As we approach 2020, disaster looms over public safety in New York. A surge in violent crimes has shocked the public, from the midnight slaughter of four street sleepers by a mentally ill homeless drug addict; to the late-afternoon murder of a Barnard student, apparently by three young teenagers; to a spate of anti-Semitic attacks, climaxing in the Harlem arrest of a man who chopped his way with a machete into the upstate home of a Monsey rabbi celebrating the penultimate night of Hanukkah.
Grafton Thomas, perpetrator of the Monsey attack, fled to New York City and was almost immediately apprehended. His car’s license plate number had been reported and, after he crossed the George Washington Bridge, the NYPD’s automated “license-plate reader” system registered his presence. He was arrested within 15 minutes of entering the city.
But if New York’s city council has its way, surveillance tools like the LPR will be rendered less effective, if not useless. The Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act enjoys the support of Speaker Corey Johnson and the co-sponsorship of most of the city council, which held a long-awaited hearing on the bill only two weeks ago. In the name of “transparency,” the POST Act would require the NYPD to disclose and publish the details of how such technology works. A council report complains that “if a license plate of a passing car matches a ‘plate of interest,’ the system sends an alert. Advocates believe that these license plate readers raise privacy concerns because every license plate is scanned.” The NYPD has warned that the POST Act would create “a one-stop shopping guide” for criminals to evade scrutiny.
But judging by the state’s evolving criminal-justice landscape, empowering criminals seems like the goal. New York State is preparing to roll out sweeping criminal-justice reforms that will prevent police and the courts from detaining people arrested and charged with serious offenses. The new rules on bail remove judicial discretion from a remarkably wide array of charges. No one charged with a misdemeanor, for example, can be held on bail, regardless of his criminal history, gang affiliation, or evident disposition for committing more crimes. Misdemeanors in New York include assault in the third degree, causing “physical injury to another person by means of a deadly weapon or a dangerous instrument,” and reckless endangerment in the first degree, when, “evincing a depraved indifference to human life,” someone “recklessly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another person.”
In advance of January 1, when the new reforms officially come into effect, judges and prosecutors statewide have begun easing into the new regime by proactively letting remanded prisoners out of jail and by releasing newly arrested serious criminals on their own recognizance. For instance, on Friday, Tiffany Harris of Brooklyn slapped three Jewish women in the face, yelling anti-Semitic imprecations. She was arraigned on Saturday and released without bail; she was arrested for assaulting someone else on Sunday. On Saturday, Steven Haynes, a Brooklyn man lying on the sidewalk, attacked and pummeled a police officer who asked him to get up. Charged with a series of crimes, Haynes was released by a judge and was back on the street within a few hours. In Rockland County—where the Hanukkah machete attack occurred—Jorge Flores-Villalba, an unlicensed driver, killed a pedestrian on Christmas Eve and fled the scene. He was released without bail on Christmas Day.