Monday, April 26, 2010

Getting Away with Murder in NYC

With murders in NYC on the risen and stop-and-frisks at record levels, the percentage of murders being solved by the NYPD is on the decline.

Murders on the Rise

Every murder is an enormous tragedy, and the loss of life typically has a tragic effect on the lives of those left behind. The emotional and psychological toll of having a loved one's life taken away by a murderer is incalculable. Such an experience can be debilitating. Apart from the personal impact of each murder, each of those personal stories also represents lost productivity in the workforce for weeks and months after the tragedy. It even causes loved ones of those murdered to consider leaving New York City, and the resulting relocations drain economic activity from our city, reduce our tax base, and create lower population figures that lead to reduced federal and state financial support for our city.

Therefore, while no level of murder activity is acceptable, the declining murder rates that were initiated under Mayor Dinkins through his Safe Street / Safe City program and continued under his successors have been extremely welcome.

With the struggling economy and increased economic stress in our city, the numbers have started to move in the wrong direction. The number of murders in NYC at this point in 2010 is more than 20% higher than the number in 2009. The most recent figures show that murders have risen by 27%. That rise may sound more daunting than it should. A 27% rise is enormous, but the number of murders experienced in New York City in 2010 are still amongst the lowest ever recorded at this point in any given year. Nonetheless, more murders are an unacceptable trend. Left unaddressed, we might find ourselves returning to the days before the Safe Street / Safe City program.

Record Breaking Stop and Frisk Activity

We have discussed repeatedly the disgusting Bloomberg "achievement" of having in 2009 the largest number of stop-and-frisk incidents ever in our city. Approximately 90% of those stopped in the stop-and-frisk activity of 2009 were Black and Hispanic, and 90% of those stopped were found to have no illegal drugs, fire arms, or any reason for being stopped other than their skin color or ethnicity. This is also an incalculable tragedy.

Bloomberg was re-elected in 2009 despite the stop-and-frisk record and his horrifyingly unsuccessful stewardship of the New York City economy. But, we may be paying the price now. The Mayor's devotion to stopping innocent people in Black neighborhoods without cause may be interfering with preventing crime and solving crimes.

Declining Clearance Rates

The Clearance Rate is the percentage of crimes in a category that are "solved" and lead to an arrest. Clearance Rates in New York City were far lower in 2009 than in 2008 (59% in 2009 versus 67% in 2008) and far lower than the national average of 64%.

Murderers are literally getting away with murder more often. Instead of 33% of murders going unsolved (2008), we now have 41% of murders going unsolved.

The resources that the Mayor is devoting to terrorizing and harassing communities of color would be more valuable if they were invested in crime prevention and crime solving. There may be no more important step he can take in his third term.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Good Bye, Rubber Room

The Teachers' Union and the NYC Department of Education deserve praise for agreeing to eliminate the "rubber room" holding pen for teachers accused of misconduct and incompetence. We hope that their compromise reflects a new approach on both sides of the divide between the city government and the teachers.

Rubber Room Embarrassment

The Rubber Room was a name for a practice more than for a place.

New York City Department of Education practice had been to place teachers accused of misconduct or incompetence together in special rooms during what would have otherwise been their work-day and to pay them their full compensation while their cases were adjudicated.

This approach has brought embarrassment upon both the Teacher's Union and the Department of Education. Recently, the number of teachers in the Rubber Room had grown more than 700, and the cost of the compensation for those in the Rubber Room had grown to more than $65 million annually.

Teachers assigned to the Rubber Room were found to have major business activities run from the Rubber Room, and teachers whose horrible conduct made their place in the public payroll an outrage had the luxury of receiving full pay for years while having no responsibilities within the school system - no accountability without any reduction in compensation. On the opposite end of the spectrum, high quality teachers were assigned to the Rubber Room by threatened superiors when those teachers sought to expose the incompetence of those superiors. It was the ultimate lose-lose approach.

The Rubber Room persisted because the process of adjudicated was so painfully slow, and the Rubber Room became the symbol of our city's educational focus on teachers instead of on the needs of students and parents.

