INTERVIEW: If You Can’t Defund Them, Disrupt Them

By Reuvain Borchardt

NYPD officers scuffle with anti-police rioters in Brooklyn, during the George Floyd protests, May 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

New York City Councilman Kalman Yeger spoke with Hamodia last week Thursday regarding his opposition to two criminal-justice bills that passed the day before — about his career as a 
self-described “common-sense Democrat” and a consistent “No” vote in the liberal Council.

The two bills were vetoed by Mayor Eric Adams, a tough-on-crime Democrat, but the Council overrode his vetoes on Wednesday by a margin of 42-9. All nine “No” votes were members of the Common Sense Caucus, a group of Republicans and conservative Democrats.

Let’s first discuss the more famous — or infamous, depending on your perspective — of these two bills: the “police records” bill.

The bill requires that for any police encounter described as even a “Level 1” encounter, the police officer must subsequently record demographic information about the person encountered, and why he encountered that person. For example, if a crime occurred in a particular area and a hundred cops are deployed and ask people, “Did you see anything that happened yesterday at 2:00?” that is an investigative encounter that has to be documented with the new demographic information that the City Council is requiring. That is, in most people’s estimation, a complete waste of police time and resources.

So the cops would have to keep a record of the encounter even if the encounter were not of a person they were investigating, or who is suspected of a crime.

That’s right. 

By the way, it also requires the police to racially profile people, which I thought we were against, because the cop is not supposed to ask, “What race are you?” But he’s supposed to guess based on his own evaluation of who you are.

Councilman Yeger speaking in support of a tax rebate bill signed into law by Mayor Adams.

How are encounters recorded?

The police will have an app for that.

And if the encounter was filmed on bodycam, they will have to tag that particular bodycam clip and attach it to the report.

So at the end of each day, or during the course of the day, or however they will structure it, an officer will have to go through the bodycam tapes to match each encounter to each report.

The purpose of this bill seems to be to ensure that police are not stopping people for no good reason based on racial profiling.

That’s the ostensible point of it. But the realistic and operational point of it is that it’s going to create an enormous amount of paperwork and burdensome record-keeping for the Police Department, which is going to necessarily result in fewer cops doing what we ask cops to do every day, which is fight crime.

When something happens, you make a call and need a cop to show up, and right now the cop shows up in half an hour; the result of this bill is that they’ll show up even later. Anybody who says otherwise is lying. We’re going to have fewer cops doing cop work, because we’re going to have more of them wasting time doing paper-keeping work and reviewing their bodycams to match each encounter with a particular report.

The essence of the objections has been to the recording requirement for Level 1 stops. In other words, there was almost unanimous agreement that if this requirement were only on Level 2 or Level 3 stops, we may not have had a problem with this bill. Including the Level 1’s was the big issue. It will be extremely burdensome, and there’s a feeling that it’s just kind of a backdoor way to have fewer cops out on the streets fighting crime, which is what some politicians seem to want anyway.

Yeger with  Harav Reuven Feinstein, shlita.

Do you feel that was the real goal of the bill?

I think there are basically three camps. There’s us, who oppose the bill. Among those who support it, there’s the “we love data” camp of people who are true believers that, as a government, a city, a society, we need to have a better understanding of what cops are doing, why they’re stopping people, and that data is the answer. And then there’s the camp of “we hate cops” — they hate law enforcement and they hate structured society. They love chaos and anarchy. This is what they live for, these elected officials who think it’s okay to sit down in the middle of the street and block traffic, get themselves arrested protesting this or that. They are chaos creators.

Want to name some names?

Shahana Hanif is a perfect example of a councilmember who hates cops and loves chaos. [Hanif represents the 39th Council district, which includes Windsor Terrace, Park Slope, Gowanus, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Kensington, and the northeast sliver of Boro Park.]

And I would say there are probably about a dozen councilmembers whose views overlap with my camp and the “we love data” camp. They love data generally but they’re agnostic or even opposed to this particular bill. And when they’re presented with the facts that this can actually make the city less safe, they say, “I don’t want to vote for a bill that makes the city less safe.” I would estimate there are at least a dozen councilmembers who were very uncomfortable voting for this bill — based on personal conversations I’ve had with them. They’ve told me and others that they didn’t like it and think the reporting requirement for Level 1 stops needs to be removed and is wholly unnecessary.

But when the votes came to the floor, they put aside their legitimate concerns because, at the end of the day, all they cared about was the politics, and they want to side with the Council speaker over the mayor.

I have no doubt that there are members who had trouble going to sleep at night after their votes. They voted for bills they didn’t like because they didn’t want to upset Council leadership.

For me, this was not a personality conflict. I like both the mayor and the speaker. The mayor is obviously a friend of mine for a very long time, and I know him for much longer than I know the speaker, but I don’t have a personal gripe with either of them. I look at an issue, and it happens to be that on this issue, like on many other issues, I agreed with the mayor. And no political considerations could have made me vote otherwise. There were a good number of other members who agreed with me, but they ultimately sided with the speaker for political reasons.

Does going against the speaker hurt your district regarding financing or in any other way? 

Under the Council’s Rules, every member of the Council receives the same resources as a starting point. So the funding I’ve been able to bring in to our community over the last six years — the capital funding to build things and discretionary money for organizations and institutions in our community — does not change. 

Other members have always asked the speaker for more — and that’s where the danger comes in. Because if you ask the speaker to give you more and the speaker does, now the speaker owns you. And then, when there’s a vote, the speaker gets to say, “Remember what I gave you? You won’t get it again if you don’t support me in this vote.” 

