11/14/2012 05:29 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2013

NYPD Blues

It is now a basic maxim of good governance that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Given the expanding power of the NYPD, then, it was interesting to hear members of the Bloomberg administration articulate their opposition to the Community Safety Act, legislation that seeks to increase transparency and oversight over the activities of the New York City Police Department. Arguments included a claim that introducing guidelines for the NYPD would augment crime in New York. Testimony at an October 10th hearing from community groups and affected individuals in favor of the bills provides a strong counterclaim.

The Community Safety Act consists of four bills aiming to institute guidelines for NYPD activities. Three of the bills, introduced by City Council member Jumaane Williams, aim to: (1) strengthen the existing prohibition on bias-based profiling; (2) require police officers to obtain the consent of individuals being searched in the absence of a legal basis for the search and inform individuals of their right to refuse the search; (3) and oblige officers in uniform to identify themselves to subjects of law enforcement activity, inform individuals why they are being searched and provide business cards to any guiltless searched parties. The fourth bill, to establish an inspector general in order to oversee the operations of the NYPD, was introduced by Williams along with Council member Brad Lander.

At the New York City Council hearing on the legislation, Michael Best, counsel to Mayor Bloomberg, summarized the existing framework regulating NYPD activity. He then argued that the inspector general bill was "legally infirm" because of "multiple layers of oversight," and because the proposal amounted to an "illegal curtailment" of the mayor's authority of appointment and freedom to make decisions. The proposed legislation, however, leaves the ultimate power of delegating an inspector general with the mayor, which protects his power of appointment.

Best also emphasized that an inspector general was unnecessary because of the existence of other oversight mechanisms (which, according to the Brennan Center's investigation, have been inadequate); he also said an inspector general's continual interference could impact the NYPD's efficacy. Regarding the latter point, Council member David Greenfield asked whether Best felt the country was safe with the FBI and the CIA functioning as they currently do. Both the CIA and the FBI are subject to oversight mechanisms as a result of the dragnet surveillance, intimidation tactics and political abuses they engaged in during the Cold War. If the United States is safe with the FBI and the CIA subject to oversight, Greenfield continued, then how could New York City be less safe with an inspector general for the NYPD? In response, Best denied familiarity with the structure of either the FBI or the CIA and thereby refused to lend credence to the observation.

A recent report published by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University explains why the extensive power of the NYPD and some of its questionable practices necessitate a system of oversight akin to the oversight model that keeps the FBI and the CIA in check. As set forth in the report and the proposed City Council legislation, an inspector general would not be interfering with the daily working of the NYPD, but would rather examine the policies and practices of the department and ensure that they fall within constitutional limits.

Best additionally argued that the racial-profiling bill was "unnecessary" because it was preempted by the State Criminal Code, which details how stops should be conducted. In response to the former point, Lander pointed out a number of laws that had been codified at both the state and municipal levels and that the legislation had not been deemed unnecessary or infirm. Speaker Christine Quinn reiterated the point by referencing human rights legislation on both the state and municipal levels and noted that, "there are other examples out there of places where the state and the city both have taken action."

The practice of stop-and-frisk, in particular, has come under fire because of the tendency of police officers to stop minorities in disadvantaged neighborhoods; recent accounts that have come to light exhibit the actions of police officers who have exploited stop-and-frisk toward racist and bigoted ends (e.g., an audio recording of cops stopping a youth in Harlem "for being a f**king mutt").

Regarding the practice of stop-and-frisk, Quinn suggested that we must examine the quality of the stops as opposed to the quantity, and with 800,000 stops almost exclusively targeting minorities and with only a low percentage of stops actually yielding a firearm, the practice should be revisited. Council member Robert Jackson emphatically called for the investigation of the Harlem youth who had been stopped and frisked. In order to underscore how this practice affects Hispanic and African American youth, Williams stated that as a young man, his mother had frequently explained to him how to avoid problems with police officers. He expressed his doubt that children of other communities were subjected to this discussion, indicating that encounters between police officers and individuals were often race-implicating.

Testimony was also presented by experts and a variety of affected communities. A member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Djibril Toure, recounted being stopped and frisked by cops without probable cause. The Council on American Islamic Relations testified regarding the ineffectiveness of NYPD surveillance that captured the everyday activities of Muslims throughout the Northeast--surveillance that has produced absolutely no leads. Peter Vallone, Jr., Chairman of the Public Safety Committee, initially was ambivalent regarding the proposal for an inspector general, but was willing to work with the proposed legislation by the end of the hearing.

Although the NYPD did not send a representative to testify, their views regarding oversight are well-known. But given the expanding power of the NYPD since 9/11, it seems that oversight is sorely needed.