Council leaders insist they are ‘not anti-NYPD’ as they push for transparency at police budget hearing

Council members questioned police brass on overtime, social media PR and more.

NYPD Chief of Patrol John Chell, Chief of Department Jeffrey Maddrey and Commissioner Eddie Caban testify at a City Council preliminary budget hearing on March 20, 2024.

NYPD Chief of Patrol John Chell, Chief of Department Jeffrey Maddrey and Commissioner Eddie Caban testify at a City Council preliminary budget hearing on March 20, 2024. John McCarten/NYC Council Media Unit

Just about four hours into an increasingly tense City Council hearing on the New York City Police Department’s budget on Wednesday, Council Member Diana Ayala stepped in to try to cool things down.

“I want you to know that this council supports the NYPD and that we want you to be safe and we want you to be compensated and we want you to be all of those good things,” Ayala, who is the council’s deputy speaker, told the police brass lining the dais. “But our job is to act as an oversight authority. And we have to ask tough questions sometimes, and that makes people feel uncomfortable.”

Ayala’s comments came towards the end of the sprawling and lively hearing on the NYPD’s preliminary budget for fiscal year 2025, which covered everything from the department’s overspending on overtime and efforts at personnel retention, to their concerns about criminal recidivism and what Police Commissioner Eddie Caban referred to as a “pattern” of crimes connected to people in migrant shelters.

The comments followed a string of tense exchanges between council members and police officials – and then between council members themselves – about the operations of the department. Progressive City Council Member Chi Ossé questioned whether the subject matter of protests influences how police and its Strategic Response Group responds to protests – questioning whether a Black Lives Matter protest gets a more aggressive response than an anti-vaccine protest, for example. “For I think the third time maybe, the answer to your question is no,” Deputy Commissioner of Legal Matters Michael Gerber told Ossé in a protracted exchange. 

Police officials didn’t have much new to share on a recent legal settlement that requires the department to adopt a new tiered system for responding to protests, with limits on the use of the Strategic Response Group and a ban on “kettling” protesters. The settlement resulted from lawsuits filed against the department for its treatment of civilians and press at Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020. The NYPD says that they are still in “phase one” of the settlement, which involves drafting new policies, procedures and training for officers.

In another back-and-forth, progressive Council Member Lincoln Restler and police officials argued over exactly how much police response times have increased. “I don’t like being gaslighted,” Restler said.

At one point, Republican Council Member Vickie Paladino accused her council colleagues of subjecting police officials to an “inquisition,” similar to criticisms she made of her colleagues across the aisle at last month’s oversight hearing on wrongful convictions. 

Throughout the hearing, NYPD officials and council members at times talked over each other, chided each other for interrupting and challenged each other on how they presented facts – all of which can be par for the course in council hearings. And fiery exchanges between council members and administration officials, particularly on controversial issues, are no rarity either.

Still, the hearing – which is intended to probe the department’s proposed $5.8 billion budget in the fiscal year 2025 preliminary budget – comes as the City Council has increasingly leaned into its oversight role over city agencies under Mayor Eric Adams’ administration, including the NYPD. Ayala’s comments drove that home, even as she emphasized that the council is “not anti-NYPD.” “We will always scrutinize your budget the same way that we scrutinize everybody else’s budget. That is our prerogative, that’s our right to do that, it’s our responsibility,” she told police officials. “But I wanted you to know that I’m really grateful for all of you here.”

Through the wide-ranging hearing, City Council leaders also pushed for increased transparency. Earlier this year and over the strong objections of Mayor Adams and the NYPD, the City Council passed the How Many Stops Act, which will require officers to report more information on lower-level investigative encounters. Asked for an update on the implementation of that act, which requires a first report by this fall, police officials didn’t have many details to share but said they will follow the law. “We are working on a plan for implementation. That is not finalized yet,” said Gerber. “But we need to start collecting the data on, I believe it’s July 1, and we are going to do that.”

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams also asked about the department’s encryption of police radios – something the department has said is necessary for security and safety, but which critics have called a blow to transparency. The NYPD testified on Wednesday that there were 42 incidents in 2023 that resulted in 55 arrests for unlawful possession of radio devices. “We still need to take a look at media access,” Speaker Adams said. “There should be, for lack of a better expression, a happy medium somewhere, instead of just throwing the entire baby away with the bath water.”

Council members also questioned the department’s ramped up use of social media, which has involved the recent release of a “most wanted” video, and instances of high-ranking officials attacking critics and journalists on Twitter, among other things. In one incident, Chief of Patrol John Chell took to Twitter to condemn a state judge by name for releasing someone who he called a “repeat offender.” But in the widely shared tweet, Chell incorrectly named a judge who didn’t even preside over that case. 

“To the extent we have gotten things wrong, we have apologized for that and acknowledged that,” Gerber said on Wednesday. “Going forward, we are going to be extremely careful to make sure that we are getting our facts right.”

The NYPD testified that the current budget for fiscal year 2024 dedicated to public relations is $193,000 for “Other than Personal Services” expenses, which doesn’t include salaries and benefits for personnel, but includes costs like equipment and contractual services. That’s a nearly three-fold increase from what the department spent the previous year, at $65,000, according to the NYPD.

The NYPD’s overtime spending, which is typically a focus of the council’s public safety budget hearings, again drew concern from council members. According to a council report, the department had by this January already outspent its overtime allocation in the adopted budget for the current fiscal year by $117.6 million. When the mayor presented his preliminary budget for the next fiscal year, it included another $249 million to the department’s overtime budget for the current year, but the department is still on track to nearly double the overtime budget that was allocated at the start of the fiscal year, according to the council.

Police officials said that they’re working on limiting overtime, including by holding biweekly meetings with all bureau heads to discuss overtime misuse and requiring biweekly reports from each bureau head on any instances of overtime misuse, First Deputy Commissioner Tania Kinsella testified. “But let’s be clear, a lot of overtime costs are due to unforeseen circumstances such as shootings and protests,” Kinsella said.