Who Killed Police Reform?

Depending who you ask, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Bill de Blasio or both are holding up a ban on chokeholds and the Right to Know Act.

Members of the NYPD. (Photo: Will Bredderman for Observer).
Members of the NYPD. (Photo: Will Bredderman for Observer). (Photo: Will Bredderman for Observer)

As the Council’s Committee on Public Safety held a hearing Monday on a package of proposals to turn a host of low-level infractions from criminal offenses to civil ones—a package the de Blasio administration agreed to—several council members noted that NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton was not present.

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“That just speaks to the fact that this is truly criminal justice reform and not police reform,” Brooklyn Councilman Antonio Reynoso said, noting that one changes how the legal system processes people after cops have stopped and charged them with misdeeds, and the other regulates that initial encounter with law enforcement. “There is a difference between the two.”

Indeed, more than a year has passed since Mr. Reynoso and Bronx Councilman Ritchie Torres put up a pair of bills jointly called “The Right to Know Act,” which would obligate police officers to identify themselves before performing a search without a warrant, and to inform civilians of their constitutional right to refuse to comply. The two pieces of legislation are respectively co-sponsored by 31 and 27 of the Council’s 51 members.

It has also been a year since Queens Councilman Rory Lancman proposed a new law that would make illegal police chokeholds like the one that killed black Staten Islander Eric Garner in 2014—a proposal with 27 co-sponsors of its own.

But the atmosphere in the city has changed since anti-police protests compelled tens of thousands into the streets last winter: similar demonstrations are lucky to draw a few hundred people today. In the meantime, seven months have gone by since the Committee on Public Safety held a hearing on any of the measures, a hearing where Mr. Bratton railed against them as “unprecedented intrusions” into police work—comments Mayor Bill de Blasio backed up with the threat of a veto.

Since then, the Reynoso, Torres and Lancman bills have remained stalled in the Committee on Public Safety. The 11-member panel has never held a vote on any of the proposals, which would allow them move forward to a vote by the entire Council—even though, given their huge number of co-sponsors, it appears the measures would vault both procedural hurdles effortlessly.

Millions March protesters (Photo: Will Bredderman for Observer).
Millions March protesters (Photo: Will Bredderman for Observer). Will Bredderman/Observer

So why haven’t the bills advanced?

Some Council insiders told the Observer that, though Bronx Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson chairs the committee, it is really Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito who runs it. And the sources said it is Ms. Mark-Viverito’s micromanagement of the committee’s affairs that has prevented passage of legislation she has not vetted with the mayor and police commissioner.

For proof, they pointed to the committee’s recent activity.

The only bills impacting police-community relations to show signs of movement in the committee have either been sponsored by Ms. Mark-Viverito, like the suite of decriminalization legislation, or have had her personal imprimatur, like the bills cracking down on synthetic marijuana, which has been a particular problem in her district. On the former set of proposals, the speaker was either the sole sponsor, or one of just two co-sponsors.

The two measures going after synthetic marijuana had 19 and 21 co-sponsors. All of the above legislation had Mr. de Blasio’s backing.

The committee has heard debate on a number of innocuous proposals relating to everything from letting people to text their emergencies to 911 to regulations on drones to reporting of hate crime and domestic violence statistics to crossing guard deployment.

Almost no other bills stalled in the committee have the support of the majority of Council members, and all but two have fewer than 20 co-sponsors. The only piece of legislation in a comparable position to the Right to Know Act and the chokehold ban is another proposal Mr. Torres introduced last November, which would force the police department to report on its civil forfeiture practices, a bill with 28 co-sponsors that has neither received a vote nor a hearing.

This would fit a pattern for Ms. Mark-Viverito’s leadership of the Council. She defied Mr. de Blasio on regulating e-hail app Uber and enlarging the police force last year, but otherwise has only allowed legislation the mayor has supported to make headway. The mayor has yet to have to veto a single bill.

