Will City Council Debate Be More Contentious?

Bronx Councilmember Ritchie Torres, at the podium, flanked by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Councilmember Antonio Reynoso, spoke before the final meeting of the session. (Photo by Jarrett Murphy via City Limits)

The New York City Council wrapped up its session on Dec. 19 with votes on  two “Right to Know” bills designed to help citizens learn the identity of NYPD officers who question them, but Intro. 182-D., one of those two bills, proved controversial and was attacked as a watered-down version of police reform legislation that had been promoted earlier in the year.

Jarrett Murphy, writing in City Limits, noted that the bill passed, 27-20 with three abstentions – one of the closer votes on a council that has strongly supported more progressive policy in NYC.

[City Council member Ritchie] Torres took the lead on a bill to require police officers to provide business cards to residents when they stop them. It is intended to keep police accountable by allowing people to make accurate complaints about stops; many civilian complaints are never resolved because the cop involved cannot be identified.

Reynoso’s measure requires police officers, in many circumstances, to inform people that they have the right to refuse a search.

Both ideas met fierce opposition from the NYPD and its unions. Mark-Viverito struck a deal to have the measures adopted by the NYPD as internal rules rather than imposed on the force via legislation. But Torres and Reynoso kept pushing to codify them into law. Both bills underwent revisions to try to placate the NYPD, but Torres’ changed more dramatically: The final version omitted traffic stops and so-called “level 1” or “request for information” encounters between cops and civilians…

Torres is a candidate to succeed Melissa Mark-Viverito as speaker, and he and supporters of the revision came in for fierce criticism from City Council member Jumaane Williams, another speaker candidate, who said: “This is not about compromise. This about compromise that’s worth it. We should not make the perfect the enemy of the good. We should also not make the good the enemy of what’s needed.”

To Murphy, the debate presaged possible changes in the council’s lawmaking going forward.

Whoever becomes speaker of the next City Council (besides Torres, Richards and Williams, the hopefuls are Robert Cornegy, Corey Johnson, Mark Levine, Ydanis Rodriguez and James Van Bramer) will likely preside over a Council that is more contentious. Term limits will force out most of the membership in 2021, elevating the stakes. There are dicey issues around Rikers closure and homeless shelters to decide. There will even be an additional Republican on the body.

That raises the question of whether there will be a place for the kind of open debate that Tuesday’s stated meeting did not permit. The Council under Mark-Viverito staked a claim to being a serious incubator of progressive policy. If it’s going to achieve an even higher status as a deliberative body where the people’s opinions are presented and debated, there will sometimes need to be a place where elected officials can have an argument in front of the cameras — and without the arbitrarily short time limit that the Council oddly imposes on members’ speeches but not on the extensive ceremonies that precede each general meeting.

Go to City Limits to learn what Murphy considers to be the still “deeper question” that the debate over Right to Know raises.

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