Pass the (Right) Right To Know Act

By Craig Levine

Recent events have reminded us how toxic and destructive human interactions can become when one party is substantially more powerful than another. One of the greatest power imbalances occurs when civilians interact with the police. One person has a societally-conferred monopoly on the legitimate use of force, including potentially deadly force. The other must comply completely or risk, as we have seen through countless cell phone videos, the gravest consequence. In a city with a recent well-documented history of discredited and discriminatory stop-and-frisk practice, the realities of this dynamic are particularly pernicious for young men of color. As a public defender office serving more than 30,000 clients a year, The Bronx Defenders sees these consequences every day.

As a modest step to help address this systemic victimization, a coalition of more than 200 organizations from throughout New York City has for the past four years been supporting the Right to Know Act. This Act, comprised of two companion bills, would require the police to uphold the most basic elements of decency in policy/community interactions: (a) informing civilians, most of whom have not gone to law school, that they are allowed to say no when an officer asks permission to search their person, home, car or belongings and there is no warrant, probable cause or other legal basis for a search, and (b) providing identification cards so civilians know which officers they dealt with.

Both bills will be considered by the City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Monday and, if either passes, by the full Council on Tuesday.

One would think such steps uncontroversial. One would be mistaken. As these bills have moved close to passage, the PBA, NYPD officers’ main union, has stepped up its vehement opposition and mounted a campaign of disinformation about both the bills and their supporters. The doors of NYPD cruisers read “Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect.” Providing ID cards and informing civilians of their right to privacy would further all three, so the department’s and union’s opposition is difficult to understand. Sadly, their efforts seem to have succeeded, at least in part.

First, the good news: after long, hard negotiation and significant concessions by the community, a version of the consent-to-search bill that would provide meaningful protection for civilians is pending for Council consideration. Councilmember Antonio Reynoso has provided strong moral leadership in championing this bill.

The bad news is the ID bill. The version moving forward, over the vehement objection of the community-based coalition, is thin and full of gaping holes. Specifically, it (a) exempts low-level encounters between officers and civilians completely, even though they constitute the overwhelming majority of encounters (for example, an officer stopping someone, without other basis, to ask, “What are you doing here? Can you show me some identification?”), (b) exempts traffic stops completely, and (c) requires, when multiple officers question a victim or witness, that only one of them provide ID.

This is not reform. Nobody — not the NYPD, the Council Speaker, or any other member of the Council or the de Blasio Administration — has provided any sensible reason why officers cannot or should not identify themselves by providing ID cards to civilians in these situations.

The questions confronting the Committee and Council are simple: Should civilians be informed of their right to privacy when there is no legal basis to search them? And should civilians who have routine interactions with the police, whether pulled over while driving or questioned as victims or witnesses, be entitled to know who they are interacting with? For anyone committed to respecting civilians or improving police/community relations, the answers are obvious.

The Council should adopt the consent-to-search bill, reject the loophole-filled ID bill, and complete the job by passing a meaningful ID bill early in the new year.

Craig Levine is the Director of Policy Reform at The Bronx Defenders.

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