In a new seat of power, Yusef Salaam questions NYPD on wrongful convictions.

Salaam said that his new council office has heard from hundreds of individuals who said that they are in prison for a crime that they didn’t commit.

New York City Council Member Yusef Salaam leads an oversight hearing as chair of the Committee on Public Safety at City Hall on Monday

New York City Council Member Yusef Salaam leads an oversight hearing as chair of the Committee on Public Safety at City Hall on Monday Gerardo Romo / NYC Council Media Unit

On the campaign trail, then-candidate Yusef Salaam made it clear that his experience in the criminal justice system – as one of the men exonerated in the 1989 Central Park jogger case – would inform his work as a member of the New York City Council.

Leading his first oversight hearing as chair of the Committee on Public Safety on Monday, Council Member Salaam brought that to bear in questioning police brass on what the department is doing to prevent wrongful convictions.

“As I know from lived experience, wrongful convictions cause irreparable damage to the individuals, their families and their communities,” said Salaam, who served seven years in prison before his conviction in the Central Park jogger case was vacated, along with the convictions of the other men now know as the “Exonerated Five.”

At Monday’s oversight hearing on New York Police Department procedures and safeguards relating to wrongful convictions, police officials pointed to procedural changes and actions over the last several decades that aim to prevent wrongful convictions, including videotaping interrogations and attempting to check an eyewitness’s recognition of a suspect by presenting them with double-blind photo arrays. While traditional police lineups are used less frequently these days, the department also said that safeguards are in place there, such as detectives following a neutral script and having defense attorneys present. “Every one wrongful conviction is too many. It is counter to everything that we stand for,” NYPD Chief of Detectives Joseph Kenny said at the hearing. “When the wrong person is arrested and later convicted, it is a failure of the justice system.”

The city’s district attorneys continue to dig up and vacate wrongful convictions, in some cases tied to officers connected to other false confessions. Salaam cited the case of former NYPD detective Louis Scarcella, a department veteran who retired in 1999 and who was accused of often coercing confessions and false testimony. The city has so far paid out $110 million in settlements to 14 people who had their convictions overturned in those cases.

At Monday’s hearing, police department officials pointed to their collaboration with district attorney’s offices and their conviction integrity units, which review past cases where there’s reason to believe a person may have been wrongfully convicted, and said they willingly provide information to assist those reviews. Council Member Tiffany Cabán, a former public defender, suggested that there’s far more the department can do to collaborate with district attorney’s offices, including providing them with direct access to the department’s data management system to review detail on cases.

Cassandra Kelly, an attorney in the criminal defense practice at the Legal Aid Society, also said that the department too often fails to share all the evidence they collect during investigations with prosecutors. “Despite the ubiquitous surveillance and technology that is touted by the NYPD, prosecutors claim that they are unable to expeditiously obtain discovery on criminal cases because of their inability to obtain it from NYPD,” Kelly said. “Meanwhile, when it serves the interests of the NYPD, these same hard-to-get materials – body-worn camera footage, surveillance video, images of evidence – will be posted on NYPD’s social media feeds or released to the press almost immediately.”

Cabán also questioned the department’s practices when an officer makes a mistake, citing an example from 2015 in which a detective mistakenly identified a person known to the police as the source of a latent fingerprint at a crime scene. No arrests were made, and the department undertook internal reviews and retrainings, and notified the Brooklyn district attorney, as the incident was related to a case in Brooklyn. Cabán suggested that a more independent review should have taken place, and that other district attorneys around the city should have been notified at the time too, in order to review other cases that detectives connected to the misidentification might have worked on.

Several Republican Council members at Monday’s hearing praised the police department, suggesting that its current work will prevent future wrongful convictions. “You guys have brought us very much up-to-date,” said Council Member Vickie Paladino, addressing police officials. “The year is 2024. I don’t want to hear about the 1980s, I don’t want to hear about 2015. I want to know, present day, how hard you are working and what you guys are doing to prevent this from ever happening again. And you’ve laid it out very, very nicely.”

Salaam said during the hearing that he was inspired to hear of some of the work that the department is doing today, describing it as a “way forward.” But his push to get justice for those who are wrongfully convicted isn’t only concerned with future cases, but with looking to the past in order to correct old wrongs. “As I was sworn into office, I also received hundreds, if not thousands, of phone calls (from) people that are in prison right now,” Salaam said. “My staff receives so many letters, and we’re trying to figure out how do we address this? So many people are telling us, ‘I, like you, am in prison for a crime that I didn’t commit.’”