Good-government groups blast backroom deal that sank police-reform bills

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito mothballed two police-reform bills after reaching a private agreement with police leaders last month
August 15, 2016
Rosa Goldensohn
Crain's New York

Good-government and police-reform groups blasted the City Council’s “handshake agreement”with the Police Department Monday as “irresponsible” and “not how the City Council should act,” in the words of Citizens Union’s Dick Dadey.

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito mothballed two police-reform bills after reaching a private agreement with police leaders last month.

“A very unusual thing happened that we haven’t really seen,” Dadey said. “And that is, those bills were shelved as a result of a handshake agreement, or verbal agreement, between the City Council speaker and Police Commissioner [Bill] Bratton. That is not how laws or policies should be enacted here in the city of New York, or in any democratic process.”

At the time, Mark-Viverito’s office released bullet points outlining the policy changes that police would make in place of the bills being voted on by the council. The NYPD agreed to change its patrol guide, her office said, for searches that already require the consent of those searched. Officers would be required to ask civilians' permission to search them and verify that they have consented to be searched. Police would also be required to offer business cards after certain searches or upon request, the speaker’s office said.

But those bullet points were the only written document of the agreement circulated, and even that was not sent out to council members.

Vanessa Gibson, who chairs the council's Public Safety Committee, told Crain’s the agreement “is not on paper yet,” but “we all know” what the changes entail from verbal briefings.

“Everything is coming out of the speaker's office, and when it’s put together ... she’ll share it with all of us,” Gibson said. “I know what the agreement is in terms of concept, but in terms of specific details, that’s what we don’t have yet.”

The rule changes differed substantially from the proposed Right to Know Act, which would compel officers to explain the reason for an encounter to those they stop and tell them they have the right to decline such a search. It would also apply to a range of other encounters, such as nonemergency pedestrian stops.

The bills’ two sponsors were out of town when Mark-Viverito told council members of the plans. The bills have the support of a majority of council members, but the de Blasio administration does not back them.

Dadey of Citizens Union, which advocates for transparency in government, expressed concern about the changed policies. But he said it was even more alarming that the agreement was not publicly documented, “because we cannot trust if we don’t know what was spoken or agreed to,” and to enforce it, advocates “have nothing to stand on because we do not know what we do not know.”

Dadey’s group also called for broader reforms to the police oversight system, including an expansion of the powers of the Civilian Complaint Review Board. He was joined by Communities United for Police Reform and Councilman Jumaane Williams, D-Brooklyn, who said accountability “helps us with trust.” 

“If you don’t have officers being held accountable for killing unarmed people, you’re going to have a problem,” Williams said. “So you have people like the parents of Ramarley Graham who can’t even get a meeting with the mayor—I think that’s unfortunate, when he met with James Blake. When you have officers who killed Ramarley and Eric Garner still on the force, still collecting paychecks, that’s a problem.”


Topics: Ramarley Graham Right to Know Act