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NYC Public Advocate Calls for Investment in Public Safety Infrastructure Beyond Law Enforcement

March 20th, 2024Press Release

NEW YORK: New York City Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams today called for deeper investment in public safety services and infrastructure, beyond simply law enforcement solutions. At a hearing of the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety, he urged the city to fund non-police infrastructure, and emphasized the broad agreement among New Yorkers in recent surveys on public safety priorities, and how police resources should be utilized.

“The NYPD is often called to address issues of homelessness and mental health crises,” noted the Public Advocate. “We know that dispatching police to remove people perceived as being homeless or experiencing symptoms of mental health and acute mental illness hasn’t worked long-term in the past, and that we must invest in non-police responses to people in mental health crisis to address those in crisis and to help address substance abuse.”

Public Advocate Williams also emphasized the overreliance on law enforcement in subway stations, including the recent addition of the National Guard, and said of the previous surge in subway policing “... Crime decreased outside of the subway during that time period more than it did inside of the subway. Despite the recent deployment of New York State Troopers and the terrible deployment of the National Guard to the city’s subways, a recent shooting occurred on the A train as it pulled into the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station, which houses a police station currently. This says to me that police alone can’t solve this, and I think everybody here agrees with that.”

“What I’m hoping is that we have the courage in leadership to not just put money where it needs to go, but to build out an infrastructure of non-police responses that New York City’s actually asking for,”argued the Public Advocate in closing. “... I think if we really want to support our law enforcement partners, the one thing we can stop asking them to do is “everything,” because they can’t do everything, and that's harmful.”

Read the Public Advocate’s full comments as delivered below.  

STATEMENT OF PUBLIC ADVOCATE JUMAANE D. WILLIAMS TO THE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL COMMITTEE ON PUBLIC SAFETY MARCH 20, 2024

Thank you so much Mr. Chair and Madame Speaker. Peace and blessings to everyone. Commissioner Caban and the entire NYPD leadership. As was mentioned, my name is Jumaane Williams, and I am the Public Advocate for the City of New York. I would like to thank Chair Salaam, the Speaker, and the members of the Committee on Public Safety for holding this important hearing.

The NYPD is by far the biggest and most expensive police department in the country, and also unfortunately very often is called to do social service functions. If you do permit me just to remind folks, there have been a few surveys that actually showed that most of us almost universally agree where it is best to use law enforcement and where it is not. The Adams administration did a survey I believe almost three years ago, asking what the best way was to address the crime that was going on. The first two answers were housing and mental health. The third was law enforcement. Another recent survey discussed what were the worst things that were happening  in the city – affordability was number one.

In January there was a statewide survey, the question was ‘Which of the following would you say is the single greatest cause of crime in New York?’ It went – first was poverty, substance abuse, mental illness, breakdown of the family, migrant influx, inequality – lack of enforcement I believe came in seventh and that remarkably was across Democratic and Republican lines.  It’s skewed a little differently under the Republicans, but the end result was the same, which says to me there is a tremendous understanding of what we need to do to address crime and I believe having spoken to much of the leadership in the police department as well, there’s also agreement there. Unfortunately, that agreement doesn’t seem to lend itself to where our finances go, or where we need to focus to build infrastructure.  

The NYPD is often called to address issues of homelessness and mental health crises. We know that dispatching police to remove people perceived as being homeless or experiencing symptoms of mental health and acute mental illness hasn’t worked long-term in the past, and that we must invest in non-police responses to people in mental health crisis to address those in crisis and to help address substance abuse.

The mayor’s Subway Safety Plan has once again exacerbated a police overtime surge. I think people may be shocked to learn that the NYPD was actually never defunded. Most other agencies were. A big part of that has to do with overtime. According to the City Comptroller, for FY 2024, the City has spent $461 million through December on NYPD’s uniformed overtime, $109 million more than spent for the same period in FY 2023, and is on target to spend $925 million for the next year. There was a recent report, and I forgot the time frame, it was either six months or a year, where overtime went from $4 million to, I believe, $155 million. What was interesting about that is, crime decreased outside of the subway during that time period more than it did  inside of the subway.

Despite the recent deployment of New York State Troopers and the terrible deployment of the National Guard to the city’s subways, a recent shooting occurred on the A train as it pulled into the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station, which houses a police station currently. This says to me that police alone can’t solve this, and I think everybody here agrees with that. It doesn’t mean that our law enforcement doesn’t have a role to play and that all of us don’t have a role to play, but it does say that we continually have an over-reliance  on our law enforcement and we keep pushing to them solve these problems, which is not what everyone agrees is what we have to do.

