A longtime police monitor (and booster) ‘welcomes’ more oversight

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In the last 12 years, one police commissioner, Ray Kelly, has overseen the New York Police Department.

And during that time, one lawmaker has been charged with keeping an eye on the department: City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr.

“I am proud of the fact that on my watch, crime went down and we’ve been safe from terrorists, all the while, I believe, respecting civil rights,” Vallone said in a recent interview with Capital.

To hear Vallone tell it, the city may have just lived through its good old days.

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“We are in for what I've been warning about, and we're already seeing it," Vallone said, sitting in a cafe on Ditmars Boulevard in Astoria. "There's going to be a major crime increase."

Vallone, whose positions on policing put him far to the right of most of his fellow Democrats on the Council, was referring to what he believes will be the effects of two new laws increasing oversight of the NYPD which passed with the vocal backing of New York City's next mayor. 

One law creates an inspector general to oversee police policy and a second facilitates lawsuits against the department, in certain circumstances, for allegations of bias. 

Vallone said additional oversight of the NYPD’s anti-terrorism tactics were needed, but that subjecting the police to additional lawsuits was dangerous.

“The cops have already said to me and to anyone who'll listen, 'We're going to do our jobs, but we're going to sit in that car and respond to calls. We're not going to get out and act on our training anymore. Why? Who's got our back?'"

Echoing comments he said he’s heard from police officers, Vallone said, “Somebody comes by with a bulge in their waistband and a winter coat on a summer day. 'Have a nice night. We're not doing anything.' And if people think that's not going to result in more shootings, more deaths, more crimes, they're out of their mind.”

According to Vallone, the anti-bias bill, which Bill de Blasio effectively turned into a litmus test in the primary, gives way too much power to people who can bring sweeping lawsuits against the department.

Sketching out an extreme hypothetical, Vallone said, “You can catch a guy in the middle of a robbery, he can bring you to court because he is a male and he was arrested and that's a police policy—[he can argue that] a male is a group that is disparately impacted."

"Is the city going to win? I hope so,” he said.

In addition to street crime, the NYPD is also playing a role in the fight against terrorism, creating one of the most sophisticated anti-terrorism operations anywhere in the country. Those tactics have come under criticism following a Pulitzer Prize-winning series by two Associated Press reporters who revealed that the NYPD’s “demographics unit” mapped where Muslims around New York were living, eating, praying and studying. The NYPD’s surveillance program extended along the East Coast, raising questions about freedom of speech and the boundaries between proactive policing and profiling.

Vallone became public safety chair in January 2002, the same time Kelly began his latest stint as commissioner. (Kelly briefly served in that post in the early late 1990s, under David Dinkins.) During that time, the NYPD shrunk in terms of personnel, but expanded its scope of operation tremendously, stationing officers overseas and creating a 1,000-person anti-terrorism unit. The New York City Council’s oversight capacity stayed the same.

Asked about the Council's ability to monitor the overseas activities of the department, Vallone said, “That's a good question. I have a staff of four people. You think I'm looking at the overseas operations of the NYPD?”

It is, he said, "uncharted territory" for a local police department to run the type of sophisticated and sensitive operations that the NYPD currently does.

“When it comes to oversight over world-wide anti-terror activities by a Council committee of four staff members,” he said, “much of what we know, almost all of what we know, is what we are given. So other than what I’ve been told confidentially, there isn’t much more I can tell you.”

Asked when he began receiving confidential briefings from the NYPD, Vallone paused to think for a moment, then said it was some time in 2007 or 2008.

“I don’t think they even thought of it early on, because this was new to everybody,” he said.

“It wasn’t all that regular,” he said, and in fact the briefings were usually given “only when we asked, really.”

Vallone conceded more oversight was needed of the department, but he also predicted that any review of the NYPD would vindicate Kelly and the decisions he’s made about fighting crime and terrorism.

“If a municipality, which doesn't happen anywhere else in the world, has operations around the world, perhaps there can be a different type of oversight in addition to what exists because this never happened before,” said Vallone.

"Because we are in unchartered territory, and I am well aware of the potential for abuse,” he said, “I welcome all the additional oversight. I think the oversight we have now should be looked at by experts to determine if there are better ways to do it.”

Vallone said there was one respect in which the Kelly-era department definitely needed improvement.

“The police department has had a huge problem giving information out to the press," Vallone said. "I'm not going to defend them when it comes to that. I understand why they don't. Because whenever they give it out it gets turned around and taken out of context. But to a large [extent] I think they were their own worst enemies when it came to giving information out. Everything when they eventually gave it out backed them up, but they sat on it for so long that it made it look like they were hiding something.”