The New York City Council’s Committee on Public Safety convened on Thursday to discuss a sweeping package of bills to improve police accountability for officer misconduct, sparking impassioned testimonies from relatives of victims and accusations of apathy by police officials.
“I don’t think the NYPD understands what they’re doing to people,” said Victor Dempsey, the brother of Delrawn Small, who was killed by off-duty officer Wayne Isaacs. “Not only are they murdering civilians–they’re demolishing the trust people have in them.”
Several of the bills were recommended by an independent panel at the beginning of February, including the repeal of a law known as 50-a, which keeps the outcomes of disciplinary cases against police officers secret from victims’ families.
“Officers are getting guns and batons and tasers and the authority to use them against the public,” said Council Speaker Corey Johnson. “These families deserve justice, they deserve answers.”
Other bills would require the NYPD to report in detail about the people they arrest for resisting arrest, obstructing governmental administration and assaulting a police officer, crimes that Johnson described as “catch-alls” that allow violent cops to disguise unmotivated use of force as legitimate.
“We want the NYPD to justify these arrests so we know they’re not just catch-alls,” Johnson said.
City Council wants the police to report specifics about these arrests, such as how specifically an officer claims to have been assaulted, or exactly what governmental functions an arrestee was supposedly obstructing. Getting these details on the record, the legislators argued, would make it easier to find and prosecute criminal cops and improve police accountability.
Police commissioners opposed the requirements, arguing that requiring officers to report specific injuries as justification for police violence could make individual medical records available to the public. They also argued that the NYPD does not currently have the tools to make officers report such details in the same sort of “box-checking” way they already record information such as race, gender or age.
Protecting their own: Witnesses accuse police of dodging accountability
Even with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s special order in 2015 to open investigations into “police-related civilian deaths,” lawmakers and advocates argue that the NYPD isn’t making enough of an effort to root out and punish violent officers.
“When there is a high-profile case, wouldn’t there be much more value for the commissioner to come out and say something was wrong? Don’t the people need to hear that?” Johnson asked the seated police officials. “What offenses does one have to commit to be fired for misconduct?”
Lawmakers pointed out that, if they chose, police commissioners can overturn not guilty verdicts against officers charged with misconduct, and that police officers who resign instead of getting fired are still able to find work in other police departments, as well as collect their police pensions.
“You waited four years, when it could have been sooner,” said Council Member Deborah Rose, referring to the long-delayed disciplinary hearings against Daniel Pantaleo, who famously kept Eric Garner in a chokehold long after he repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.”
“It seems as if the process is broken if someone can have multiple charges of misconduct and still be on the force,” Rose said.
Victoria Davis, the sister of Delrawn Small, testified her belief that the city administration is indifferent to these problems, after the police panel refused the committee’s request that they stay to listen to her testimony.
“If Isaacs kills another civilian, it will be the fault of the de Blasio administration,” she said, restraining tears.
Some lawmakers jumped to the police department’s defense, including Council Member Chaim M. Deutsch.
“The NYPD is the most scrutinized agency in the city,” Deutsch said. “An officer has great power. An officer has great responsibility.”
“If this is what the NYPD stands for, I don’t know what to say,” one witness testified on behalf of Gwen Carr, Eric Garner’s mother. “You choke a man on national television and still have a job —what organization does that?”