So what I’m hoping is that we have the courage  in leadership to not just put money where it needs to go, but to build out an infrastructure of non-police responses that New York City’s actually asking for. Hopefully this conversation doesn't continue to change and turn into ‘anti-police’ or ‘non anti-police,’ because I think everyone agrees, again, based on the surveys, based on the discussions that we have. But for some reason the NYPD is the only one who has access to the type of overtime that they claim they need, and other agencies don’t have the access to the resources  they need to  build out the infrastructure that we all say we need.

The mayor, and the administration and I often disagree, if not in words but often in implementation and practice, on the most impactful ways to address crime and violence in our city, but I applaud his support of alternative solutions to violence, including the Crisis Management System (CMS), a network that deploys teams of credible messengers. 

I do believe that with that, it’s been stagnant in how that system has been deployed and grown, and making sure it’s working in the long term. My hope is that we can all sit down and ensure all these things are working together and that everyone has the resources they need, not just one agency. I think if we really want to support our law enforcement partners, the one thing we can stop asking them to do is “everything,” because they can’t do everything, and that's harmful. 

When my mother, who had a bullet go through her window, when my sister is dealing with someone who is mentally ill, can’t  figure out who to call, that’s an issue. If my mom calls law enforcement, I want someone to be able to provide the services she needs, but if she needs another service, she should be able to get that as well, and we have to be able to build that out. 

Lastly, it is vital to adequately and robustly fund our public defender services. While free legal defender services for anyone who needs them are mandated by federal and local law, these organizations are consistently underfunded. It is low-income New Yorkers who ultimately face the consequences of a budget that often favors district attorneys’ offices, deprived of the robust legal representation that they need and deserve. I want to make sure that everyone has the funding they need, and so the DAs hopefully would support us getting funds to local defenders as well, that way everyone can get a speedy trial – which I believe is one of the biggest issues we’re dealing with, but not addressing. I’m looking forward to the conversion, and thank you. 

Thank you.


To Prevent E-bike Battery Fires, Public Advocate Calls On City To Purchase And Distribute Fireproof Battery Storage Bags

March 15th, 2024Press Release

As the number of fires linked to lithium-ion batteries continues to rise citywide, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams called on the city today to take unilateral action to help prevent this damage and devastation by purchasing and providing fireproof storage bags for e-bike drivers to store their batteries. These low-cost containers are extremely effective in preventing the kinds of fires that have raged across the five boroughs in recent years. At a hearing of the City Council Committee on Fire and Emergency Management today, he pushed for including this expense in the budget. 

“We must take immediate action to make New York City safer, and providing riders with both information and equipment is among the most direct ways we can act,” said Public Advocate Williams. “One of the easiest ways to prevent lithium-ion battery fires at the source is using a fire retardant storage case for storing lithium ion batteries at home or at the office. These inexpensive storage cases cost about $20, and protect batteries during the charging process when most vulnerable to overheating and exploding. This relatively affordable investment will pay a huge dividend in decreasing the number of fires as well as saving lives and infrastructure.”

He continued, “Often in government, we’re forced to make hard decisions about whether the impact of a policy is worth the price tag. Here, though, we have a simple, cost-effective solution that will ultimately save money, and much more importantly save lives. This does not solve the issue fully or forever, but it can have real and immediate impact at a moment when this destruction is constantly on our streets and screens. We are responding far too slowly to the alarms that have been sounding for over a year, and the longer we delay action, the more we’re playing with fire. I urge the administration and Council to fund this purchase and distribution.”

The Public Advocate noted that the containers retail for about $20 each, or $1.3 million to provide a bag for each of the 65,000 delivery e-bike drivers in the city. However, he believes that with New York City’s purchasing power and bulk quantities, it would be possible to equip every delivery driver in the city for as little as $500,000. He emphasized that this cost is minimal relative to the benefits. 

Below is the Public Advocate’s full statement to the Committee as prepared

STATEMENT OF PUBLIC ADVOCATE JUMAANE D. WILLIAMS  TO THE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL COMMITTEE ON FIRE AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT  MARCH 15, 2024

Good Morning,

My name is Jumaane D. Williams and I am the Public Advocate for the City of New York. Thank you to Chair Ariola and members of the Committee on Fire and Emergency Management for holding this hearing and for allowing me to share my statement. Thank you Commissioner and team for being here.

