Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos

The Public Square

Ted Alcorn

March 27, 2024

The debates roiling New York this spring

The debates roiling New York this spring

As the post-pandemic crime spike recedes, divisions have opened up in New York City officials’ approach to public safety. There are particularly deep divisions between the former police officer running things and the City Council, many members of which are deeply skeptical of the administration’s approach to policing and incarceration. There have been abundant occasions for disagreement, and each has sparked plenty of conversation.

Uncertainty over Rikers’ future

With little more than three years remaining before an August 2027 legal deadline to shutter the Rikers Island jail complex, the Mayor’s Office is increasingly signaling it will be unable to make the date.

The plan to replace the facility with four borough-based jails rested on the assumption that they would be accommodating 3,300 or fewer people, but the current jail population is nearly double that. As a recent online issue of Vital City explored, that’s the product of a variety of factors, including an increase in arrests during the COVID-19 pandemic and a slowdown in the courts. (The city recently created a little more headroom, Gothamist reported, by readjusting numbers in its planning documents to show the new jails could hold up to 4,160 people. But if present trends continue, even that could be out of reach.)

In the Vital City issue devoted to the topic, Charles Fain Lehman argued that the borough-based jails approved for construction are simply too small, and the city needs greater capacity to detain more people who represent serious flight risks or a danger to public safety. Others argued that the city could keep to its targets if it sped up case processing and made more and better use of supervised release.

But that program has been subject to recent high-profile criticism of its own. After a homeless woman hit a subway musician with a bottle, a judge directed her to that program rather than hold her on bail, and former police commissioner William Bratton weighed in. “When it comes to supervised release — it’s clear there is no supervision!” he tweeted, calling it “another example of our state’s broken judicial system.” (Days later, the woman was arrested on new charges, for shoplifting, at which point she was held on bail).

Meanwhile, Council Speaker Adrienne Adams reconvened the Independent Rikers Commission, under the direction of former state chief judge Johnathan Lippman, which will attempt to offer some guidance on how to close the jail expeditiously. In a statement offering muted support, Mayor Adams indicated his administration “looks forward to working with the commission on a refreshed plan that is reflective of our post-pandemic reality.”

Even the island’s near future is in doubt after Manhattan’s top federal prosecutor Damian Williams and New York Attorney General Letitia James formally joined efforts to wrest control of the jail from the city and place it under a receiver. In a possible bid to prevent that outcome, Mayor Adams shuffled his staff, appointing Lynelle Maginley-Liddie as a new correction commissioner.

Stanley Richards, who worked with Maginley-Liddie when he was a deputy commissioner at Rikers and who had himself been incarcerated on the island in the 1980s, told NY1 he was “hopeful” about her appointment. But he added, “Rikers is bigger than any one person.”

Crime is down but also up

Despite double-digit declines in most major categories of crime in the first part of 2024, the mayor has focused on one indicator that is up so far this year, transit crime, a trend punctuated by three homicides in the span of a month. In late February, the police announced they would flood the subway with 1,000 officers per day, echoing a similar surge in late 2022.

According to an analysis by the New York Post, the recent increase in transit crime coincided with a decline in the number of police patrols in the system. But a police source also told the Post that maintaining the surge wasn’t feasible, citing “an over reliance on police officers who are already stretched” and “excessive costs.”

Then in early March, following a series of brutal attacks — one on a conductor, which prompted a work stoppage by transit workers — Gov. Kathy Hochul one-upped the mayor by deploying hundreds of National Guard troops to the subway. She justified the actions saying it was as much about how their presence would make people comfortable as what they would do. “If you feel better walking past someone in a uniform to make sure that someone doesn’t bring a knife or a gun on the subway, then that’s exactly why I did it,” she said on “Morning Joe.”

Civil liberties advocates protested, but New York Times editorial board member Mara Gay, typically skeptical of an assertive criminal justice response, said it was a good decision: “If Hochul’s deployment of state officers can provide even some psychological comfort, nudging additional riders back to the subways, it could help the system become safer.” Conservatives complained of a double standard, given that the Democratic governor’s actions weren’t inciting the same horror that they would if, say, a President Donald Trump had deployed troops to quell disorder.

The city has also highlighted crimes by new arrivals. Mayor Adams himself took part in a police raid to break up a robbery ring, many members of whom were said to be migrants, and at a press conference, Police Commissioner Edward Caban said, “A migrant crime wave is washing over our city.” The data don’t support that contention, however, criminologist Jeffrey Butts told the New York Times. “So far, what we have are individual incidents of crime.”

None of this has prevented Mayor Adams from taking umbrage by out-of-state Republicans who criticize the Big Apple. When Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama insinuated that the city had a problem with “crime and migrants,” Mayor Adams tweeted back, “Guess you haven’t visited New York City in a while. Jobs are up, crime is down and we’re delivering for working people.”

The mayor and City Council clash

The divergent views of criminal justice held by Mayor Adams and the more progressive City Council spilled into plain view when, this January, the mayor vetoed two bills that would impose new controls over police and correction officers, and then the City Council overrode him.

New York City police officers are already under a federal requirement to collect and share demographic information on “Level 3” stops they conduct when they have reasonable suspicion a person has committed a crime. The How Many Stops Act, sponsored by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, would extend this reporting requirement to lower-level stops, including investigative encounters with a credible reason to engage a person. The mayor and Police Department objected, citing what they said would be an onerous amount of paperwork associated with the new reporting, and lobbied strenuously against it.

The disagreement grew increasingly fractious — City Hall reportedly refused to turn lights on for a press conference in support of the bill held in the City Hall rotunda, and a staff member tried (unsuccessfully) to take reporters’ plastic chairs away. Then days before the override, a police officer pulled over new City Council member Yusef Salaam, who was wrongly convicted for rape in 1990 as a member of the Central Park Five, and was driving with his wife and children.

The NYPD hurriedly released a body-worn camera video showing there was little more to the interaction — after Salaam identified himself as a councilmember, the officer let the matter drop — but it became a Rorschach test, with some viewing it as an example of racial profiling, and others as an elected official trying to get out of a ticket for tinted windows.

Whatever the optics, all of the mayor’s lobbying to preserve his veto of the bill was for naught: The Council overrode it by an even larger vote than the original vote.

Noting a trend toward greater restrictions on, and transparency about, the routine activities of policing, Chuck Wexler, head of the Police Executive Research Forum, wrote in his weekly newsletter, “It is clear communities and elected officials are seeking new means of engaging in oversight of the police, which is an important conversation. But I worry that these restrictions will have a chilling effect on the conscientious cop who wants to engage with community members in the very locations where trust is most needed.”

The HALT Solitary Confinement Act, which would prohibit jails from holding detainees alone in a cell beyond a four-hour “de-escalation,” met a similar fate. Correctional officers and the mayor objected to the legislation. “Solitary confinement does not exist and has not existed on Rikers Island since 2019,” the new corrections commissioner, Maginley-Liddie, told NY1.

But advocates say that is largely a matter of semantics. A report from the Columbia University’s Center for Justice showed a number of different labels the city applies to what is essentially the same practice, including placing detainees who act violently in punitive restriction as long as 23 hours per day. Jail officials say this is essential for safety.

The mayor vented in highly public venues, like a mid-January graduation ceremony for corrections officers, where he said, “While you try to protect the people that are inside our jails, people are trying to take away your power and authority to do the job right. That’s what we’re fighting against.”

Now only time will tell how both measures get implemented and whether their benefits are as meaningful — or their side-effects as deleterious — as their proponents and opponents would have us believe.