For much of the last several years, Mayor de Blasio and the City Council have been pushing law-enforcement reforms that disregard past history and recent developments, in service to the outrage over the killing of George Floyd by a brutal Minneapolis cop, that raise serious questions about the practicality of what they call reforms. If they intend these as a left-of-center version of what Kellyanne Conway dubbed alternative facts, they should stop to consider how well that worked out for the Trump Administration.
Mr. de Blasio recently hailed the city's moving forward with its plan to close Rikers Island by 2027. While it's easy for him to be cheerful about this, since he'll be long gone from City Hall by then, unpleasant facts within his own administration seem to have eluded his consciousness.
That closing was predicated on getting the jail population below 5,000, allowing four borough jails—which have yet to be constructed—to handle the reduced number of inmates. But that reduction wasn't supposed to be just a snapshot in time, like a political poll; the closing would be feasible only if the number of detainees stayed below that figure. And that has ceased to be the situation, in case the Mayor hadn't noticed.
The current average daily count is 5,400, according to Correction Officers' Benevolent Association. And because the city's District Attorneys have stopped prosecuting many minor offenses and judges are not remanding those accused of them in the wake of bail reforms, the current crop of detainees is a rougher crowd than in the recent past. This means that correction officers, whose numbers have been diminishing at the same time, are having greater difficulty dealing with those inmates, and are further exhausted by an increase in double and even triple shifts they have been forced to work due to attrition, injuries suffered trying to subdue inmates and coronavirus infections that sidelined more than 1,400 of them.
The rise in the number of accused being held at Rikers and smaller city jails reflects the increase in violent crime on New York streets over the past 14 months. Some officials and experts will dispute claims by law-enforcement unions that this violence is a product of "reforms" approved by the city and state, but whatever the cause, it's hard to ignore the guns and knives behind it.
The Council has begun hearings on a number of police reforms that primarily focus on taking away the authority of the Police Commissioner to impose discipline and that of the Mayor to make his or her own choice to be Commissioner.
It seemed that earlier this month, a deal between the NYPD and the Civilian Complaint Review Board that required the Commissioner, in any instance in which a final disciplinary penalty fell outside the recommendations of the CCRB tied to the department's new disciplinary matrix, would have to explain why in writing. Yet the Council treated that as a mere trifle during a Feb. 16 hearing on a resolution to ask the State Legislature to transfer final disciplinary authority from the Commissioner to the CCRB.
It also wants Mayors to have their choices for Police Commissioner confirmed by the Council, and the Commission on Human Rights to suddenly take on the task of investigating past conduct by cops. Are those really more urgent issues than the continuing violence not only on city streets but underground—which just led the NYPD to commit 500 officers to curtailing the explosion of serious crime in the subway system?
At a subsequent hearing, leaders of the two unions that would be most directly affected by the wrongheaded plan to transfer School Safety Agents from Police Department jurisdiction to that of the Department of Education lamented that the Council had not solicited their input. That's kind of strange, unless the Council Members driving this change are determined not to have facts sow confusion in their ranks.
Much of the advocacy on this subject has come from a student group that regards not only the Safety Agents but the metal detectors in their schools as intrusions upon their freedom. They seem unmoved by the fact that thousands of weapons are being seized annually by the Safety Agents—and that's with those carrying them knowing they could be detected under the current system. Do they really think that taking away Agents' powers and shutting off the machines will be compensated for by hiring more school counselors?
It shouldn't have to be said that there's nothing progressive about making changes that will leave people in this city less safe.
There is one reform in the Council package—a bill to end qualified immunity for police officers—that could prove a useful one, notwithstanding police-union opposition. As a Federal Judge in Mississippi noted last summer, the purpose of that exemption has been perverted over the past four decades by court rulings that have given officers carte blanche to violate people's rights if they can state they believed they were acting lawfully, no matter how egregious their conduct.
But on the whole, the Council and the Mayor seem to be looking for solutions that are likely to be counterproductive, at a time when crime is going in the wrong direction.
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