The End of the Rubber Room

Last week, the end of the Rubber Room at last emerged on the horizon. The NYC Department of Education and the Teachers' Union agreed to shorted the adjudicated time frame to six months (from a current average of 18 months), but it could result in incompetent, dangerous, or unethical teachers returning to the class room while their cases are still under consideration.

Many are skeptical that the plan accepted by both sides will have the desired impact, but the fact that the Teachers' Union and the City have agreed to a plan at all is cause for celebration. Cooperation between the teachers and those responsible for the educational system in our city has been rare, but such cooperation is the key to making progress on one of the most important issues affecting the future of our city, our state, and our country - how will we catch up to the rest of the world and prepare our children from the world that awaits them if we continue to accept a poor quality public educational system for the bulk of our children?

In NYC, we will only be able to make progress when teacher quality is permitted to be a key factor in compensation, promotion, termination, and lay off decisions. Moreover, until the Teachers' Union becomes more focused on benefiting from the best practices of its finest teachers and less focused on defending the careers of its worst performers, it will be unlikely to find common ground with parents or with current or future Department of Education leadership that truly sets excellence as its goal.

Let us hope that the pact which will eliminate the Rubber Room is the beginning of the end of a lack of excellence in NYC schools.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Lessons of the Harlem School of the Arts Demise

The recent closing of the historic Harlem School of the Arts has left families in Upper Manhattan shocked and angry. There are lessons from the failure of the school that all of us can use to improve the future of our community and help us attempt to avoid these types of shocking disappointments in the future.

History of the Harlem School of the Arts

The Harlem School of the Arts has closed. Though the school served thousands of families in Upper Manhattan in five different decades, we learned in early April that the Harlem School of that Arts would no longer be the beacon of artistic opportunity for young people that it has been.

The school, founded in 1964, had grown from 12 children studying piano in a church basement to three thousand children each year benefiting from instruction in nearly every instrument and musical genre, drama, visual arts, and dance. The school was founded by a renowned soprano of the late 1930's and early 1940's, Dorothy Maynor. Ms. Maynor was the wife of the pastor a Harlem church and housed the Harlem School of the Arts in Harlem in its early days. She was excluded from many prestigious venues because she was Black, but she ultimately triumphed by bringing art education to a huge number of Black children over 45 years.

The Harlem School of the Arts became a treasure. Though tuition was costly for many families, the Harlem School of the Arts was a magnate for families of every socio-economic status in Upper Manhattan and beyond. The school articulated a vision for the future:
HSA is committed to meeting the challenges of the 21st century by expanding its programs to ensure that HSA students have access to new arts education methodologies and cutting edge technology in today's information-driven global society.

But, that future is now very much in doubt.

Harlem School of the Arts Closes

In early April, the Harlem School of the Arts closed. The school had a $2 million surplus in 2003 but now has a multi-million dollar debt and a large annual deficit. The school did not pay payroll taxes or conduct audits for years while fundraising dwindled and a key grant was forfeited because the Harlem School of the Arts failed to meet the basic requirements of that key grant.
The Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, a nonprofit entity that operates with public money, awarded the Harlem School of the Arts a $1.5 million grant in 2005 to hire a chief financial officer and a marketing director to strengthen its fund-raising efforts. But the school failed to meet benchmarks required by the grant, including keeping a marketing director, said Kenneth J. Knuckles, president of the empowerment zone.

To add to its problems, the Harlem School of the arts added to its payroll with both huge raises for senior management and a major hiring spree while its revenue collapsed.
By June 2007, personnel costs had risen $500,000 from the prior year, to $2.8 million, even as revenue rose only slightly, thanks largely to fees collected for its programs. Fund-raising continued its decline, falling to half of what it had been in 2003. To stay afloat, the school borrowed $1 million in April 2007 against the value of its building, on St. Nicholas Avenue near 134th Street. But even as the school’s chances for survival dimmed, the board paid [its executive director,] Ms. Kerina $161,539, nearly 50 percent more than [the executive director who departed in 2005,] Ms. Akeju had been paid, according to tax records.

