Faced with a nearly 20 percent jump in murders this year and a growing outcry from those who believe the police should increase stop-and-frisk patrolling to get guns off the street, more than 50 rabbis representing a wide swath of the Jewish community are supporting City Council proposals that seek to enhance community relations with the police.
“I’m all for a good, careful and lawful police department — we all need that,” said Rabbi Ellen Lippmann, spiritual leader of Kolot Chayeinu, an independent congregation in Park Slope, Brooklyn. “I’m a citizen of New York City and I want to feel safe in my city. But I don’t want — and I don’t want anyone — to feel unsafe from the police who may be stopping people without any probable cause.”
Rabbi Lippmann added that the laws being proposed by some Council members would “help the majority of police officers who are good, careful and thoughtful – and it helps keep in check the minority of officers who go outside the law.”
She was one of 53 rabbis who live and work in the city who signed a letter to the City Council calling on it to hold hearings and adopt the proposed Right to Know Act. The signatories represent all four branches of Judaism plus the Renewal movement. Jews For Racial & Economic Justice, which gathered the signatures, said the rabbis represent a “growing movement within the Jewish community” to support police reform legislation that was recently endorsed by President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
The push for this legislation comes in the month of June, which the city has declared Gun Violence Awareness Month, and amid a nationwide conversation about police tactics that erupted in the wake of the murders of Michal Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Eric Garner on Staten Island and Freddy Gray in Baltimore.
The Right to Know Act is a legislative package that consists of two bills. The first would require police officers to identify themselves when they stop someone, and to explain the reason they made the stop if no summons or arrest is made. The second would help end unconstitutional searches by requiring officers to explain that a person has a right to refuse to be searched, and to obtain objective proof that the person has consented to a voluntary search. This law would not apply where an officer has a reasonable suspicion or a probable cause for a search.
Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of Clal-the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, pointed out that the proposed legislation “is not legislating anything new — the right to know is already law.”
He said the proposals come at a time when “there is an attempt to rebuild trust between the powerful and the less powerful people. And from a religious perspective this legislation is most important for the people with power. … The truth is that nobody in power wants to change the power dynamics. [But] all people with power have to be restrained sometimes. And that is in the best interests of the people exercising power because it restores trust and the transparency that is the basis of trust.”
In 2011, police in the city conducted nearly 700,000 stop-and-frisk searches. A review found that 87 percent of those stopped were black or Hispanic and that nine out of 10 stops involved innocent individuals. A federal judge in 2013 ruled that the city had discriminated against blacks and Hispanics, ordered reform of the policy and imposed a court-appointed monitor to oversee the reforms. Although then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg appealed the decision, Mayor Bill de Blasio dropped the appeal in line with his campaign promise to reform the stop-and-frisk practice.
Although shootings in the city have increased for two straight years, de Blasio has said the increase is an aberration. He said they it would be addressed by the more than 300 officers he has added to areas in the city in which shootings and murders are up. And his office has noted that overall crime has continued to steadily drop.
Although de Blasio ran for election on a promise to reform stop-and-frisk and improve community-police relations, both he and Police Commissioner William Bratton have joined with the Police Benevolent Association in opposing the proposed legislation. De Blasio has been quoted as telling reporters: “We obviously have to protect the rights of our people, but we also have to make sure we are not in any way undermining the ability of law enforcement to do its job.”
Police report that the number of stop-and-frisk searches has declined since 2011 — a decline that began under Bloomberg. In the first three months of this year, the number of stops was half that of 2014. There were about 50,000 stop-and-frisk cases last year — about 18 percent of which resulted in an arrest. That is better than the 12 percent recorded in the last three years of the Bloomberg administration, according to figures cited by The New York Times.
Brad Lander of Brooklyn, a member of the City Council’s Jewish caucus, said that despite the introduction of a court-ordered monitor to oversee court reforms in the police department, as well as an independent inspector general and a civilian complaint review board, he believes the proposed legislation is needed.
“These proposed laws are very simple and make sense,” he said. “If there is not an emergency situation and an officer engages someone, he should introduce himself and explain why he is stopping the person. And if he wants to conduct a consensual search, he has to get the person’s consent. … It’s similar to the Miranda warning to explain a person’s rights to him.”
Lander pointed out that in the “vast majority of times there was no charge — the person did not have drugs and was not engaged in a crime or doing anything wrong. So the police were violating the rights of the vast majority of people. … These two steps go towards improving community relations and getting the balance right.”
But in an email, City Council member Karen Koslowitz said through a spokesman that although she supports the bill that would require officers to identify themselves, she is concerned about the wording of the stop-and-frisk bill.
“The bill specifies that the consent instruction must be delivered in a language that the person understands,” the spokesman said. “If this is not done, then a defendant can move to suppress the search based on the claim they did not understand the consent instruction. Ms. Koslowitz feels that with all the language spoken in this city, the provision in the bill regarding ‘language’ makes this bill unworkable. She is opposed.”
Councilman Rory Lancman said in an email that although he too supports the identification bill, he opposes the consensual search bill.
“The bill’s mechanics for documenting consent are currently clunky and unworkable,” he said. “If that gets sorted out, I would expect to be on board with the Consent-to-Search bill. Both of the proposed bills can be helpful in improving police-community relations.”
Although critics contend it is not necessary to require officers to identify themselves because they all wear a badge and nametag, Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, director of Rabbis Without Borders for Clal, said that is not always helpful.
“In a situation where I’m stopped [by an officer] and feeling intimidated, scared and thinking, ‘What’s going on here,’ I’m not necessarily thinking about capturing his name or badge number,” she explained. “But if the officer stops me and says, ‘Hi, this is my name and badge number,’ it is a more friendly encounter.
“I would hope officers would be approaching people for probable cause, but what we have been seeing is that they were detaining people without probable cause. So I think introducing themselves would be a nice way to start the conversation.”