a particularly tough line of questioning from Councilman Brad Lander, who disputed Best’s pre-emption claims by pointing out similar legislation to the Community Safety Act that were signed into law in different municipalities throughout the state, including Rensselaer, Buffalo and Westchester County.
“How is it that all of these municipalities in New York State have legislated on the terrain that is entirely covered by New York State criminal procedure law?” Lander asked Best, who said that he was not familiar enough with these laws to comment on their validity.
But the most tense moment of the hearing arose from a spat between Councilwoman Helen Foster and Vallone. Vallone, who as committee chair was required to keep time for all of the speakers, tried to cut short Councilman Robert Jackson’s animated diatribe on stop-and-frisk tactics–at one point he stood and demonstrated how the police frisk a suspect–by imploring him to “stick to the topic and not make speeches.”
Foster took exception to Vallone’s comments, saying: “That should also apply to the chair, who has made his speeches and made clear how he feels.”
When Vallone tried to interrupt with a rebuttal, Foster cut him off, saying, “Peter, I don’t work for you, I am not one of your boys, you will not talk to me like that.”
The histrionics from the morning portion of the hearing overshadowed a quieter afternoon, devoid of most of the television cameras and press, and with a much smaller contingent of council members. Panels of community leaders, advocates and ordinary citizens gave testimony speaking on the impact of stop and frisk policing.
Djibril Toure, a member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, talked about being stopped and frisked by police officers in Crown Heights without any probable cause. Toure said the Community Safety Act would help hold police officers accountable and prevent law-abiding citizens from having their civil rights violated.
“This proposed legislation would end the practice of the NYPD pressuring New Yorkers into consenting to wrongful searches,” Toure said. “Police officers would have to explain to New Yorkers that they have the right to refuse a search when there is no warrant or probable cause.”