By June 2008, the last period for which the school has filed a tax return, expenses had climbed to $4.6 million, a jump of more than $1 million in two years. With revenues down, the school recorded a deficit of $1.8 million. And now, the school is shuttered. Five decades of making Harlem stronger have been stopped cold by a few years of world class mismanagement.

The Harlem School of the Arts has stated that it will announce its plans for the future in two weeks.

There is a valuable lesson in the demise of this great institution. Leadership Matters. History is easily overtaken by poor leadership, and challenging circumstances can be overcome by excellent leadership. Our institutions in Upper Manhattan must be defended by re-establishing our commitment to excellence and demanding the best of all of our leaders. Our churches, our hospitals, our cultural institutions, and our schools are all too precious to allow any of them to head in the direction of the Harlem School of the Arts.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Lies, Gowns, and Searches at Rikers

City jails have been engaged in the illegal practice of strip searching New Yorkers accused on misdemeanor crimes, and the Bloomberg Administration has consistently lied in depositions with regard to the continued abuses.

Strip Search Abuse

Courts ruled in 1986 that routine strip searches of those who have been brought to jail based on suspicion of involvement in low-level non-violent crimes were illegal. Nonetheless, New York City continued the practice of illegal strip searches and faced lawsuits in subsequent years.

In 2001, New York City agreed to settle a class-action suit related to the illegal strip search activity in the New York City jails. The settlement cost New York City $43 million. The City continued the practice further and settled another law suit in 2002 while promising to finally end the strip search abuses.

The strip searches continued, however. When faced with yet another law suit, the Bloomberg Administration decided it was better to lie in depositions than to admit that they had been violating the law non-stop for two decades and after multiple law suits and tens of millions of dollars of settlement costs.


Jim Dwyer of the New York Times provided an excellent summary of what occurred in the latest law suit, which resulted in yet another settlement payment. This time, the price tag was $33 million.

Beyond the cost of the settlement, this case has another striking feature: hard-core dishonesty by officials in the Department of Correction.

“Practically every single person we deposed from the Department of Correction swore that they never have seen a strip-search,” said Richard Emery, whose firm brought the lawsuit. “They all said, ‘We give everyone gowns, they go into cubicles, and we search them like the Queen of England.’ ”

Yet 30 people jailed on Rikers Island told a much different story in their depositions, according to papers filed in the case. They said they had been forced to strip, usually in groups, and to spread their buttocks. Women were required to remove sanitary pads and lift their breasts. They had been arrested on misdemeanor charges, not felonies; they were on Rikers Island awaiting trial because they could not make bail.
In effect, the lawsuit came down to a swearing contest that pitted the testimony of low-income people accused of low-level crimes against officials of nearly every rank in the city jail system.

What was the truth?

Mr. Emery’s law firm demanded that the city show that it had actually bought disposable gowns for all the searches. It took more than a year of haggling before the invoices were produced, with the city at first saying they were irrelevant, and then claiming that they could not be located.

EVENTUALLY, records showed that the city had bought 45,900 disposable gowns for the jails from July 2002 to August 2007, but many of them never left a central warehouse, said Elizabeth S. Saylor of Mr. Emery’s firm. During that time, 145,587 searches were done on people being held on misdemeanor charges. The city didn’t come close to having gowns for each and every one, as the jail officials had sworn. Shortly after turning over these records, the city conceded that there had been a “pattern and practice of strip-searches.”

Why did they continue when the Bloomberg administration promised that they would end? Has anyone in government been held accountable for not complying with the 2002 promises, or for denying under oath the plain truth of what was going on?

History has taught us that illegal activities, unethical activities, and lies are tolerated in the Bloomberg Administration. The stop-and-frisk abuses continue. The racial discrimination in the Fire Department was never acknowledged or redressed. The Mayor's mysterious and apparently illegal contributions to the Independence Party have not been thoroughly investigated.

No one should expect that anyone will be held accountable for the years of strip search abuse or for the lies told during the law suit. But, all of us should demand accountability and demand that the Bloomberg Administration commit itself to higher standards. The Bloomberg Administration has nearly 4 more years in power, and we cannot tolerate 4 more years of abuses and lies.