NEW YORK – The most expansive plans in years to impose new oversight on the New York Police Department passed the City Council early Thursday, as lawmakers voted to create an outside watchdog and make it easier to bring racial profiling claims against the nation's largest police force.
Both passed with enough votes to override expected vetoes, marking an inflection point in the public debate and power dynamics that have set the balance between prioritizing safety and protecting civil liberties here.
Proponents see the legislation as a check on a police department that has come under scrutiny for its heavy use of a tactic known as stop and frisk and its extensive surveillance of Muslims, as disclosed in a series of stories by The Associated Press.
"New Yorkers know that we can keep our city safe from crime and terrorism without profiling our neighbors," Councilman Brad Lander, who spearheaded the measures with fellow Democratic Councilman Jumaane Williams, said at a packed and emotional meeting that began shortly before midnight and stretched into the early morning.
Lawmakers delved into their own experiences with the street stops, drew on the city's past in episodes ranging from the high crime of the 1990s to the 1969 Stonewall riots that crystallized the gay rights movement, and traded accusations of paternalism and politicizing. In a sign of the national profile the issue has gained, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous was in the audience, while hip hop impresario Russell Simmons tweeted to urge the measures' passage.
Critics say the measures would impinge on techniques that have wrestled crime down dramatically and would leave the NYPD "pointlessly hampered by outside intrusion and recklessly threatened by second-guessing from the courts," in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's words. He vowed in a statement minutes after the vote to veto the measures and continue urging lawmakers to take his side.
But while it's too soon to settle how the initiatives may play out in practice if they survive the expected veto, they already have shaped politics and perception.
Besides giving ground to complaints that the NYPD hasn't been sensitive enough to civil rights and racial fairness, the legislation has put the three-term mayor and his popular police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, in the uncommon position of possibly losing a high-profile fight on public safety. They have gone to lengths to make their criticisms heard, most recently in a Monday news conference at which Bloomberg envisioned gang members lodging discriminatory-policing complaints and Kelly invoked "al-Qaeda wannabes."
Yet on Wednesday, many council members rebuffed those concerns and approved the measures by wide margins, though the profiling lawsuit bill garnered just exactly the 34 yes votes that would be needed to overcome a potential veto.
"It just became so polarized," Eugene O'Donnell, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor who follows issues related to the NYPD, said by phone. "(The mayor and commissioner) just dug in their heels, for whatever reason, and they ended up with the City Council coalescing around a pretty dramatic set of steps."
The measures follow on decades of efforts to empower outside input on the NYPD. Efforts to establish an independent civilian complaint board in the 1960s spurred a bitter clash with a police union, which mobilized a referendum on it. Voters defeated it.
More than two decades later, private citizens were appointed to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which handles mainly misconduct claims against individual officers. A 1990s police corruption scandal spurred a recommendation for an independent board to investigate corruption; a Commission to Combat Police Corruption was established in 1995, but it lacks subpoena power.
Courts also have exercised some oversight, including through a 1985 federal court settlement that set guidelines for the NYPD's intelligence-gathering. And the City Council has weighed in before, including with a 2004 law that barred racial or religious profiling as "the determinative factor" in police actions, a measure Bloomberg signed.
The new measures are further-reaching than any of that, proponents and critics agree.
One would establish an inspector general with subpoena power to explore and recommend, but not force, changes to the NYPD's policies and practices. Various law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department, have inspectors general.
The other would give people more latitude if they felt they were stopped because of bias based on race, sexual orientation or certain other factors.
Plaintiffs wouldn't necessarily have to prove that a police officer intended to discriminate. Instead, they could offer evidence that a practice such as stop and frisk affects some groups disproportionately, though police could counter that the disparity was justified to accomplish a substantial law enforcement end. The suits couldn't seek money, just court orders to change police practices.
The proposals were impelled partly by concern about the roughly 5 million stop and frisks the NYPD has conducted in the last decade, with more than 80 percent of those stopped being black or Hispanic and arrests resulting less than 15 percent of the time. But proponents also point to the department's spying on Muslims, which has included infiltrating Muslim student groups and putting informants in mosques, as the AP series showed.
The poor, mostly Muslim members of a South Asian advocacy group called Desis Rising Up and Moving "feel the impact of both issues -- surveillance, as Muslims -- and stop and frisk," which is prevalent in a Queens neighborhood where many members live, said Fahd Ahmed, the group's legal director.
Stop and frisk is already the subject of a federal lawsuit brought by four men who claim they were stopped solely because of their race, along with hundreds of thousands of others stopped in the last decade. A judge is considering whether to order reforms to the policy and establish the court's own monitoring. City attorneys argued the stops were lawful and not based on race alone.
The NYPD has defended the surveillance and stop and frisks as legal, and critics of the new legislation point to another set of statistics: Killings and other serious offenses have fallen 34 percent since 2001, while the number of city residents in jails and prisons has fallen 31 percent.
Bloomberg has said they could tie the department up in lawsuits and complaints, inject courts and an inspector general into tactical decisions and make "proactive policing by police officers extinct in our city."
And several council members agreed with him
"The unintended consequences, potentially, of these bills is when a human, a man or woman, who has (a) badge . will pull their punch and not aggressively pursue a potential perpetrator, and then he or she goes out and commits a crime. That's the fear," Republican Councilman Vincent Ignizio told his colleagues Thursday.
If the measures ultimately survive, Bloomberg won't be in City Hall to see much of the outcome. The term-limited mayor leaves office this year.
Democratic mayoral candidates have generally said the practice needs changing. Some Republicans, meanwhile, have embraced the NYPD's view.