New York City Council approves new checks on police profiling

Override of mayor's veto marks most aggressive legislative effort in years to regulate NYPD practices

People walk by a NYPD office in Times Square, New York City on Aug. 12, 2013.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The New York City Council voted Thursday to create an outside watchdog for the nation's largest police force and to make it easier for residents to file discrimination lawsuits against the department, overturning vetoes by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who reacted by saying that the moves jeopardized public safety.

The new measures marked the most aggressive legislative effort in years to put new checks on the New York City Police Department (NYPD). The force has come under scrutiny for its controversial stop-and-frisk policy, a tactic which a judge ruled earlier this month wrongly targeted black and Hispanic men, and its extensive surveillance of Muslim Americans.

The new measures cleared the way for an inspector general to serve as a watchdog over the police force. The authority will have subpoena power to examine the NYPD's operations and policies.

The move also gives people more latitude to sue if they feel police targeted them because of their race, sexual orientation or certain other factors, expanding classes protected from profiling to include not only race, ethnicity, religion and national origin, but age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, immigration status, disability and housing status, as well. The lawsuits could seek policy changes but not monetary compensation.


The council votes are the culmination of a lengthy effort by a broad coalition of New York community groups, civil rights organizations and labor unions. Supporters say the new laws, coupled with the judge's ruling, will end practices they see as unfair and mold a more trusted, effective police force.

"Today marks a monumental civil rights victory for New Yorkers," Councilmen Jumaane Williams and Brad Lander, the legislation's sponsors, said in a statement.

Douglas Bryant, an educator from the Bronx who said he's been unfairly stopped by police a couple of times, went to City Hall to watch the council's vote.

"I hope this will give the police some sense that our voice can be heard sometimes, such as today," Bryant told The Associated Press.

A packed spectators' gallery erupted in cheers when the vote was announced. Later, supporters exchanged hugs outside.

Mayor Bloomberg, who vetoed the two pieces of legislation earlier this summer, felt differently. He said that such measures would hurt New Yorkers. 

"Make no mistake: The communities that will feel the most negative impacts of these bills will be minority communities across our city, which have been the greatest beneficiaries of New York City's historic crime reductions," he said in a statement.

The 51-member City Council, led by Christine Quinn, the speaker and mayoral candidate, enacted the two measures by voting to override the vetoes. Bloomberg and Quinn have been linked as close allies in the past.

Bloomberg and police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said that between the council measures and this month's court ruling – which the city is appealing -- a police force that has fought crime down to record lows will be tangled up in second-guessing and lawsuits.
"We think both pieces of legislation are unwise and will undermine public safety," Kelly said Wednesday.

The anti-profiling bill passed with the minimum votes necessary, 34-15, while the proposal for an inspector general passed 39-10.

'Step toward justice'

Niaz Kasravi, director of the Criminal Justice Program at the NAACP, told Al Jazeera that Thursday's votes were "a step toward justice for New York City and a step toward ending racial profiling" there, adding that the measures also have "national implications."

"We really have a chance to mobilize and build on this momentum on a national scale," Kasravi said. "That trend has been largely absent since 9/11, when people, to a great degree, stopped talking about racial profiling." 

"This is the first real chance since the tragedy of 9/11 to actually look back at our policing policies and figure out how we can do better," she said.

Addressing concerns that such oversight measures could hamper police work, Kasravi said critics of racial-profiling tactics were not interested in decreasing public safety.  

"Nobody is saying we don't appreciate the work of the NYPD and all law-enforcement professionals who put their lives at risk to ensure that we are safe, that our communities are safe. But having your constitutional rights protected and living in safe community are not mutually exclusive," she said.

Stop-and-frisk implications

Stop-and-frisk supporters have repeatedly credited the policy with contributing to New York's huge drop in crime over the past 15 years.

But critics say the crime reduction would have happened even without stop-and-frisk.

A 2011 study by researchers at the University of Missouri and Arizona State concluded that there are "few significant effects of several SQF (stop, question, and frisk) measures on precinct robbery and burglary rates."

And only 6 percent of stops have led to arrests, according to the New York Civil Liberty Union (NYCLU). The NYPD collected information on all arrestees, including those who were subsequently released or exonerated.

The NYCLU reports that over the past decade, police stopped and frisked city residents an estimated 5 million times, fewer than 10 percent of whom were white.

In June, Bloomberg was criticized for a controversial statement he made on stop-and-frisk, saying the math supported the frequency of police stops in non-white communities.

"It's not a disproportionate percentage of those who witnesses and victims describe as committing the murder," Bloomberg said. "In that case, incidentally, I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little."

Other cities around the country, including Philadelphia, New Orleans and Nashville, have implemented similar stop-and-frisk laws.

"I think that the NYPD is watched by public officials all over the country," Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, told Al Jazeera on Aug 12. "When policies are terminated in New York, other localities are likely to pay attention."

Philip J. Victor contributed to this report. Al Jazeera and wire services.

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