On Saturday, Assembly Member Michael Blake, at an event in his district, was forcibly restrained by a NYPD officer while trying to gain information about an incident that was occurring. He was released after a senior officer recognized him as an elected official.
The incident has many remembering a situation that took place in 2011, when I and Kirsten John Foy, who was working for then Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, were detained by police during the West Indian Day Parade.
First, both Assembly Member Blake and I were not recognized as elected officials of the community. It is implausible that every officer can know every elected in the city. Still, officers on the local level should know who the local elected officials are in the neighborhoods they are working in.
I, too, speak to new police officers who are coming into my precinct. We have precincts that open their doors, and we have precincts that make it very hard. We must create a systemic way for all precincts to allow area-elected officials to meet the officers. If we are all on the same team, working toward bettering the community, it’s important that we know who the players are.
Second, even non-elected officials should be afforded a level of decency, where the least amount of force is used in any given situation.
It isn’t a coincidence that the elected officials and celebrities who have high-profile incidents look like the people that complain about this every single day. The only difference is that they do not have a voice when this happens to them.
We must also acknowledge there has been progress in the past five years.
We’ve lowered the number of stop, question and frisks, and marijuana arrests and are in the process of retraining the entire force. We’ve had legislative wins such as the Criminal Justice Reform Act that lower fines and issues civil summons for petty crimes, and the Use of Force Bill, which mandates quarterly use of force reports. This progress also includes the Community Safety Act that was spearheaded by Council Member Brad Lander and I, which established a new NYPD Inspector General.
Despite this, we must also acknowledge we simply are not where many of us thought we would be in 2016; particularly in the areas of trust and accountability. The goal is not to harm the police department, but to help officers do their job better.
Bills like The Right to Know Act, sponsored Council Members Reynoso and Torres, requires a consent to search when there is no probable cause or a warrant and requiring additional officer identification. This would protect New Yorkers rights, while promoting transparency and accountability in the police department.
Another example is the Right to Record Act, which I introduced in July, and gives people the affirmative action to record police activity that does not jeopardize police work. This bill helps keep the community and the police safe. Imagine how different the conversation about the incident in question would be if there was video.
Too often residents can forget about figuring out who was right or wrong. What happens to the word of a young, black man who is not an elected official? Who can he call to verify his story? Which reporters will come out for a press conference for him when he wants to share is his complaints?
These bills would be another step in the right direction in bettering police/community relations.
This is not about the details of any one incident. It’s about the aggregate similarities of them all and the lack of trust if unaddressed will keep us stagnant. I still believe that the best of our voices can and rise above the fray constructively move us toward the direction of better policing and safer streets.
Williams is a City Councilman for the 45th District, which includes Canarsie, East Flatbush, Flatbush, and Marine Park and Midwood in Brooklyn.