City Council Committee on Public Safety
September 8, 2014
My name is Alex S. Vitale. I’m Associate Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics. I’m also senior policy advisor to the Police Reform Organizing Project and sit on the NY State Advisory Committee to the US Civil Rights Commission. I’ve been working on police practice and accountability issues for the past 24 years around the US and internationally.
I commend the City Council Committee on Public Safety for responding to the death of Eric Garner by reviewing a number of important training issues involving the use of force and how police should appropriately interact with the public. However, I am concerned that today’s hearing will leave unaddressed a number of important problems that contributed to Mr. Garners death and I hope that these will be addressed in future hearings by this and other committees.
The most import issue that I feel the City Council needs to address is the massive expansion in our reliance on the police to deal with a huge assortment of disorderly behaviors beginning with the adoption of Broken Windows based policing in the early 1990’s. It is certainly true that disorderly behavior can have a negative influence on the quality of life of residents and businesses. However, the decision to utilize the police as the primary and sometimes only response has been profoundly misguided and unjust. The City Council must work with the mayor to find alternatives to relying on police to deal with problems like emotionally disturbed people, people sleeping and living in public spaces, public drinking, graffiti, sex work, and low level drug dealing, and illegal vending. For each of these problems there are civilian alternatives to relying on the police that are much cheaper to implement, more effective, and less likely to have long term negative consequences for those who are currently arrested and ticketed.
We need to join cities across the US and internationally who rely on civilian lead Crisis Intervention Teams to respond to calls of an emotionally disturbed person (“EDP”). EDP calls generate a tremendous number of problematic interactions between police and the public. This is an area where police need more training, but also less involvement. Police should be available to back up civilian teams not be the only or lead responders.
We need a dramatic increase in civilian outreach workers with access to real services and real places for people to get off the streets that are safe and humane. We need to rely on civilian inspectors to deal with vending issues, including the selling of untaxed cigarettes. There was no real need to arrest Mr. Garner or to use the level of force that we all saw on the video tape. A civilian inspector could just as easily come and issued a citation. For those who think arrest is a better solution I will point out that Mr. Garner was arrested dozens of previous times and it seems to have had no positive impact on his behavior or life circumstances.
The City Council should explore supporting the full legalization of marijuana and prostitution under a system of regulation that would allow for greater oversight of these services without criminalizing hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers in a fruitless effort to wipe out vices that continue unabated despite billions of dollars in failed prohibition expenditures.
The second issue that the Council needs to address is improved accountability for officers who engage in misconduct. The City Council needs to support further enhancements to the power and capacity of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which has lost the confidence of the public because of the inadequacies of investigation and the rarity of consequences for officers.
In addition the City Council should support the creation of an independent police prosecutor’s office or “Blue Desk.” This could be located in the State Attorney General’s office or as part of a City agency. This would help to address the fundamental conflict of interest in asking local DAs to prosecute and investigate the police officers that they have to work with on a daily basis.
Thank you for considering these ideas and I look forward to future hearings on this important subject.