Bedford-Stuyvesant

NY lawmakers try again to decriminalize common work knives

Bedford-Stuyvesant men of color often targeted

March 7, 2019 By Mary Frost
Thousands of people in New York City — many in Brooklyn — are being arrested for possessing folding knives commonly used on the job. Most arrested are men of color. A bill introduced Wednesday for the third time is trying to change this. Eagle photo by Mary Frost

Two New York lawmakers introduced gravity knife reform bills on Wednesday for the third year in a row, hoping to make adjustments in a law that currently criminalizes common work knives that can be flipped open.

Assemblymember Dan Quart (Upper East Side) and Sen. Robert Jackson (Upper West Side) introduced twin bills that would remove references of gravity knives as dangerous weapons from the penal law listing firearms, switchblades, bludgeons and other dangerous weapons.

“The idea that a foldable knife is any more dangerous than a fixed-blade knife is absurd,” Quart said in a release. “The ban does nothing to ensure public safety and is instead a false pretense for overzealous prosecutors to lock up people of color.”

A Legal Aid Society report analyzing caseload data between Jan. 1 and June 28, 2018 shows that NYPD and local district attorneys overwhelmingly target New Yorkers of color, who account for 88 percent of arrests for gravity knife possession. Most of those arrested were men.

Brooklyn’s 79th Precinct (Bedford-Stuyvesant) and the Bronx’s 49th Precinct have the highest rate of these arrests.

New York’s current gravity knife law makes a blade illegal if it can be opened using gravity or centrifugal force (such as “flicking” the knife open). Almost any knife, however, with enough attempts, can eventually be flicked open in this way.

This ambiguity is enough to send law-abiding citizens to jail, according to the Legal Aid Society, which represents roughly five gravity knife cases a day, or about 1,800 such cases each year.

Only one state senator voted against the legislation last year — former Sen. Marty Golden of Brooklyn.

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Mayor Bill de Blasio, the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance aggressively lobbied the governor to oppose the measure, Quart’s office said. Cuomo has vetoed the legislation twice.

The lawmakers are hoping that the third time’s a charm.

Redmond Haskins, a Legal Aid Society spokesperson, said Legal Aid’s analysis shows that gravity knives were used in the commission of violent crime in less than one percent of cases. Canes, crutches, glass bottles, baseball bats and other household items were alleged to have been used in the commission of violent crime at the same rate as, or more frequently than, gravity knives.

Some unsuspecting knife owners are arrested at coffee shops across the street from their construction sites, he said. Others are nabbed on their way to work as stage hands, artists or building superintendents. One Parks Department employee was apprehended while working as an arborist for Prospect Park.

“They use these knives as work tools,” Haskins told the Brooklyn Eagle. “They get letters from their employers saying they need the knives on the job.”

In almost all of the cases Legal Aid Society has represented, the gravity knife possession charge was the “top charge,” Haskins said. That means the knives weren’t used or possessed while committing another offense.

“New York City is the only part of the state where police go after people like this,” he added.

This reporter walked to a corner hardware store in Downtown Brooklyn on Thursday and easily purchased a knife similar to one possessed by numerous defendants in gravity knife cases.

“It is profoundly unjust that people are arrested and can lose their jobs, homes, children, or be deported, simply for carrying a tool they need for work,” said Lisa Schreibersdorf, executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services, in a statement. “New York state must decriminalize these basic tools once and for all.”

The knives for which people are being unjustly arrested are not the switch blades and street weapons that were originally targeted by the law, attorneys say.

Erika Lorshbough, assistant director for Legislative Affairs at the New York Civil Liberties Union said in a statement, “The gravity knives our law originally intended to ban are nothing like the modern pocket knives used today.

In 2015, Bernard Perez, an electrician from Brooklyn, was arrested after an NYPD officer found a folding knife in his car, according to NBC New York. Perez said the arresting officer could not open the knife with one hand even though he made “approximately 15 efforts over the course of several minutes.” Perez, who uses the knife to strip wire while on the job, was awarded $57,000 after he sued the city.

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