LOWER MANHATTAN -- Family members united through a tragic bond testified before the City Council on Thursday. They all had loved ones who died in police custody or were killed by police. At the heart of the family members' testimony was a call to throw out a state statute that has restricted them, and all New Yorkers, from finding out information about officers involved in fatal situations with civilians.
That statute, called Section 50-A of the Civil Rights Law, shields law enforcement officers' information from being released in almost all circumstances. It's a situation that does not sit well with victims' families.
"These people are murderers," said Constance Malcolm, the mother of a teen killed by police, in an interview. "If we have a murderer next door to us, we want them to be gone. So why not the NYPD? They ain't nobody special."
Her son, Ramarley Graham, was fatally shot by officers who'd entered his home without a warrant seven years ago. They'd followed the 18 year-old to his house in the Bronx after suspecting him of selling marijuana on a street corner nearby.
His mother testified before the City Council's Public Safety Committee, along with family members of Delrawn Small and Saheed Vassell. Malcolm also read testimony from Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner. They all said that Section 50-A needs to be repealed.
"We want it gone," Malcom told PIX11 News after the hearing. "What is it doing to us? We're not getting the information that we want. They're using it as an excuse to not... give family the information that they need."
She said that even though former officer Richard Haste had been identified as the NYPD officer who'd killed her son, she has never been able to find out who the other officers were who'd also entered her home without a warrant.
Last week, an independent panel that had been requested by NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill recommended that the police department encourage the state legislature to change 50-A to ensure that more information about officers was made available to the public.
The NYPD's second in command, First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker, led a team of four top police brass in the city council chamber on Thursday in testimony about police procedures, including disclosure of police information, and NYPD disciplinary measures.
Tucker said, in testimony and in an interview with PIX11 News, that the independent panel's call for police information to be more available to the public had not fallen on deaf ears.
He said that the NYPD's record of lowering crime to some of its lowest levels ever spoke volumes about the department's effectiveness.
"We know we can get better, and that's the reason the panel was employed," he said. "They made these recommendations in good faith and we'll implement those recommendations as best we can."
Commissioner O'Neill appointed Tucker to head up an NYPD team that will draft a plan for making the panel's recommendations into policy. The team met in City Hall on Thursday afternoon immediately following the police leaders' testimony. Their meeting had been previously scheduled.
The commissioner and other NYPD leaders who'd testified said that they were interested in supporting Section 50-A being amended to provide more information to the public, but that they were legally unable to support its repeal. Doing so, they said, would compromise the safety of police officers.
For its part, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the union for uniformed officers, issued a statement that was highly critical of Section 50-A being changed in any way. It skewered efforts by the City Council to recommend a repeal or even an amending.
"Their demagoguery is helping create the growing chaos we’ve witnessed over the past week, and it will only get worse," said PBA President Pat Lynch, in part, in a statement, referring to two recent fatal shootings, and three other major violent crimes. "They need to spend more time listening to New Yorkers who have real public safety concerns and less time scoring political points by trying to handcuff the cops."
Victims' families, however, said that their need is very clear: that Section 50-A be thrown out.
"We don't want it watered down," said Malcolm. "We want it gone."
The city council is expected to eventually pass legislation calling for Section 50-A's repeal. In the end, that can only be done by state legislators, but the city council's request could be influential.