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Do We Have a Right to Know Why We're Being Searched by Police?

New York City is mulling a "right to know" law after a summer defined by police brutality across America.
Photo via Flickr user Alan Greig

Last year, the New York City Council passed the Community Safety Act, a landmark piece of legislation that expanded the rights of those discriminated against by NYPD cops. It also created the office of the Inspector General, who is now charged with independently overseeing the largest municipal police force in America.

But an accompanying bill—the Right to Know Act—couldn't get the votes it needed. Had it passed, it would have essentially forced officers to identify themselves during unwarranted searches, tell citizens why they were being searched, and ask them if they're OK with that. In other words, it is a modern reincarnation of the Fourth Amendment in the stop-and-frisk era that promises an idyllic Pleasantville brand of law enforcement where, supporters argue, cops would actually abide by that old thing called the Constitution. Unsurprisingly, the cops hated the idea—police union head Patrick Lynch told a ​reporter, "We don't live in Mister Roger's Neighborhood."


Similar laws already exist in Minnesota, Colorado, and Arkansas. But now it looks as if New York City is ready to ask itself again: Do we have a right to know?

"A while back, I was stopped, frisked, and searched. And at that moment, I held the NYPD to a higher standard—when it happened to me, I assumed everything they did was of procedure," Brooklyn Councilman Antonio Reynoso, a co-sponsor of the newly reintroduced bill, said on the steps of City Hall Thursday. "And it wasn't until I worked as a chief of staff to a local councilman that I realized the entire stop was illegal. It wasn't justified."

In order to combat these kinds of abuses, according to Reynoso, the Right to Know Act will require cops "to give information" to the people they search by reaffirming something that already exists: the right to say no. This, of course, is the basis of your Miranda rights. In 1966, the Supreme Court held that citizens legally must be told that they have "the right to remain silent" by police officers before being arrested. And as Donna Lieberman, the President of the New York Civil Liberties Union, argued Thursday, that decision was necessary because cops weren't playing by the rules.

"The Supreme Court said, 'You have a right to know!'" she told reporters. "You don't have to talk to cops when under arrest. You have the right to get a lawyer. The police would never have imposed that protection on their own."


The end goal of the Right to Know Act, the sponsors say, is a more fruitful relationship between the NYPD and New Yorkers, especially minorities. The dynamic has been sour for some time amidst videos of brutality, instances of stop-and-frisk, and, most recently, a return to "broken wind​ows" policing policy. Reynoso later told me that the Right to Know Act had a bit of "broken windows residue" on it, arguing that the prosecution of people for minor infractions "doesn't really bring the justice we seek."

Council Members Ritchie Torres, the other lead sponsor of the bill, and Brad Lander, the original sponsor of the Community Safety Act, added that the bill would bring new definition to the NYPD motto of "Courtesy, Professionalism, and Respect."

"If… you know who you're interacting with, you know why you're interacting, you know how that interaction is gonna go," Lander said of how civilians handle police encounters. "Nine times out of ten, that interaction will go better."

(When reached for comment on this potential new era of friendliness, an NYPD official referred us to the Mayor's Office.)

Last time the bill was introduced in 2012, it garnered 30 co-sponsors, many of whom are now in more senior roles, including Public Advocate Letitia James and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (who hasn't decided if she'll support it). The bill was reintroduced to the Council Thursday, but with just 20 co-sponsors signed on. In any case, The future of the legislation depends on Mayor Bill de Blasio.


When asked for his stance on the matter, a spokesperson pointed me to remarks made by the mayor on Wednesday, in which he indicated he wasn't so sure how he felt about it.

"I had some concerns then. I certainly have concerns now," de Blasio said. "You know, we obviously have to protect the rights of our people, but we also have to make sure that we're not, in any way, undermining the ability of law enforcement to do its job. So, I have some concerns that, you know, I need to hear answered in this process."

This lack of clarity has landed the Democratic mayor in hot waters with the city's black and Hispanic communities, especially since he ran on a platform that called for police reform and accountability. The Council, which has been cast as an iron-clad ally of the mayor's, has begun to voice concern that he is too deferential to the city's law enforcement apparatus.

All too often, they say, de Blasio sides with Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, who told the Council Thursday that the bill is "totally unnecessary. It's part of an ongoing effort to bridle the police and the city of New York."

This week, opposition flared up again when the NYPD announced a shift in its marijuana arrest policy from​ arrests to sum​monses—a move many critics believe will inflict more harm on black and Latino individuals. "There is nothing ultimately progressive about replacing one form of discrimination with another," Councilman Torres said. "It may be progress, but it ain't progressive."

Then, on Thursday, de Blasio argued in defens​e of lawful chokeholds—a police tactic that, after the tragic death o​f Eric Garner in July at the hands of NYPD officials, has become a rallying cry for protesters. The City Council seeks to ban the practice altogether, but the mayor has expressed disapproval, saying that "the best way to handle that is through NYPD policy."

It remains to be seen whether the mayor's sympathies lie more with the police or the people they single out for searches.

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