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The Cops

NYPD Skips Oversight Hearing a Third Time

Because what is the City Council gonna do—not give them $6 billion?

3:41 PM EST on March 1, 2023

Members of the neon-clad SRG on bicycles behind 1 Police Plaza.

Members of the SRG gather behind NYPD headquarters on Election Day in 2020. (Hell Gate)

Twice over the last three months, the New York City Council planned a Public Safety Committee oversight hearing to discuss the NYPD's Strategic Response Group and twice, it was rescheduled, because the NYPD declined to participate. On Wednesday, the City Council held the hearing—but no one from the NYPD showed up.

"It is clear that they feel impunity," Brooklyn Councilmember Alexa Avilés said of the police department. 

Instead of appearing and taking questions, Michael Clarke, the NYPD's director of legislative affairs, turned in a written statement in which the department claimed that they could not talk about the SRG because of several pending lawsuits that concern the unit's behavior during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, including one from Attorney General Letitia James. (As Hell Gate reported, one of those cases was settled on Wednesday: Scores of protesters who were beaten and kettled in Mott Haven in June 2020 will receive thousands of dollars apiece; meanwhile, the NYPD will admit no wrongdoing.)

Queens Councilmember Tiffany Cabán, a former criminal defense attorney, suggested that the NYPD's excuse was "bull," considering that they could have had their Law Department attorneys present to advise them on which questions to answer or decline. 

"I'm pissed," Cabán said. "I can't take my eyes off the empty seats where the NYPD should be sitting today. Shame on them for not showing up."

The hearing was ostensibly held to discuss the SRG, which has seen its budget increase from $13 million to $90 million since its formation in 2015. ("They will not be involved in handling protests and demonstrations," said the NYPD commissioner who created them.) Groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union have called for the SRG's disbandment, because their officers tend to have more misconduct complaints than the average officer, and because they have been at the center of some of the most egregious civil rights violations that have occurred in NYC during the 21st century.

But the NYPD's absence made the hearing less about the SRG and more about the central question that faces this City Council: What can they actually do to compel the NYPD to act like every other City agency that is accountable to them, and through them, to the people of New York City? The answer for now seems to be—not much. Some councilmembers talked about issuing a subpoena. Others suggested disbanding the SRG and using the money on alternatives to policing. 

Of course, the City Council does have power over the NYPD: the power of the purse. Every year, the Council votes on the NYPD's mammoth $6 billion budget. But most councilmembers have no desire to exercise this power. Fifteen lawmakers recently fled the Progressive Caucus rather than countenance an even slightly reduced NYPD budget (there's a primary in June, after all). With such a clear signal that the Council lacks the courage to assert its power, it's no wonder the NYPD doesn't feel it has to show up to hearings.

Councilmember and Public Safety Committee Chair Kamillah Hanks did not immediately respond to a request for comment. City Hall did not respond to our question about why the NYPD was a no-show, but in the past, Mayor Adams has pointed to the lawsuits. 

"Most of the SRG topics that the Council is interested in learning more about directly overlap with what is being discussed in ongoing negotiations, which the court has directed remain confidential," a Law Department spokesperson told Hell Gate. "NYPD looks forward to discussing more about SRG practices when the litigation is resolved."

The City agency that did appear on Wednesday was the Civilian Complaint Review Board. CCRB Chair Arva Rice and Executive Director Jonathan Darche plainly told the Council how the NYPD continues to thwart the work of police accountability, either by refusing to turn over crucial evidence or overruling their determinations altogether, since the NYPD maintains full control over whether officers found guilty of misconduct are ever disciplined.

"There will only be true accountability when the CCRB is given final authority over its disciplinary cases," Rice testified. This change has been weighed by previous Councils, but to withstand legal challenges, it would likely need approval from the state legislature.

Brooklyn Councilmember Chi Ossé called the CCRB "powerless," an assertion that Rice and Darche did not dispute; the two testified that the agency's $23 million annual budget is slated to be cut by nearly $1 million this year. And the unit that examines complaints of racially biased policing will have a staff of 13, when it's supposed to have a staff of 50. 

"That's a very thankless job," Bronx Councilmember Althea Stevens told the CCRB leaders, referring to the work of their investigators. "It's not your fault that they're not implemented or listened to."

Ossé, who is the sponsor of a bill that would bar the SRG from policing peaceful protests, also suggested that the CCRB should be elected by "the people" instead of eight of its 13 appointees being appointed by the mayor and the police commissioner.

A CCRB spokesperson told Hell Gate that these kinds of changes are meaningless as long as the NYPD maintains ultimate authority over police discipline.

"We hope legislators will support the CCRB in amending the City and state policies that limit our ability to hold officers accountable," the spokesperson said.

[Update / 5:25 p.m.] In a statement, City Council spokesperson Rendy Desamours told Hell Gate that the NYPD's absence is "a disservice to the people of our city and ignores the dozens who shared their experiences of being policed by the unit."

"Agencies are expected to be transparent with the City’s residents through public hearings, and the message sent by NYPD leadership today is that the department does not need to be accountable to the everyday New Yorkers they swore to protect and serve. This lack of commitment to public transparency and accountability cannot continue, and it’s a shame that the department’s leadership not only undermined its relationship with the Council but all New Yorkers by choosing to not show up."

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