Activists Rally in Support of Right to Know Act
Queens activists took to Woodside Plaza to urge Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) to support the Right to Know Act—a set of proposals under consideration in the City Council that would require police officers to identify themselves during interactions with the public and restrict “unconstitutional searches.”
The rally, which took place at 59 Woodside Ave., Aug. 20, was led by organizers from the South Asian youth advocacy group Desis Rising Up & Moving and Filipino youth advocacy group Ugnayan Youth for Justice and Social Change. Both groups are Jackson Heights-based. The action specifically mentions Van Bramer, the neighborhood’s representative in the City Council, as activists believe the majority leader to be inclined to support Right to Know, according to Michel Gomes, an intern with DRUM and organizer of the rally. The councilman’s office did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Introduced to the City Council by councilmembers Antonio Reynoso (D-Brooklyn/Ridgewood) and Ritchie Torres (D-Bronx) in 2014 and supported by Communities United for Police Reform, the Right to Know Act consists of two parts, Intro 182 and Intro 541. Intro 182, co-sponsored by half of Queens’ 14-member delegation, states that when police officers “stop, question or search a member of the public” during law enforcement activity, they must provide their full name, rank and command, as well as a specific reason for them being stopped or detained. Though New York City law already mandates this, the proposal specifically amends Title 14-101 of the Administrative Code to define “law enforcement activity.”
This proposed definition of “law enforcement activity” covers interactions that include pedestrian stops, frisks, home and vehicle searches and non-custodial questioning—any interaction where the individual has not been detained and is legally permitted to leave. Intro 182 would add a new section to Title 14 of the Administrative Code that mandates any interaction that does not end in an arrest or summons have a written record that would be provided to the person. The legislation’s sponsors hold that this would “increase transparency” and improve public safety by building trust with communities otherwise suspicious of law enforcement by guaranteeing their fair treatment.
Illustrating Gomes’ point, she notes, “as we were doing this action [in Woodside], there was a guy being arrested nearby and the police wouldn’t give his girlfriend a reason.”
Intro 541 deals with the issue of searches without a warrant or “probable cause” of wrongdoing. This legislation also affects Section 14 of the Administrative Code and requires officers to gain “voluntary and informed” consent, either written or audio recording, before performing this type of search, including informing the person that they have the right to refuse. Officers would be required to document the name, precinct, and badge number of all officers involved as well as demographic information on the person being searched.
Intro 541 endeavors to reaffirm an officer’s right to conduct a search based on reasonable suspicion the individual is armed and is a risk to the officer’s safety. This legislation pertains only to people who have not been detained and are not accused of a crime.
For Gomes, the debate over Right to Know is pertinent to the recent death of Sandra Bland, an African-American woman, in a Texas jailhouse. Bland’s interaction with a Texas state trooper was caught on the officer’s dash cam and outraged civil libertarians and police reform activists, as the routine traffic stop escalated to a violent arrest after Bland questioned the validity of the stop and the officer’s subsequent actions. Unable to afford bail, Bland allegedly committed suicide after three days in Waller County Jail.
Critics fault the officer in this case for provoking Bland and failing to de-escalate the situation. “If this can happen to her,” Gomes noted, “I don’t feel safe anymore.” Gomes indicated that Right to Know was critical to restoring trust in the police and removing fear when immigrants interact with the police.
The organizers chose Woodside because they saw the need to educate their neighbors on the legislation under consideration and demonstrate how it affects all people in the community—immigrants as well as African Americans and Latinos. “This is very real and people need to understand their rights when dealing with the police,” Gomes concluded.
DRUM has previously conducted workshops on combating “anti-black” racism in immigrant communities and recently held a “teach-in” and vigil at Jackson Heights’ Diversity Plaza for the victims of the Charleston massacre.