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Locked Up

‘People’s Lives Are At Stake’: City Council Asks NYPD What It’s Doing to Prevent Wrongful Convictions

Top cops testified before Harlem Councilmember Yusef Salaam, who spent seven years in prison on a wrongful conviction.

Councilmember Yusef Salaam chairing the Public Safety Committee hearing Monday. (Gerardo Romo / NYC Council Media Unit)

Yusef Salaam's journey from a wrongful conviction as a member of the Central Park Five, through seven years in prison, to exoneration, and, last year, to election to the New York City Council, achieved a moment of particular poignancy Monday as he chaired a hearing of the Council's Public Safety Committee devoted to ascertaining what steps the NYPD has taken and has yet to take to make sure that travesties of justice like his own are not repeated. "There is a moral necessity for police departments to examine their internal practices and ensure steps are taken to mitigate the risk of wrongful convictions," he said.

Wrongful convictions like the one that sent Salaam to prison are regrettable, but the department has come a long way in recent decades, NYPD officials assured the councilmember on the hearing's first panel of witnesses. Interrogations are videotaped now, and line-ups, in which eyewitnesses to a crime are asked to identify a suspect out of a group of people, have largely faded out as an NYPD tactic, replaced by photo arrays governed by double-blind protocols meant to make it more difficult for police to deliberately or accidentally nudge witnesses to identify a particular suspect. In 2023, the NYPD conducted some 7,800 photo array identifications in 6,000 cases, Josh Levine, the acting director of the NYPD's Legislative Affairs unit, told councilmembers, compared to a mere 16 line-ups.

Not everyone is assured that the NYPD has entirely put the sort of tactics that can produce wrongful convictions behind it. Hell Gate extensively covered the exoneration of Prakash Churaman, who was convicted in 2018 of murder as a teenager on the basis of a single ear-witness and a false confession from an interrogation in which detectives asked his mother to pressure him to confess. Astoria Councilmember Tiffany Caban asked about the NYPD's revelation last year that its latent fingerprint lab had been responsible for misidentifying prints found at a crime scene eight years earlier. Why didn't the department commission an independent external audit of the lab? Caban asked. Why didn't the NYPD immediately notify all the city's district attorneys that there had been a problem with the fingerprint lab? 

"The commanding officer at that time did not make that decision to turn that over to all of the respective district attorneys," Neil Fenton, Executive Director of the NYPD Legal Bureau answered.

NYPD Chief of Detectives Joseph Kenny, Neil Fenton, Executive Director of the NYPD Legal Bureau, and Josh Levine, Acting Director of NYPD Legislative Affairs, testified Monday. (Gerardo Romo / NYC Council Media Unit)

"When people's lives are at stake—and nobody knows that better than the chair that's sitting in this room right now," Caban said. "That's just not good enough."

Other jurisdictions, including in California, Hawaii, Maryland, and Washington, provide minors being subjected to police interrogations with lawyers as a matter of course. Would the NYPD support adopting similar protections for underaged people here in New York? Salaam asked. Levine's answer was a delicate "no." 

"We are responsible to many parties in the City," Levine continued. "Not only are we responsible to the civil rights, as enshrined by the Constitution and all the case law of the suspect, but also to the victim and/or the victim's family." The NYPD tries to balance these interests—constitutional protections on the one hand and the desire of crime victims for a conviction on the other—he said, and so it opposes automatically giving kids lawyers before they're interrogated by police. "We feel that's a decision to be best left to the family," he said. "At the end of the day, we do see juveniles do commit some serious crimes."

Whitestone Councilmember Vickie Paladino was worried that police weren't getting proper credit. "The year is 2024. It's not 1980," she said. "What about those that are wrongfully released, that are guilty, because we don't have enough evidence? What happens to those people?" Salaam interjected: What did Paladino mean by "wrongfully released"?

"A lot of people who are brought in that are guilty and are released, because there's not enough evidence," Paladino said. 

(Gerardo Romo / NYC Council Media Unit)

Middle Village Councilmember Bob Holden worried that the randomized photo-arrays might be making it too hard to at least arrest somebody. He described his own experience trying to pick someone out of a photo array. "It was too good because, you know, heavyset, bald man white man with a double chin. Every one of those on the photo array looked identical," he said. "That is a problem when you are the witness, and you're looking at somebody from 100 feet away."

Levine appeared perplexed about how to address Holden's concern. "We want to get it right," he ventured, "so I'm not sure we see it as a problem to make sure that the witness is able to confidently say, 'Right, that's the guy.'"

If Salaam may have felt that this opportunity to bring his experience to bear in trying to make sure that more people aren't sent to prison for crimes they did not commit was a critical obligation of his election, some members of the public saw it as an opportunity to derail this purpose and talk about their own profound injury as people who have been in the vicinity of protests against the bombing of civilians in Gaza. "My friend who lives in Westchester won't even visit me anymore in New York City because she fears these protests," one testified at the hearing. 

Salaam, who has had ample opportunity in his life to cultivate patience, attempted gently to redirect these public comments to the issue at hand. "While I appreciate the lesson in history," he said evenly to a man who had been talking about President Nixon providing helicopters to Israel in 1973, "this is about wrongful convictions."

"Well so is this," the man replied. "Look at the wrongful convictions they are blaming the Jews for!"

Another woman did a better job of trying to knit her agenda to the meeting topic. "I truly feel, just as a New Yorker, that the pendulum has swung almost the wrong way or the other way," she said. "We're so concerned about wrongful conviction that we're not convicting at all, especially when it comes to these protests."

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