Council bills could set up Eric Adams’ next veto fights

The council passed a bill banning solitary confinement in city jails and legislation requiring police officers to report information about lower-level investigative encounters with civilians.

Council Members Sandy Nurse, Tiffany Cabán and Shahana Hanif attend a rally outside City Hall in support of the How Many Stops Act on Dec. 20, 2023.

Council Members Sandy Nurse, Tiffany Cabán and Shahana Hanif attend a rally outside City Hall in support of the How Many Stops Act on Dec. 20, 2023. Gerardo Romo / NYC Council Media Unit

The New York City Council closed out its two-year session on Wednesday with the passage of several policing and criminal justice-related bills that could set up the council’s next veto fights with City Hall in the new year.

At the last stated meeting of the session on Wednesday, the Council voted to pass two pieces of legislation that Mayor Eric Adams strongly opposes – a bill banning solitary confinement in city jails and an act requiring police officers to report information about lower-level investigative encounters with civilians, known as the How Many Stops Act.

New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams is a prime sponsor on both the solitary confinement ban and the How Many Stops Act, which is a two-bill package that also has Council Members Crystal Hudson and Alexa Avilés as prime sponsors. Both the solitary confinement ban and the How Many Stops Act have built up significant support in the council, including from Speaker Adrienne Adams. 

The solitary confinement ban passed with a veto-proof majority, with 39 votes in favor, seven against and one abstention. Both bills that make up the How Many Stops Act also passed with veto-proof majorities, though Introduction 586-A – which lays out the bulk of the reporting requirements – passed by a more narrow veto-proof majority of 35 votes in favor, nine against and three abstentions. Democratic Council Members Erik Bottcher and Marjorie Velázquez voted against 586-A.

The How Many Stops Act attracted the support of police reform and advocacy organizations like Communities United for Police Reform and the Center for Constitutional Rights, while the solitary confinement ban was backed by a wide variety of prison reform and civil rights groups, along with the Democratic members of New York City’s congressional delegation.

But as the bills moved forward in the last days of the session, Mayor Adams and his administration ramped up their arguments against both, positioning them as dangerous to the safety of the general public, incarcerated people and those working in city jails.

In his weekly off-topic media briefing on Tuesday, Adams did not give a definitive answer when asked if he would veto the bills if they pass, though he voiced strong opposition to both. “We want to continue to talk with the council members,” he said. “The overwhelming number of council members want their community safe. They want to make sure that we treat those who are incarcerated in a humane way. But what I have found is that idealism collides with realism, and the talking points of a bill are different from the operationalizing of a bill.”

In an interview with CBS News New York over the weekend, Adams said of the How Many Stops Act, “there’s no way I will sign this bill into law.” Following harsh criticism from the Adams administration of the How Many Stops Act on Tuesday, several state lawmakers released statements in opposition to the bill, including moderate Democratic Assembly Members William Colton and Sam Berger. And prior to the stated meeting on Wednesday, members of the Council’s Common Sense Caucus and several law enforcement unions rallied outside City Hall against both bills.

Solitary confinement ban

The issue of solitary confinement was one of the first on which the mayor and council split, back before the current council session started in 2022. While the long-stalled legislation has undergone changes since then – including ones that won the support of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers, which represents health care workers at Rikers Island – both Mayor Adams and the Correctional Officers Benevolent Association remain opposed. The Adams administration has said that solitary confinement is not currently in use in city jails, and Adams has tried to draw a distinction between “solitary confinement” and “punitive segregation” – a practice that is used in which detainees can be placed in restrictive housing units and locked in cells for the majority of the day as punishment for a violent offense. Supporters of the solitary confinement ban don’t see a distinction between solitary confinement and punitive segregation.

The council’s legislation would strictly limit the practice of confining detainees to cells on their own, with an exception of a period of up to four hours of “de-escalation confinement” immediately following an incident or emergency.

“Instead of promoting a humane environment within our jails, the council’s bill would foster an environment of fear and instability,” a mayoral spokesperson said of the bill in a statement this week, urging council members to vote against it. “It would make it harder to protect people in custody, and the predominantly Black and brown workers charged with their safety, from violent individuals.” 

“How Many Stops”

The How Many Stops Act could also present another potential veto fight for the mayor and City Council. The bill would require New York City Police Department officers to report on more low-level investigative encounters with civilians, providing information about the apparent race/ethnicity, gender, and age of the civilian, the reason for the encounter, and the outcome of the encounter. 

NYPD officers are already required by law to document Level 3 encounters, also known as stop-and-frisk or “reasonable suspicion” stops. But they are currently not required to report Level 1 encounters, Level 1 encounters, in which officers can approach someone to request information with an objective credible reason that doesn’t necessarily include a suspicion of criminal activity, and Level 2 encounters, in which officers can approach civilians with more pointed questions based on a founded suspicion of criminal activity. 

The council and Public Advocate Williams have characterized the bill as a way to make reporting requirements for those lower-level encounters consistent with current reporting requirements for Level 3 stops. Williams said Tuesday that the reporting on these additional encounters could happen on officers’ smartphones. “On the smartphone, it can be a simple drop-down menu,” he said. “That should take 10 to 20 seconds at most.”

Adams has already said that he would not sign this bill as written, and at his off-topic press conference on Tuesday, the mayor and the city’s chief counsel, Lisa Zornberg, blasted the bill as a mandate that would take significant time away from officers and their supervisors. “This bill, as currently written, would incentivize police officers to do the exact opposite of what we want from an effective police force engaging in community policing,” Zornberg said. “It would discourage police officers from talking to community members, simply to avoid becoming a paperwork bureaucracy.”

Zornberg and Adams drew particular attention to what they said would be required under the Level 1 encounter reporting, saying officers would be required to report such innocuous encounters as approaching a tourist to ask if they’re lost. Following comments from Zornberg and the mayor on Tuesday, Williams held an impromptu virtual press conference to rebut those suggestions, arguing that they were misinforming New Yorkers and that more casual encounters, such as one between a bodega owner and an officer asking about the neighborhood – one example that Mayor Adams offered on Tuesday – would not in fact be included. 

“Int. 586 is not about capturing officers’ casual conversations and interactions to assist the public, despite rampant misinformation being spread about the bill,” Speaker Adams said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon. “This legislation provides basic data and transparency on investigative stops that intrude in people’s daily lives, and creates a uniform standard of reporting to replace the current inconsistency that has contributed to severe underreporting and data gaps.”

Following a bill’s passage, the mayor has 30 days to either sign the bill into law or veto it. The council can override a mayoral veto with a two-thirds vote. If the mayor doesn’t take any action within 30 days, the bill will become law. Mayor Adams has only used his veto power twice so far. The most recent was his veto of legislation expanding access to rental assistance vouchers, which the City Council then easily voted to override in July.