New York City council proposes sweeping NYPD reforms

The council has announced a package of bills to reshape the NYPD and improve officer accountability. A City Council member cited a “direct line” from ProPublica’s coverage to the proposals.

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SOURCEPro Publica

The New York City Council has announced an ambitious slate of legislation to reshape the NYPD and increase accountability at the nation’s largest police force. Among the proposed changes, the police commissioner would be stripped of final say over disciplining officers.

In an ongoing investigation, ProPublica has detailed how NYPD officers who’ve mistreated civilians have escaped significant punishment and even been promoted to top positions, while commissioners have often dismissed proposed penalties for officers.

The proposed reforms, unveiled on Friday, are laid out in 11 bills and one resolution sponsored by several City Council members, including Speaker Corey Johnson, Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo and Public Safety Committee Chair Adrienne Adams.

City Council member Stephen Levin, who also helped craft the legislation, drew a “direct line” from ProPublica’s coverage to the proposed changes on discipline.

Another bill in the package would remove NYPD officers as the default responders to emergency calls related to mental health. As ProPublica recently detailed, the NYPD has killed at least 16 civilians in crisis over the past few years, including 32-year-old Kawaski Trawick, who was shot just 112 seconds after officers arrived at his apartment.

The NYPD and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office told ProPublica they are assessing the bills. “We look forward to reviewing all legislation and working in partnership with the Council in pursuit of our shared goal of longstanding police reform,” the mayor’s office said in a statement.

Despite support among key City Council members, the changes are not a foregone conclusion. For example, decades-old state laws have left some ambiguity about whether the council can on its own roll back a police commissioner’s discipline authority. So the City Council has proposed that the state Legislature move on the issue first.

The legislative package comes as Gov. Andrew Cuomo has required local governments, including New York City, to adopt police reform plans by April 1.

The NYPD and de Blasio have also offered their own changes. The NYPD has adopted detailed guidelines — “a disciplinary matrix” — laying out the punishments officers should face for misconduct.

Last week, de Blasio proposed to expand the power of the Civilian Complaint Review Board to investigate alleged police abuse.

Neither de Blasio’s proposals nor the matrix would limit the NYPD’s current discretion over discipline.

The CCRB voted last week to use the NYPD’s disciplinary matrix, but some members of the 15-member board expressed reservations.

“We are literally adopting the police’s own policies,” said board member Marbre Stahly-Butts. Noting that the NYPD would not be required to follow the guidelines, she called the matrix “meaningless.”

Levin told ProPublica the NYPD can’t be left to discipline officers on its own. The NYPD has failed to do so for decades, he said, “so why would we think things would change without laws requiring them to do so?”

Some reform advocates in New York City said that while they’re glad to see the council take action, the proposals alone aren’t enough. “There needs to be careful scrutiny, additions to the package, retooling and a real commitment to significantly decrease the NYPD’s outsized budget, scope, size and power,” said Anthonine Pierre, spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform.

Also on Friday, the Brooklyn district attorney, Eric Gonzalez, announced he is moving to vacate more than 200 warrants related to prostitution and dismiss the underlying charges. In December 2020, ProPublica published an investigation of how prostitution is policed in New York City. Our story showed that those arrested for buying and selling sex are almost exclusively people of color, that many vice officers don’t believe the arrests improve public safety and that they were driven significantly by overtime pay.

The district attorney, who began moving in this direction last year, has also renewed his support to repeal the law that makes it illegal to loiter for purposes of prostitution. Critics have long said the law is often used to harass transgender people. Gonzalez said he is also asking the state Legislature to pass a bill that would expunge past prostitution convictions, so that they no longer appear in background checks for employment, housing or other opportunities. This would affect more than 25,000 Brooklyn cases dating back to 1975.

The move was one of many reforms that Brooklyn Defender Services, which rep resents tens of thousands of defendants a year, advocated for in a letter to the district attorney and other officials after the ProPublica story.

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Eric Umansky is a deputy managing editor of ProPublica, where he has overseen two Pulitzer Prize-winning projects. Most recently, a series he edited on NYPD abuse of “nuisance abatement” laws won the Pultizer Gold Medal for Public Service. Umansky now oversees ProPublica's Trump administration coverage, including the Trump, Inc. podcast with WNYC. He also manages ProPublica's audience, engagement reporting, and research teams. Umansky is a co-founder of Document Cloud. Umansky joined ProPublica back when it started in 2008. Before that, he wrote a column for Slate. Umansky has also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many others. Joaquin Sapien was one of the first reporters hired at ProPublica in its first year of publishing in 2008. Since then, his journalism has explored a broad range of topics, including criminal justice, social services, and the environment. In 2019, he was a co-producer and correspondent for “Right to Fail,” a film for the PBS documentary series Frontline. The film was based on his 2018 examination of a flawed housing program for New Yorkers with mental illness, which appeared in the New York Times. The story immediately prompted a federal judge to order an independent investigation into the program. It won a Deadline Club Award and a Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability. In 2015, Sapien wrote about care for troubled children, beginning with a story in the California Sunday Magazine on a group home that descended into chaos. His work helped an abused boy receive a $12 million jury award and led to the closure of another embattled home in Long Beach. Past areas of focus include New York City Family Court, prosecutorial misconduct, traumatic brain injury, natural gas drilling, and contaminated drywall used to rebuild after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Sapien’s work has earned awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, and Investigative Reporters and Editors. He was a four-time finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists. Before joining ProPublica, Sapien was a reporter at the Center for Public Integrity.

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