Posted by on May 18, 2012 in Blog

Two New York City councilmembers are leading an effort to make sure the New York City Police Department no longer operates without independent oversight. In light of recent revelations exposing the NYPD’s surveillance programs targeting American Muslims and Arab Americans, Brad Lander and Jumaane Williams are trying to expedite the process, and are proposing legislation that would require the Mayor to designate an independent Inspector General to serve as an the NYPD watchdog. In an article published in the Huffington Post, Lander makes a case for why the IG is needed, stating, “The IG would be a strong independent voice, focusing on how police policies square with civil liberties and on the effectiveness of police operations.” As it currently stands, the NYPD is the only city agency that does not have its own IG and operates almost entirely at the behest of Commissioner Raymond Kelly. The push for NYPD oversight has been in play for a while now, and with the new Associated Press revelations that the NYPD is spying on American Muslims and Arab Americans, Lander seems certain that the sooner the IG gets to work, the better. Under the proposed new legislation, the IG would be responsible for– among several other things–reporting to the public, investigating and auditing police programs and activities, and recommending policies to prevent civil liberties abuses.  

Councilmembers Lander and Williams are not alone in their effort to pass IG legislation. A parallel move has already seen two pieces of legislation proposed by state senator Kevin Parker who represents New York’s 21st Senate district. Parker’s two-pronged approach (S.6407A and S.6695) would create an IG for the NYPD and other New York State law enforcement engaged in intelligence gathering. On the issue of intelligence gathering, grievances are not only limited to surveillance of Muslim and Arab communities, but also with the NYPD’s long-held stop-and-frisk policy, a practice which since 2003 has wrongfully targeted over 4 million people in New York, according to NYCLU numbers. Lawmakers say that the NYPD has abused this practice absent oversight and say that police have often collected data on those they have wrongfully stopped, and entered that information into databases. “They [the NYPD] were stopping large numbers of young people, then they would gather the information after knowing the person they stopped did nothing wrong at all, [sic] they were putting that information into a database,” said New York Senator Eric Adams in an interview with Parker. Senator Adams is a former police officer who supports the move for an independent IG. “We can’t continue to have a police agency that has no supervision at all…who’s watching the police?” The state level legislation, critics argue, will take too long. 

The legislation proposed by Lander and Williams, however, would expedite the process of appointing the IG, cutting much of the red tape in order to have an NYPD IG working within the next year or so, while Parker’s legislation would take quite a bit longer. Lander and Williams approach their ultimate goal from two slightly different angles. While Lander is focusing on NYPD Surveillance of American Muslims and Arab Americans, Williams champions the causes of those victimized by stop-and-frisk, a policy which targets primarily African Americans and Latinos. Both councilmembers clearly see both these issues as attacks on civil liberties, but they are focusing their efforts on finding out how public money is being used to finance these programs. They have repeatedly questioned Commissioner Kelly about this publicly, but he has been able to successfully circumvent their inquiries. Outside of the government, activists say surveillance and stop-and-frisk are linked, and constitute a broader issue of NYPD civil rights abuses which need to be remedied in order for the NYPD to operate effectively with the full support of New York’s ethnic residents. Linda Sarsour, a New York-based activist, has spent a lot of time working on these issues and has put Arab Americans at the center of efforts to help correct the NYPD’s problem with profiling. She supports Lander’s and Williams’s legislation, and her organization, the Arab American Association of New York (AANY), has been part of a working group including legal and civil rights organizations and institutions working to inform lawmakers about how New York communities have been affected by profiling. On profiling and surveillance, Sarsour says the City Council legislation is one of the only places where they “have been able to connect the dots on these two issues.” For many lawmakers, activists and residents alike, there is no daylight between any of the civil rights abuses targeting any community. They all culminate into an important call for an Inspector General. 

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