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NYC law-and-order reforms face different prospects before council

The Rikers Island jail, with the New

The Rikers Island jail, with the New York City skyline in the background, is shown in a June 20, 2014 photograph. The 10-jail complex holds offenders who face charges ranging from trespassing to murder. Credit: AP / Seth Wenig

Two proposed City Council initiatives aimed at changing law-and-order practices that critics say unfairly target minorities and the indigent have taken different paths, with one gaining steam as the other stalls.

The difference is a matter of politics and practicality, experts and stakeholders said.

One package of eight bills is aimed at limiting criminal penalities for people accused of lower-level, nonviolent offenses, with a goal of keeping them out of Rikers Island. The Criminal Justice Reform Act is spearheaded by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito with input from the Police Department and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

The other initiative, which calls for police to identify themselves via business cards in stops and to seek consent in otherwise unconstitutional searches, has languished since a public hearing nine months ago. The two bills, together called the Right to Know Act, have been labeled “overkill” by Police Commissioner William Bratton.

“It’s a political equation,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice lecturer who worked in the past as a cop and a prosecutor. “Demonizing the police is a big mistake politically. They’re pretty popular.”

City Council Member Ritchie Torres (D-Bronx) acknowledged his legislation to change day-to-day, street-level exchanges between police and young men of color faces an “uphill battle.”

He also said he understands the broader appeal of the Criminal Justice Reform Act, which he backs.

“There seems to be a consensus that there should be proportionality between the punishment and the crime,” Torres said.

The criminal justice bills would, in part, steer less serious infractions in the administrative code — such as public consumption of alcohol and public urination — through to a civil tribunal and away from criminal courts.

Kenneth Sherrill, a Hunter College professor emeritus, said lawmakers righting what they believe are their predecessors’ mistakes is more palatable than taking on the powerful police unions.

“One targets rules that they made themselves,” Sherrill said. “It’s much easier to change policies in that way than it is to go after an organized group.”

For their part, activists against police abuse and brutality say the need for real reform cannot be discounted.

“Justice is great. It should be celebrated,” said Jose Lopez, of the immigrant advocacy groups Make the Road New York and Communities United for Police Reform. “But we can’t ignore good police reform, because it’s ultimately the encounters between police and civilians that feed the criminal justice system.”

Josmar Trujillo, an organizer with New Yorkers Against Bratton, blamed the lack of political courage for the momentum behind criminal justice proposals that he said are doing nothing to stop a disproportionate impact on minorities.

“Politicians are just scared. I think they’re legitimately scared of not only the police unions but of being labeled anti-police,” he said.

Of the proposal that would give cops discretion to ticket rather than arrest people for quality-of-life offenses, Trujillo said, “Racially skewed summons is not better than racially skewed arrests.”

Eric Koch, a spokesman for Mark-Viverito, said she believes strongly in criminal justice reform efforts. He did not address the council speaker’s views on the Right to Know legislation. Both sets of bills are going through the council’s “normal process,” he said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s spokeswoman Monica Klein did not say whether the mayor supports or opposes the council proposals.

She said the administration has taken “clear steps to reduce unnecessary arrests and strengthen [the] NYPD’s relationship with the community.”

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