The City Council of New York City passed a series of legislation Thursday night aimed at increasing transparency in the New York Police Department.
What We Know:
- On Thursday night, the Council voted on a package of legislation that is aimed at increasing transparency in the NYPD as well as holding officers more accountable. The legislation passed 44-6 despite continued objection from the NYPD. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who previously opposed a few of the bills, has now said he is inclined to sign it.
- One of the major reforms that the Council approved is the passage of the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology, or POST, Act. This bill will require for the first time that the police reveal information about their arsenal of surveillance tools and spy tech, some of which may have been used in recent days at protests in New York. The POST Act does not prevent the police from using spy tech but instead, it forces them to reveal what kinds of surveillance tools they use and what kinds of data it collects on New Yorkers.
- The POST Act was first introduced in 2017 but did not receive strong support within the committee until now, amid protests against police brutality sparked by the death of George Floyd. Thirteen other cities, including San Francisco, have passed similar legislation to increase transparency in police departments.
- A handful of tech companies have also vowed to move away from aiding in the police surveillance business. Last week, Arvind Krishna, the chief executive of I.B.M. sent a letter to Congress informing them that I.B.M. opposed the use of facial recognition tools, concerned they could be used for “mass surveillance” and “racial profiling”. Similarly, Amazon announced a yearlong ban on selling facial recognition software to police departments.
- The POST Act has been supported by dozens of privacy and civil liberties groups in New York City, 70 of which sent a letter to the Council late last year condemning NYPD’s acquisition of “highly-invasive technologies” like Stingray cellphone trackers and artificial intelligence programs that map out people’s online social networks.
- In a statement praising the bill’s passage, Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said, “These technologies pose a unique risk to black and brown New Yorkers who the N.Y.P.D. has subjected to dangerous, invasive policing tactics for decades”. At a news conference in support of the POST Act held on Wednesday, Albert Fox Cahn, a New York lawyer who runs the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, said, “This bill is going to be crucial on N.Y.P.D. surveillance. This is the beginning of the end of a history of abusive policing”.
- The passing of the POST Act has also received loud criticism and objection from the police department. A police spokeswoman wrote in a statement on Thursday, “the bill, as currently proposed, would literally require the N.Y.P.D. to advertise on its website the covert means and equipment used by undercover officers who risk their lives every day. No reasonable citizen of New York City would ever support that”. Republican Council Member Steven Matteo and his colleague Joe Borelli said the legislation would deprive the NYPD of necessary policing tools. They released a joint statement that reads, “These measures often go beyond what is reasonable and prudent, and instead threaten to hinder our officers’ ability to safely and effectively do their jobs”.
- In addition to the POST Act, the council approved a series of legislation including:
- Issuing yearly reports on its use of surveillance technology and what steps the department takes to shield personal information.
- Rendering chokeholds and other restraints illegal.
- Requiring the NYPD to develop a standard set of disciplinary actions and additionally requiring the department to release whenever that standard is deviated from to the public.
- Altering the NYPD’s internal system to create a centralized system that flags officers with a history of complaints and disciplinary problems.
- Requiring officers to display their badge numbers and ensure identifying information is clearly visible.
Chokeholds? Criminalize them.
Disciplinary matrixes? Use them.
Badge numbers? Show them.
Surveillance tools? Disclose them.
The @NYCCouncil just passed these measures as a first step towards long overdue justice in achieving more transparency and accountability in the NPYD.
— NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson (@NYCSpeakerCoJo) June 18, 2020
- These actions follow a series of other reforms introduced around the state in response to demands from protestors in the wake of George Floyd‘s death. Lawmakers in Albany recently passed their own legislative package aimed at improving transparency in police departments across the state including a ban on chokeholds that result in serious injury or death. The Council’s legislation is more restrictive, banning chokeholds in all situations and by barring officers from sitting, kneeling, or standing on a suspect’s chest and back during an arrest. The legislation also follows an announcement from de Blasio on shifting funding from the NYPD to youth and social services as well as an announcement from NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea on the disbanding of the department’s anti-crime plainclothes unit, which has a history of employing aggressive tactics.
- The Council also plans to send a letter to de Blasio asking him to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson from the Council chambers. Many members have said it is a constant reminder that Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves. “As a member of the City Council, I work with my colleagues to rid our society of this legacy and make this a more fair, equitable city,” said Council Member Deborah Rose. “Doing so under the statue that commemorates a man who enslaved human beings is unacceptable for many of us, and it is truly painful.”
While de Blasio is expected to sign off on this series of legislation for police reform, he remains opposed to a plan from the Council to reduce NYPD’s budget by $1 billion. Council Speaker Corey Johnson said in a press conference before the vote, “these bills are important bills, they are good bills, we are glad that we’re doing these bills… but, the real structural change will be from moving money away from the NYPD and putting that into social services”.