Mayor Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly warned reporters today that if the City Council passes legislation to allow citizens to challenge discriminatory police practices and install an Inspector General to oversee the department, New York will revert to the dangerous dystopia of the "old days," only with more attorneys. "Every tort lawyer is gonna buy a new house and a new car right away," Bloomberg said. "They're not even gonna have to wait for the cases to come in." Kelly added, "City council might as well have named the legislation, the 'Full Employment for Plaintiffs Attorneys Act'…Take heart Al Qaeda wannabes."
A reporter pointed out that the legislation, which is likely to be put to a vote in the next day or two, would not allow for monetary damages, just injunctive relief and attorneys fees. Bloomberg replied, "It doesn't matter. If I spend all my time in court and police stations writing up descriptions or whatever I do, instead of being out there in the streets, they're not gonna be out in the streets to protect you." The mayor then glared at the reporter. "This is a very personal thing for you and your family."
Bloomberg's warnings seemed to jibe with what he said was the reason why polling shows 68% of voters support an Inspector General for the NYPD, even as they also support the department and their stance on terrorism.
It's easy to get someone to go along with something if you frame it as if their safety is at stake, he explained. "If you phrase a question, 'Would you like or would you not like something,' you get different answers…I can tell you from my personal experience, if you say, 'Do you want to be safe, if you want your kids to be safe?' They all say yes."
The mayor then repeatedly invoked those very same stakes to reject the legislation: "This is not a game, this is a life-threatening thing…This is life and death, this isn't playing some game…It's very nice to have a lawyer and everybody after say you should have done this and you should have done that, but when the other guy maybe has a gun in his pocket, that's a different story."
Aside from the usual dubious arguments against the legislation, officials said that recent police initiatives to curb violence might be jeopardized, though this line of reasoning assumes that state judges would side with every complaint.
The Mayor also made a bizarre complaint against the Inspector General bill: "Intro 1079 would allow gang members to make anonymous complaints to the new inspector general…The IG would have to review, and the NYPD would have to dedicate time and resources to answering the gang members' anonymous complaints."
Asked how gang members (not to mention zombies, pirates, and cannibals) making vague, anonymous complaints could realistically be a problem, the mayor responded: "Because today…you have to have some substance. If you just say I don't like that guy in my neighborhood, that may be well be true, but we're not gonna devote our resources to that."
Bloomberg batted away a question about what his administration would do if the legislation passed, and said he would not spend money to fight the politicians who voted for it, as he has done with congressional gun legislation.
Kelly claimed that an Inspector General would "undermine our partners that the NYPD has carefully constructed over the past decade. Partnerships with both domestic and foreign entities. Those partnerships have helped keep New Yorkers safe.
Kelly said that those "entities" can't handle any "review of their own sensitive operations", by an IG, and would "walk away" from the NYPD if probed.
After his initial remarks, Commissioner Kelly spoke little during the rest of the conference; when Bloomberg asked him if he had anything to add after a particularly heated exchange with a reporter, Kelly said, "No."
The mayor and the commissioner assembled all of the leaders of the various police unions, Richmond County DA Dan Donovan and Queens DA Rich Brown, but the most powerful weapon in their arsenal was the 93-year-old former Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau, who said it would be "frankly, a disaster" if the Community Safety Act was passed:
Let me just mention to you what it was like in the old days. When I first became DA I went out in a surveillance van in Alphabet City and drug dealers came up to the van in broad daylight and offered to sell me drugs, with uniformed police officers standing 20 feet away. I told Mayor Beame about this…and he went out and they tried to sell the mayor drugs…that's what it was like in 1975, 1976.
With this new legislation it's not only greatly adding to the burdens of the police officers on the street, our first line of defense, but you're also subjecting them to civil liability. And personally if I were out there and I saw something suspicious knowing that I was risking my life every time I made a stop, knowing that I might be founding violated the law knowing that I might be subjected to civil liability, I think I'd keep walking. We don't want to go back to that.
Morgenthau also noted a recent CDC study that showed that black men were overwhelmingly more likely to die by gunfire than their white counterparts. "What's the City Council gonna do about that?" he asked.
But towards the end of the press conference, the gravity that Morgenthau had brought into the room had left with him, and the mayor became prickly when asked if his opposition to the bill would "backfire" because everyone standing next to him were "white men" (this is not entirely true: Chief of Department Philip Banks III had been standing with the group but left early).
"Why would it backfire?…You take a look at who's killed, this is clearly a societal problem that most of the crime is concentrated in a handful of neighborhoods…We have to improve our schools, we have to have after-school programs." The City has cut after-school program slots by 35% since 2008, with 27,000 more scheduled to be slashed in the mayor's last budget.
Asked if there is an independent body who oversees NYPD policy like an Inspector General would, Bloomberg responded,
Yes there is. It's called the Mayor...The police commissioner in our city works for the mayor serves at the pleasure of the mayor, and I can just tell you I'm not a professional in this but I have every single policy that this police department has the police commissioner has explained to me, kept me posted on it and when I talk to other experts, I'm convinced that they are the exactly the right thing.
At a rally outside City Hall shortly before the mayor's press conference, the legislation's co-sponsor, Jumaane Williams, told a crowd of roughly 150 people, "What Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly are saying, is we have to profile to do our job." Invoking the same argument that was proffered by the mayor and the police commissioner, he added, "If we don't pass this bill we'll go back to the 1960s. Everybody has a right to live in 2013."
[UPDATE 3:28 p.m.]
The Motions to Discharge the Community Safety Act Intros 1079 & 1080 just passed by a wide margin. Floor vote on the bills later this week.
— Brad Lander (@bradlander) June 24, 2013