I have believed that what makes the most sense is not to crawl on my hands and knees to a speaker and beg, but to take what you get by the Council’s Rules and use that to help our neighborhood. I believe that people want me to vote the way they would vote if they were in the Council themselves. And I try very hard for every one of my votes to be a channeling of a supermajority of the nearly 180,000 people I represent. They don’t all get to go vote in the Council; instead, they chose me to vote for them. And for me to turn my back on my neighbors and vote against their interests and to try to explain it by saying, “But hey, I’m going to bring an extra $10,000 into something you like,” that’s just not an answer they want to hear. Our community is honest enough that they don’t believe in that. 

People in our community care more that their elected officials speak for them. Long before I was elected, I was still a neighborhood resident, and I cared what my elected officials said and how they voted. Residents of our communities look at me, Sen. Simcha Felder, Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein and Councilwoman Inna Vernikov, and ask, “Are you voting the way I would vote if I were in your legislature?” And the answer has to be yes. Otherwise, we’re not doing our jobs. This is the very essence of a representative democracy.

Yeger with NYPD Commissioner Edward Caban.

Let’s talk about the politics of being on the speaker’s good side vs. the mayor’s good side. You’ve said you’re not going to vote how the speaker wants just to get extra money for your district. But is the mayor able to give you stuff that the speaker can’t?

Yes. Because when I need a tree pruned, a street paved, a sewer unclogged, a pothole filled, a park cleaned, etc. — things that are dependent on city agencies, who are part of the mayor’s administration — I need to call people who work for the mayor to get it done. The mayor runs the city. And if you put all your eggs in the Council’s basket, that may work out to a few thousand dollars for this, that or the other thing, but if the people who work for the mayor don’t want to take your calls, then you can’t serve your community. And I don’t blame the people who work for the mayor if they don’t want to take the calls of councilmembers who prove they don’t care about our city.

So if you have to choose between a good relationship with the mayor and a good relationship with the speaker, you feel it’s better to have one with the mayor.

That’s what cooperation in government means. It’s what “getting things done” means. It’s what separation of powers, and checks and balances mean. It means we try to get along. It means we don’t wake up trying to fight. Some believe that separation of powers, checks and balances, and equal branches of government mean that we have to fight. I don’t.

It doesn’t mean I always have to agree with the mayor. It doesn’t mean I always have to agree with the speaker. It just means that I don’t have to hunt for and manufacture reasons to fight just for the sake of a fight. 

The analogy I give is, if you’re a councilmember, and you walk into City Hall and light the mayor’s side on fire, don’t think that the fire won’t spread to our side. We are one city and we are the government of the city and both sides of the building have to govern together. And if the entirety of the relationship is going to be, “Let’s see who can burn the other side down,” ultimately it’s the city that’ll burn down. 

And by the way, you don’t really see that from the mayor’s side; you see it more from the Council. Some councilmembers have incredible disrespect for the mayor as the executive branch of the city. They hate the mayor’s side of the building, they hate the mayor, they hate the people who work for him — except when they want something; then they demand that they get it, and they have to get it yesterday. I don’t view government like that. The way I see it, if we don’t work together, we won’t be able to deliver for the people who gave us these jobs and asked us to help them.

So you believe that even if a bill is going to pass anyway by an overwhelming majority, your constituents want to feel that their objection is heard. And you have no problem being Mr. No of the Council.

That’s right. 

For example, for six years in a row, I’ve been the only member who voted against the Council’s operating budget — not the city’s budget, but the budget that operates the Council itself. When members ask me why I do that, the conversation usually goes like this:

“It’s because I read the budget, and I think we’re spending too much.”

“Why do you care?” 

“What do you mean, ‘Why do I care?’ It’s the people’s money. Of course I care.” 

“But, you know, it goes to the Council.”

“So? Is the Council a good cause?”

By the way, I’ve returned more than half of my office’s allocated operating budget to the city every year I’ve been in office.

Let’s talk about the second of the two bills, known as the solitary confinement bill.

That’s how it’s known, but it’s incorrect. We don’t have “solitary confinement” at Rikers. We do have something called “punitive segregation.” The essence of it is that if someone is in Rikers — and those who backed this bill also back closing Rikers, so I think they’re absolutely connected — and they do something violent, like attack a corrections officer or another inmate, what do you do? Arrest them? They’re already in jail. 

So there has to be something the system can do when someone demonstrates that even while in jail they’re a danger to themselves and to others. We have to separate them from everybody else. It does not mean putting them in a closet, locking the door, and not bringing them back out until the trial. That’s solitary confinement, and everybody who says that’s what this bill is about is lying. And I would agree that you don’t lock someone away for 23 hours a day in a room. But we must find a way to separate them from everybody else in the system, and not just to protect other inmates and corrections officers, but to protect the entire jail system from falling into chaos.

You tried to pull some procedural shtick yesterday to delay the vote on the veto override.

It was very clear the overrides were going to pass, whether it was yesterday or two days later. But the Council meetings yesterday, in my estimation, weren’t lawful because the Council failed to follow the strict protocols that are set out in the City Charter and in our own rules regarding giving proper notice of a Council meeting. And I felt that in a case like yesterday’s, it was necessary to at least put that information on the record. That’s what they teach us in law school: you state your objection on the record, even if you know the judge is going to overrule you, because that’s your only way to have the right to appeal. If you never stated your objection, you lose your right to bring it up on appeal. I objected to the votes and called for a series of roll call votes to preserve the right for somebody who has standing to file suit. And it was very clear that Council leadership did not want to allow debate or discussion on the topic, and I wanted to get that on the record as well.

It’s not the first time I’ve done that. At times I’ve said I’m not going to vote for a bill I felt was unconstitutional. And I’ve later been quoted in court decisions that have ruled Council bills unconstitutional. Will anything come of this? I don’t know. But I think it’s important that if the City Council is going to claim to be a legislature, it should at least pretend to be one every once in a while.

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