New York City

NYC Council to hold hearing on police-community relations

March 3, 2015 By Jonathan Lemire Associated Press
Bill de Blasio. AP Photo/Seth Wenig
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Relations between New York City’s police department and communities of color, long at a simmer, boiled over last summer when Eric Garner was captured on video screaming “I can’t breathe!” as he was placed in a fatal chokehold by a NYPD officer.

That moment led to months of protests, which multiplied and swept across the city following a grand jury decision not to indict the officer. In the weeks that followed, two police officers were killed by a gunman who had paid tribute to Garner on social media, and the rank-and-file police appeared to be in open revolt against Mayor Bill de Blasio.

A tentative truce between the mayor and police unions has taken hold and the protests have died down, but the underlying issues of the tension are at the heart of City Council hearings that will begin Tuesday.

“The City Council is proud to support our police officers who already do tremendous work,” City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said in a statement to The Associated Press, “and by identifying strategies and tactics which build trust we can continue to keep crime low and New Yorkers safe while also building a more fair and just city.”

The Public Safety Committee hearings will focus on improving the relations between police and communities of color, which have felt for years that they drew an inordinate amount of NYPD attention even as crime continued to fall. Many who lived in those sections of the city felt victimized by years of the police tactic known as stop-and-frisk, which allowed police to stop anyone believed acting suspicious.

The use of stop-and-frisk has fallen, but some lawmakers may ask about another police strategy known as “Broken Windows,” which emphasizes cracking down on low-level offenses as a means to preventing more serious crimes. Police Commissioner William Bratton is arguably the nation’s chief proponent of “Broken Windows” policing.

Bratton is not expected to attend the initial hearing, instead sending high-ranking officials in his place.

The Council itself, which is dominated by Democrats, factored into some of police union leaders’ unhappiness with City Hall. Several council members participated in a “die-in” to protest the grand jury decision and Mark-Viverito wore an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt.

The council aims to use the hearings to discuss means of better involving the community in police work. Vanessa Gibson, the chair of the Public Safety Committee, said Monday that “community policing provides a bridge for officers to better understand the neighborhood and people they have been sworn to protect” but acknowledged that there is a “wide spectrum of opinions” on how to dissipate the current tension.

Aides to council members also said the hearings will discuss some of the criminal justice reforms proposed by Mark-Viverito in last month’s State of the City address, including creating a citywide bail fund to assist low-risk, non-violent offenders pay small bail amounts, and the creation of a new Office of Civil Justice to make certain that low-income New Yorkers have access to legal representation.

She also proposed that some low-level violations, like jumping a subway turnstile, should warrant only summonses or desk appearance tickets instead of time in jail, a punishment she said falls disproportionally on black and Latino men. And the council also will discuss its proposal to hire 1,000 new officers, an ideade Blasio has yet to embrace.

The NYPD did not respond to requests for comment.


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