Reformers Remain Skeptical About New ‘Right to Know’ Law

By David Brand

A new law designed to stop unconstitutional police searches is less than a week old, but its rollout and implementation is already encountering criticism from police reform advocates.

Many leading reformers say the bill is too watered down — and that they don’t expect the NYPD to follow through in the first place.

The Right to Know to Act mandates that NYPD officers identify themselves, explain why they stopped someone and provide a business card to the people they stop in certain situations.

 Commissioner James O’Neill visited the 104th Precinct in Ridgewood to announce the implementation of neighborhood policing in every precinct in the city. //  Eagle  photo by David Brand

Commissioner James O’Neill visited the 104th Precinct in Ridgewood to announce the implementation of neighborhood policing in every precinct in the city. // Eagle photo by David Brand

The measures counter the lingering stop-and-frisk policy that has enabled the NYPD to search members of the public for vague reasons and has disproportionately affected people of color, said Council Member Antonio Reynoso, who represents parts of Ridgewood and Brooklyn and who sponsored the bill.

“Trust is perhaps the most critical component in the relationship between the police and the communities they are charged with protecting” Reynoso said in a statement. “Right to Know will ensure that no one is ever unsure of their rights when police request a consent search.”

The implementation of the Right to Know Act coincides with the full rollout of the “neighborhood policing” strategy, which divides precincts into multiple sectors and assigns officers to work in the same sectors on the same shifts, in every residential police precinct in the city.

NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill visited the 104th Precinct in Ridgewood on Monday to announce the complete rollout of the program, which began as a pilot at some precincts in 2015.

Though incidents of stop-and-frisk have decreased sharply since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, the policy has not gone away completely.

A 2017 report by City Limits determined that the stop-and-frisk rate remained nearly static between 2013 and 2015 inside Queens’ 106th Precinct, which includes Ozone Park, South Ozone Park, South Richmond Hill, Howard Beach and Lindenwood.

The final version of the law that took effect Friday was too watered down for many advocates, who said it allows officers to avoid sharing information with the people they stop. New York Civil Liberties Union policy counsel Michael Sisitzky said he remains skeptical that the law will be successfully implemented.

“While the Consent to Search law will enhance trust between police and disenfranchised communities, the police identification component does not go far enough in ensuring that officers are held accountable in all encounters,” Sisitzky said at a rally last Thursday. “The question remains whether the NYPD will commit to implementing this new law in good faith, especially in communities of color that still experience heavy police presence in their neighborhoods.”

The new law also requires that the NYPD track the number of encounters and record the demographics of the people they stop. The provision is similar to a 2017 law mandating that the NYPD record and release demographic data for fare evasion arrests every quarter. The city did not release the information as required, however.

In September, Councilmember Rory Lancman, who is running for Queens District Attorney, sued the city for the data. Earlier this month, the city released a sliver of the arrest information and did not share the data on the demographics of most of those stopped for fare evasion.

Despite the skepticism from reformers, one NYPD officer told the Eagle that cops “don’t mind” handing the cards out and explaining the reason for the stop in most situations, though he said it is not always possible to hand out cards.

The officer’s perspective seems to contrast the messaging from the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, whose leader, Patrick Lynch, condemned the law in a statement.

 Officers from the 104th Precinct head to their patrol cars on Tuesday morning. //  Eagle  photo by David Brand

Officers from the 104th Precinct head to their patrol cars on Tuesday morning. // Eagle photo by David Brand

“As we’ve said from the beginning, the ‘Right to Know’ laws will discourage police officers from proactively addressing crime and disorder and will lead to more frivolous complaints,” said Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association.

That attitude troubles Robert Gangi, the founder and director of the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP). Gangi told the Eagle that PROP did not support the Right to Know Act because it did not think the law would have an effect. He also said he was skeptical that NYPD officers would actually follow through.

“We did not think [the Right to Know Act] would make much of a difference even if it passed and the fundamental reason is our deep cynicism that any legislation could change in a fundamental way [how] the NYPD uses basic law enforcement strategies,” Gangi said. “Our judgement is that the NYPD is not taking steps to enforce the law to make sure cops give out business cards. We think cops will ignore law.”

Gangi said the law gives too many concessions to the police. He called on the mayor and city council to limit the NYPD’s power.

“The only way to end NYPD abuses is to develop sufficient political power to control the [police] department to reduce power, resources and personnel,” Gangi said.