The Fight For The Right To Know Act

Have you ever been stopped by the cops while driving and didn’t know why? Have you ever been stopped on the street and searched for seemingly no reason and you felt like you had no choice?

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In every civilian-police interaction, there is an unequal power dynamic at play. For people of color, this power imbalance is exacerbated by a history of racist policing. It’s a symptom of the underlying institutional racism that dominates our daily lives in American society. For many advocates of police reform, it is common sense that we should have the right to know when we can consent to or decline to be searched, as well as the identities of the officers we are encountering. That is why we have been fighting for more than four years to pass the Right to Know Act, a legislative package aimed at transforming police-civilian interactions in New York City during common street encounters and non-emergency stops. The reform measure is designed to increase NYPD accountability and transparency while promoting the rights and dignity of civilians.

The Right to Know Act is composed of two bills. The first is Introduction 541-C, which will require police officers to inform the civilians of their right to decline any search that is not the result of probable cause. The new law will also require officers to obtain and record that consent. The second bill is Introduction 182-D, which will require police officers to identify themselves and provide a reason for their activity in low-level street encounters that do not result in an arrest or summons. This self-identification will take the form of ID cards containing the acting officer’s name, rank, and command, as well as information on how to contact 311 regarding a potential complaint.

Both pieces of legislation have undergone years of negotiations between the City Council, the de Blasio administration, NYPD representatives (including the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the NYPD’s largest and most powerful union), the New York Civil Liberties Union, and Communities United for Police Reform (CPR), a coalition of police reform advocates that includes more than 200 community organizations from across the city, leading legal advocacy groups, and family members of victims killed unjustly at the hands of the NYPD. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association remained steadfast in their strong opposition to both bills, claiming that internal NYPD procedure already accounts for many of the concerns the bills seek to address and that new requirements included in the bills would place undue burden on police officers and compromise public safety. On December 19th, at the last City Council meeting of the year, both bills were passed, evoking mixed feelings from all sides involved.

Passing Intro. 541 was a huge victory for advocates and legislators and the result of many long months of collaboration and compromise. Intro. 541’s lead sponsor, Council Member Antonio Reynoso (D-Brooklyn/Queens), did an incredible job facilitating the negotiations between advocates and legislators, pushing both sides toward an ultimate compromise that did not sacrifice the bottom-line protections demanded by advocates. The bill passed 37-13, achieving a veto-proof majority.

Intro. 182 went down differently. After months of negotiations, Council Member Ritchie Torres (D-Bronx), the lead sponsor of Intro. 182, went behind the backs of police reform advocates and made a backroom deal with the NYPD, Mayor de Blasio, and former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to move forward with a version of the bill that police reform advocates did not support because it severely compromised the bottom-line protections needed to effectively shield their communities against some of the most common forms of racist and abusive policing. Many City Council members ultimately came out against the bill, including Council Member Donovan Richards, who represents Far Rockaway. (Council Member Eric Ulrich, who represents the western side of the Rockaway Peninsula, voted against both Right To Know Act bills.) Notably, three major law enforcement associations of color - The Grand Council of Guardians, the National Latino Officers Association, and 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care - also came out against Intro. 182 in an inspiring show of solidarity with police reform advocates and affected communities. In the end, 182-D passed by only 27 votes, just 1 more than the 26 needed to pass a bill through the City Council.

The coalition-supported version of the bill was the product of years of compromise on all sides of the table, regardless of what Council Member Ritchie Torres would have you believe when he described the coalition as “demented” and “a fanatical few” who were unreasonably stubborn and unwilling to compromise during negotiations. When advocating for any legislation, compromise is surely inevitable, but there is a difference between making compromises for the sake of achieving some measure of true, lasting reform and desperately grasping at any measure of reform at the expense of achieving deep and meaningful change. We, the coalition, understand this. Council Member Ritchie Torres, it seems, does not. Torres even resigned from the City Council Progressive Caucus following the vote on 182-D, writing in his resignation letter “After the vote on Tuesday, it became painfully clear to me that I can no longer call the Progressive Caucus home”, despite the fact that many members of the Progressive Caucus actually voted in support of Intro. 182.

There are many issues that community advocates have with the NYPD/mayor-supported version of Intro. 182 that Torres ultimately brought to a vote in late December, including the fact that the individualized business cards that police officers will be required to hand out fail to provide information on how to file a police complaint through the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), the proper channel by which to file complaints regarding police conduct. However, the main criticisms advocates have boil down to two major loopholes.

The first major loophole is it fails to require officers to identify themselves in Level 1 street encounters, which include non-investigatory questioning. The reasons why it is so important to include Level 1 encounters in any comprehensive police reform measure might be less obvious than say, Level 3 encounters, which include stop-and-frisks. One reason we need increased protections for civilians during Level 1 encounters is because they are by far the most common type of police stop in NYC, representing the vast majority of non-arrest street encounters. In addition, one does not need to be accused or suspected of any criminal activity to be stopped or questioned by police during a Level 1 encounter. This leaves civilians extremely vulnerable to being targeted based exclusively on racial or social bias. On top of all that, the NYPD routinely abuses these types of encounters when it comes to non-investigatory questioning of witnesses and victims of crimes that police officers are accused of, using them to illegally intimidate and coerce victims against moving forward with their accusations. Under the version of Intro. 182 that was passed into law, only one officer has to provide an ID card when questioning a witness or victim, regardless of how many officers are present.

The second major loophole in the mayor/NYPD-supported version of Intro. 182 is it fails to require officers to identify themselves or provide a reason for their activity during traffic stops. The officer refusing to divulge the reason for the traffic stop, excessive or discriminatory ticketing, and sexual harassment are common, sometimes routine, experiences for civilians during traffic stops, disproportionately affecting people of color, women, immigrants, young people, and members of the LGBTQ/GNC community. Excluding both low-level investigatory encounters and traffic stops from Intro. 182 creates a bill that guts civilian protections and removes police accountability measures for the vast majority of historically abusive police encounters. For people of color and others disproportionately affected by abusive policing, we need only look to the headlines to see that police accountability is a matter of life or death.

To be clear, not all cops are bad, and the Right To Know Act was never intended to send that message. Introductions 541-C and 182-D are not the products of some liberal witch hunt, but rather common sense accountability measures that inform and protect everyone involved in civilian-police encounters, including law enforcement officers. The biggest reason that major NYPD power brokers like the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association are against the Right to Know Act has little to do with its practical enactment but rather hinges on the fact that this will be the first time in history that the New York City Council gets to legislate internal NYPD procedure. This terrifies the NYPD, who view it as a dangerously slippery slope towards actually being held accountable for their actions. Maybe the powers that be in the NYPD should have thought about that sooner and found a way to handle cases of police abuse or misconduct justly and transparently through their own internal procedures before it came to this.