A de Blasio-opposed measure to create a city Department of Veterans Affairs languished in committee for 14 months despite having 40 co-sponsors, before the mayor agreed it should move forward. The speaker also refused to allow a vote on a bill that would have called for the State Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to grant all police and firefighters the same disability and retirement benefits regardless of when they were hired, even though that proposal had 37 co-sponsors. Instead, she rammed through a proposal the mayor preferred in a vote scheduled at the last minute in June 2015. Few council members dared oppose her.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, right, with Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (Photo: Will Bredderman for Observer).
Mayor Bill de Blasio, right, with Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (Photo: Will Bredderman for Observer).

Such tactics contrast with Ms. Mark-Viverito’s vows to run a more egalitarian, democratic Council after the notoriously authoritarian reign of her predecessor, Christine Quinn.

This should perhaps be unsurprising, given that Ms. Mark-Viverito was one of Mr. de Blasio’s earliest backers during his 2013 campaign, and he heavily pressured the Council to make her speaker after his election.

Pro-police reform council members could use a parliamentary maneuver called “discharge of committee” to force a floor vote on their bills, but the move would mean running afoul of the powerful speaker and could result in political consequences.

The council members the Observer spoke to were hesitant to blame Ms. Mark-Viverito for the stagnation of their legislation, preferring instead to lash out at the de Blasio administration. Nonetheless, they described the speaker overseeing matters before the public safety committee.

“The speaker is very much trying to work with the police department to find a solution,” Mr. Lancman said in a phone interview. “Hopefully, she’s steering the ship toward us getting good results.”

But the lawmaker simultaneously despaired of getting Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Bratton to endorse the reforms, and argued the legislation could probably muster the 34 votes needed to override a mayoral veto.

“All of us have to recognize that the mayor and the police commissioner are simply not interested in negotiating these bills in good faith,” he said. “The expiration date on our patience has passed.”

Advocates echoed Mr. Lancman’s urgency, arguing the Right to Know Act and the chokehold ban are just as needed now as they were the day a grand jury declined to indict the white officer who killed Garner.

“Our hope is that the democratic process will proceed to move these bills towards passage, just like any other legislation with such significant support,” said Nahal Zamani, Advocacy Program Manager with the Center for Constitutional Rights. “The New York City Council should further advance thoughtful, national leadership by passing these bills to improve justice and safety for communities across the city.”

Both Ms. Mark-Viverito and Ms. Gibson balked at the suggestion that the speaker was running the Committee on Public Safety, with the former’s office denouncing it as “totally false.” The hold-up, the speaker’s team insisted, was simply that the Right to Know and chokehold bills are being given extra special consideration.

““Like many things anonymous sources say, this is totally false. The Council is being thoughtful and deliberative in our approach to criminal justice and police reform and the legislation is going through the normal process,” said Mark-Viverito spokesman Eric Koch. “Some who choose to remain anonymous may prefer to act rashly but that’s not the appropriate way to approach such serious issues.”

Mr. Koch went on to praise Ms. Gibson as “an excellent Public Safety chair who has led many critical and important hearings in her two years at the Council and the Speaker is proud to have her there serving the people of New York City.”

Ms. Gibson echoed the claim that the Council was still weighing the legislation.

“People have asked me if it’s dead on arrival. No, it’s very much alive,” she said in a phone interview. “We collectively as a Council, working under the speaker, have to decide how much we want to push these bills.”

Nonetheless, neither could provide any kind of timeframe in which the police reform measures might receive another hearing or a vote.

Still, Mr. Torres told the Observer he was not impatient with the process.

“I think the nature of a legislative institution is when you have a bill that is controversial, and would have substantial implications for the operation of an agency, the body is going to be very careful and deliberative,” the Bronx legislator said.

When asked for comment, Mr. de Blasio’s office would only refer the Observer to past remarks the mayor had made in opposition to the legislation.

Who Killed Police Reform?