Where Is Our Right To Know?

Last week, the City Council and NYPD reached an agreement on police reform. The Right to Know Act has, for the most part, been put on hold. The Right to Know Act would have reformed police interactions with civilians, requiring officers to identify themselves and provide their name, rank, command and phone number for the Civilian Complaint Review Board at the end of encounters that do not result in an arrest or summons, as well as providing a specific reason for their law enforcement activity. This legislature would have protected New Yorkers against unconstitutional searches and harassment from policemen and promotes transparency and accountability in everyday interactions between the NYPD and the public. The Right to Know Act is a common sense approach to police reform, requiring information that should already be mandatory to give.

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito stated that while the law will not be made a law, elements of it will be implemented internally, leaving it up to individual NYPD officers to decide if they want to provide that information or not. Viverito says that this way, the changes can be implemented more quickly, whereas had the legislation been passed, there could be a pushback, causing delay. Mayor Bill de Blasio backed Viverito, telling those unhappy with the decision that there is “more than one way to win.” But is there?

For years, the NYPD has harassed their civilians with little to no repercussions. Historically, administrative changes have not worked. The current Patrol Guide requires officers to “courteously and clearly state their name, shield number and command, or otherwise provide them, to anyone who requests them to do so” and “allow the person ample time to note this.” However, advocates often hear complaints about instances where officers have reacted with force and disrespect.

The Patrol Guide also limits officers’ ability to conduct searches based on a person’s consent. During a level 1 encounter (request for information), police are prohibited from requesting for consent to search, during a level 2 (common law of inquiry) it states that an officer may request consent but must receive voluntary consent in order to proceed and even in level 3 encounters (stops) consent must be given. New Yorkers, especially those who are youth of color, have long-standing and well-documented issues between them and the NYPD based on its stop & frisk practices. Civilians have repeatedly complained that they did not feel they had a choice in whether they could be searched or not, especially after given such commands as “open your bag” and “empty your pockets.” Often times NYPD officers will demand consent rather than asking for it, which directly goes against the rules of conduct already in place.

It is important to note that any Police Commissioner can make administrative changes at any time without notice to the public; it is also up to the Commissioner to implement these changes within their jurisdiction, meaning they can choose not to do so. NYPD’s June 1, 2016 decision to modify the Use of Force section of the Patrol Guide is a clear example of administrative changes making already existing laws weaker, especially in the use of chokeholds. This modification indicates that use of chokeholds or other banned tactics may be found to be within policy if certain conditions are met and will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis by a separate Use of Force Review Board, negating the former stance on the legality of chokeholds as well as negating the authority of the Civilian Complaint Review Board in use of force cases.

Proposed administrative change does not equal to legislative change—it is an illusion of real change. In cases of officer identification, the administrative changes the NYPD agreed to make strip the requirements in the bill for officers to identify themselves in most cases, including when individuals are stopped without reasonable suspicion, most vehicle interactions, home searches and when in contact with potential crime victims and witnesses. The agreement does not require officers to provide a reason for their encounter, a provision that the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing prioritized. Additionally, the agreement removes the key provision that explicitly includes plainclothes officers not engage in undercover operations, a much-needed adjustment made evident by last year’s wrongful attack on ex-tennis player James Blake by a plainclothes officer. Lastly, it removes the requirement for the Civilian Complaint Review Board’s phone number to be included on police identification cards.

As far as consent search requirements, the agreement simply adds words and instructions to the Patrol Guide that are already being violated. The agreement removes the legislation’s most important provisions to require proof of consent as well as strips the legislation’s required reporting on the frequency of consent searches and what communities are subject to them, including race, gender, ethnicity, age and location. Lastly, the agreement eliminates any guarantee that individuals will be notified of their right to refuse a search when there is no legal basis, allowing for continued abuse of power by the NYPD.

This agreement does not make any real change or reform. Call your City Council Member Donovan Richards at 718-471-7014 / City Council Member Eric Ulrich at 718-318-6411  and tell them you want the Right to Know Act passed!