We are past and present professionals from all levels of the Law Department. We write to initiate a process of institutional review and change in furtherance of the Law Department's core values. We hope that the Law Department will undertake the actions necessary to create a more just and fair City..
As you know, the issue of systemic racial injustice is not new to our country. Entities across the board, for-profit, non-profit, and government alike, are speaking out and taking action in the fight against systemic racial injustice. For example, Governor Cuomo and the Legislature recently repealed Civil Rights Law 50-a, banned the use of chokeholds by the NYPD, created a New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative, and directed the Attorney General's office to conduct an independent review of the NYPD. Mayor de Blasio set out on a path to decrease police funding and reallocate funds to social programs. And New York Chief Judge Janet DiFiore appointed Jeh Johnson to conduct an independent review of the New York State Court system's response to issues of institutional racism.
All of this, you know. However, we raise these examples to show that entities, particularly government entities, are taking the lead to achieve real progress in eliminating systemic racial injustice. We call for the same action here at the Law Department. In the "Corporation Counsel's Message" located on our public website, you outline the Law Department's core values. In furtherance of those values, please see below for a list of six demands.
Core Values: Integrity, Diversity, Teamwork, and Respect
To promote integrity in the work of our office as lawyers for the City of New York and its citizens, we must review our practices and protect against our complicity in a system that perpetuates systemic racism. An independent review should address the implicit bias of any Law Department employee and ensure a thorough accounting and follow-up. This review should also identify ways to continue this oversight for future administrations. In addition, the Law Department must continue to improve itself and implement policies to ensure that we are hiring, supporting, and promoting a diverse staff. Part of that process is the need to conduct our own internal review. The Law Department can do this by, among other efforts, regularly engaging in, and reporting the results of, implicit racial bias testing.
Core Values: Justice and Diversity
The weight of the decision whether to represent a City employee too often falls on the line attorney assigned to the case. A committee drawing from Law Department employees with diverse identities and experiences should revisit and further develop the existing guidelines for identification of representation decisions that require additional review (including whether to withdraw representation), such as certain cases where there is evidence that a City employee's misconduct harmed a fellow New Yorker. The committee should then conduct that second-level review and ensure that all relevant evidence (i.e. accident reports, photos, videos, investigative files, and named defendant disciplinary histories) is obtained and considered before a representation decision is made.
Core Value: Justice
The doctrine of qualified immunity often shields City actors from liability even where they have inflicted serious harm on others, and where they have done so in violation of the rules and laws that govern their conduct as City employees. For years, we have invoked qualified immunity on behalf of individual officers to avoid liability for a wide range of constitutional violations.
Most recently, we witnessed NYPD officers showing a blatant disregard for life and safety as they drove their vehicle through crowds of people and pulled down protestors' face masks to pepper spray them. This is completely adverse to our mission. Even the feeling of entitlement to use such force is indicative of a systemic problem within NYPD. When we assert qualified immunity to avoid liability for constitutional harms, we amplify our complicity in those violations. In furtherance of Justice, we should put an end to our blanket assertion of qualified immunity, and formulate clear guidelines for when, and to what extent, the Law Department will raise such a defense on an employee's behalf.
Core Values: Teamwork and Justice
In furtherance of our values of Teamwork and Justice, we should be reporting on trends and updates regarding our work as an organization to end the injuries that our City's legal system too often inflicts on New Yorkers.
Many Divisions provide annual litigation reports including our wins and losses--reports that, by and large, inspire and motivate staff to perform great work for our clients. In the same vein, but also to avoid complicity and to intentionally work towards reform, we should implement a protocol for tracking and reporting client misconduct. We should internally circulate, on a monthly basis, a report describing the instances and nature of misconduct by clients or their supervisors; trends identified; repeat offenders; investigations commenced; findings; and policy changes.
Core Value: Justice
In the vast majority of cases, the City fully indemnifies employees in settlements with victims of serious misconduct. But individual accountability is necessary to make effective change. For example, where the Law Department determines that a police officer's violation of NYPD rules or regulations has harmed a fellow New Yorker, that officer should bear a proportionate level of financial responsibility for the injury that the officer caused. Direct financial consequences for misconduct will further the City's goal of ensuring a better and more cognizant police force. It will also go a long way to issue justice for individuals who have been harmed by City employees.
Core Values: Dedication, Mutual Support, Integrity, and Respect
The Law Department should further promote and expand existing volunteer activities that serve communities impacted by our work. For example, we could establish routine, dependable service opportunities in places such as ACS group homes and City-run detention centers. Engaging in such efforts would not only help Law Department employees better understand the impacts of our arguments in related cases, but also, by placing ourselves physically in spaces occupied by New Yorkers we seek to support, we would be embodying our core values of Dedication, Mutual Support, Integrity, and Respect.
As an initial action, we request a formal written response to this letter addressing each of the six above mentioned areas. We also welcome the opportunity to discuss these requests further after your written response. Our love and respect for the Law Department has moved us to make these requests, and we hope we have made clear our investment in the continued development of this office. Thank you for your time and attention in this matter.
Employees (past and present) of the New York City Law Department