Over-Policing And Abusive Police Tactics Used by NYPD In Communities Of Color Top The List Of Concerns For Clients, Legal Aid Tells The City Council

In testimony before the Committee on Public Safety of the New York City Council, The Legal Aid Society revealed that the top item on our clients' list of concerns is the over-policing and abusive police tactics used by the NYPD in communities of color.

"Oversight: The Police Department's Plan to Enhance Officer Trainings" was the title of the session in the wake of the death of Eric Garner.

William Gibney, Director of the Criminal Practice's Special Litigation Unit, told the Council:

"Eric Garner was a client of The Legal Aid Society. The tragedy of his death gives our City the opportunity--indeed the responsibility--to make the necessary changes to ensure that the circumstances of his death never recur. We applaud the announcement of a retraining effort by the NYPD regarding the use of chokeholds. We question, however, whether training, alone can address the problem and we seriously doubt that training focused primarily on a police tactic that was banned over twenty years ago will be sufficient to solve the problem. We ask that the City act on the present opportunity to enact the broader reform that is needed. . . ."

"The stated policy of the NYPD is “Quality of Life” or “Broken Windows” policing, which calls for large numbers of arrests for increasingly low levels of crime. As the primary public defender in New York City, The Legal Aid Society has extensive experience with the thousands and thousands of arrests for petty low level offenses that are the direct result of the Broken Windows policy. A visit to almost any criminal court part will show how they clog our criminal justice system.

"Our experience with Broken Windows policing shows that it has failed New Yorkers and directly contributed to Mr. Garner's death. Broken Windows results in broken families and broken communities. It is a policy of over-policing for low level offenses that targets our black and Latino low income communities. As the video of Mr. Garner's death and other incidents have shown, it is a policy that cannot withstand close public scrutiny.

The focus on low level arrests distorts proper police priorities away from serious crime and has turned Rikers Island into a warehouse for the mentally ill. In 2012, the City reported that 36% of City inmates (58% of women) had some level of mental illness. In 2005, that percentage was less than 25%. An even greater percentage of young people in Department of Correction’s custody – 42%- have been diagnosed with mental illness. The average length of stay in City DOC for the mentally ill is over twice as long as the rest of the population, and for young people the disparity is even more pronounced. The mentally ill are less able to post bail even for similarly situated crimes. The differences exist regardless of gender or borough. We must find ways to divert low level mentally ill offenders out of the criminal justice system."

The testimoney went on to state that: "There is strong evidence that Department supervision and discipline and the entire structure of accountability for police officers is in need of a thorough overhaul. New Yorkers went out of their way in 1,022 cases to file a complaint with the Civilian Complaint Control Board about the improper use of chokeholds by the NYPD between 2009 and 2013. In only nine of these cases were CCRB investigators able to find enough evidence to sustain the complaint. Only one of the nine sustained cases resulted in a modest punishment, a command discipline that resulted in the loss of vacation days."

Christine Bella, a Staff Attorney in the Juvenile Rights Practice's Law Reform Unit, also testified with Mr. Gibney.