New York City will become the largest jurisdiction in the country to curtail police officers’ use of qualified immunity—a legal doctrine that widely shields officers from misconduct lawsuits—after the City Council passed a package of reform measures to improve oversight of the New York Police Department.
The bill, which Mayor Bill de Blasio said he intends to sign, will make it easier for New Yorkers to sue police officers.
“This legislation is simple—it creates a set of civil rights here in New York City, mirroring those conferred by the 4th and 14th Amendments of the US Constitution, so that people in New York City can hold officers accountable if those officers violate their civil rights,” Council Member Stephen Levin, who sponsored the bill, said in a press release. “It eliminates the shield of qualified immunity to allow victims the opportunity to seek justice.”
Yet the legislation passed March 25, which City Council Speaker Corey Johnson touted on MSNBC, calling qualified immunity a “broken legal doctrine,” still leaves the taxpayers covering the cost of damages awarded due to officer misconduct.
“We took away individual financial penalties for officers because I thought that was a huge mistake,” de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer on March 26. “In a time when we are trying to get more and more working people and people of color and immigrants to join the NYPD and diversify the NYPD, I truly believed if there was going to be a message to people that they might be personally liable, that, you know, for potentially tens of thousands of dollars, that that was going to tell a whole lot of people this was not a job they could pursue.”
“You can’t really say that you’ve ended qualified immunity for all police misconduct in NYC if you’re not talking about the ways that police misconduct manifests.”
The legislation also fails to prevent qualified immunity claims from being used in federal and state lawsuits.
The bill “doesn’t address the core issue of qualified immunity as an actual doctrine,” NYCLU Senior Policy Counsel Michael Sisitzky told Filter. “It covers any claims under the Fourth Amendment and excessive force, and that’s also not the full universe of police misconduct. So you can’t really say that you’ve ended qualified immunity for all police misconduct in NYC if you’re not talking about the ways that police misconduct manifests in violations of protest rights, of recording police activity, of racial profiling.”
The council approved a series of bills and resolutions in addition to the qualified immunity legislation. One bill allows the Civilian Complaint Review Board to investigate officers accused of bias or racial profiling, while another will require the NYPD to publish quarterly reports on traffic stops and break down data by precinct, race and ethnicity.
Sisitzky described the City Council measures as a “mixed bag”—a much better review than he and other advocates gave the separate de Blasio reform plan that was advanced at the same time as those measures.
De Blasio’s Inadequate Reforms
As historic protests against police brutality swept across New York last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered every locality in the state to adopt a reform plan by April 1, 2021, or else lose state funding.
De Blasio’s plan—boilerplate reforms with no real intention of change—was approved by the City Council on March 25, the same day as the package that included the qualified immunity bill.
“These reforms will confront centuries of overpolicing in communities of color and strengthen the bonds between police and community,” de Blasio stated in a press release after the Council voted on the measures. In an email statement to Filter, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office said the reforms “will deepen accountability and restore trust between the police and the communities they serve. We’re proud of the lasting change it will create it in our city and we look forward to doing more.”
Activist groups, however, assailed the plan as an inadequate approach to reconstructing the NYPD from a mayor who has faced extensive criticism for his police department’s misconduct, despite campaigning on a promise of reform. In a damning lawsuit filed in January, New York Attorney General Letitia James accused the NYPD of violating New Yorkers’ civil rights during protests against police brutality and called for federal oversight.
“Mayor de Blasio had a genuine opportunity to implement urgently needed policing reforms,” said Tina Luongo, Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society, in a press release. “He failed to do that and instead produced a plan that at best glosses over the deeply rooted systemic problems within the NYPD that plague the New Yorkers we serve.”
“They didn’t bring in advocates early on in the process. They really let the NYPD take the lead.”
The mayor’s plan focuses on five main points: the criminalization of poverty; recognizing the history and continuation of “modern-day racialized policing;” transparency and accountability; community representation and partnership; and creating a “diverse, resilient and supportive NYPD.” His plan also contains language on expanding harm reduction programs, conducting “a critical examination” of policies that perpetuate racism and breaking the school-to-prison pipeline.
Advocacy groups and progressive lawmakers focused on reducing the budget and size of the NYPD said the mayor’s proposal offers little to actually change the day-to-day operation of the nation’s largest police force. On March 25, more than 50 advocacy groups sent a letter to Speaker Johnson calling the mayor’s proposal “shameful” and arguing that it would not hold the NYPD accountable or decrease police violence.
They also decried the process the mayor used to develop his plan.
“They were supposed to engage communities … in developing those recommendations and they did so through, pretty much, an NYPD-facilitated process. They didn’t bring in advocates early on in the process. They really let the NYPD take the lead,” Sisitzky said. “So we ended up with a plan that had things like committing to more community and neighborhood policing, more training for officers and a reliance on things like their recently developed disciplinary matrix for holding themselves accountable.”
De Blasio only offered the first part of his draft proposal on March 5, allowing less than a month to incorporate changes from lawmakers and the public. The final draft was released just a day before the legislature voted on the reform package.
“It is also egregious that the final version of the Mayor’s plan and the Council resolution supporting it were not finalized and made available for meaningful consideration and debate until yesterday,” Council Member Brad Lander, who voted against what he called the mayor’s “sham reform plan,” wrote in a press release. “It was not a thorough, serious or inclusive process, and it is not a thorough, serious or inclusive plan.”
Advocacy groups are now looking to the looming budget battle.
“The real fight is going to be this summer,” Sisitzky said.
Photograph of NYPD via Flickr