Fire safety is a top concern for New Yorkers. The Preliminary Fiscal 2024 Mayor’s Management Report states that there have been 102 civilian fire fatalities in FY23, which means a civilian death once every three days. This is a sharp increase from FY22 and FY21, with 64 civilian fire fatalities in FY21. Fire safety is a public safety concern, and I appreciate that the Mayor has acknowledged it during his Preliminary Budget for Fiscal Year 2025 by exempting the FDNY from additional PEGs.

However, more must be done to stem the trend of fire deaths. Under the Preliminary Budget for Fiscal Year 2025, the Mayor's Office’s budget added a 5th firefighter to 20 companies. I support the increase in fifth firefighters and applaud the Adams Administration for supporting fire safety. However, this means that only about 10% of engine companies will have five firefighters, or 20 out of 193 engine companies. Furthermore, this just restores an extremely recent December 2023 cut. This is less of a positive change and more of putting out a fire you’ve started- which in and of itself would be a return to the broken status quo. The Uniformed Firefighters Association President Andrew Ansbro argues that with an increase in fires and increase in the strength of fires, there needs to be more resources for engine companies. I agree and stand in support of the Uniformed Firefighter Association’s calls for fifth firefighters. 

Part of the growth in civilian deaths from fires can be attributed to lithium-ion batteries. Lithium-ion battery fires are difficult to contain and the fire can spread very quickly, putting civilians and firefighters in danger. On February 2, 2024, Fire Commissioner Kavanaugh announced that lithium batteries are now a leading cause of fires. The FDNY, the Mayor's Office and the collective New York City Council all acknowledge how lithium-ion battery fires are a significant challenge for New Yorkers safety, and have passed life-saving legislation such as restricting reconditioned batteries.

We must continue to look ahead, because micromobility device usage and lithium-ion batteries will only become more commonplace. Our city faces a major challenge and we must respond as comprehensively and quickly as possible. One of the easiest ways to prevent lithium-ion battery fires at the source is using a fire retardant storage case for storing lithium-ion batteries at home or at the office. These inexpensive storage cases protect batteries during the charging process when batteries are most vulnerable to overheating and exploding. Fire retardant bags only cost about $20. This relatively affordable investment will pay a huge dividend in decreasing the number of fires as well as saving lives and infrastructure. We must take immediate action to make New York City safer, and providing riders with both information and equipment is among the most direct ways we can act. With the purchasing power of New York City buying these bags in bulk, it will cost roughly $500,000 to provide a lifesaving tool to the 65,000 delivery workers citywide driving e-bikes for their livelihood. These funds should be allocated to the Fire Department to work with the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection to distribute fire retardant storage cases, similar to the smoke detector and battery distribution program. Furthermore, delivery apps can mandate that drivers use and own certain equipment, such as possessing a fire retardant storage case, in order to be able to make deliveries, or provide them themselves. 

Often in government, we’re forced to make hard decisions about whether the impact of a policy is worth the price tag. Here, though, we have a simple, cost-effective solution that will ultimately save money, and much more importantly save lives. This does not solve the issue fully or forever, but it can have real and immediate impact at a moment when this destruction is constantly on our streets and screens. We are responding far too slowly to the alarms that have been sounding for over a year, and the longer we delay action, the more we’re playing with fire. I urge the administration and Council to fund this purchase and distribution without delay.  

In the long term we must redesign New York City’s infrastructure to accommodate electric micromobility devices. These devices help to transport New Yorkers who otherwise may use a car or use a gas-powered moped as well as assist the disabled community. We must encourage wide-scale adoption through addressing outstanding safety concerns. It is now common in South and East Asian countries to see battery swap stations where ebike owners can pay a monthly subscription to swap a dead battery for a fully charged battery, so they do not have to ever charge the device at home. The City should consider creating a franchise agreement for a battery swap system with a singular battery standard, as we already have similar infrastructure in the form of the Citi Bike system. Delivery apps also have a responsibility for supporting infrastructure for its delivery drivers. Companies offering 15-minute delivery local services like Getir already provide charging stations to their drivers. The onus should be on delivery companies to set up charging stations for their drivers. 

Finally, the New York City Council Committee on Fire and Emergency Management has been doing an excellent job responding to lithium-ion battery safety concerns by passing comprehensive legislation. The committee must continue to make sure that the legislation is being enforced by holding oversight hearings to determine if the Mayor’s Office has complied with the Local Laws. Thank you.


NYC Public Advocate Responds To ‘Right To Shelter’ Settlement

March 15th, 2024Press Release

"The right to shelter does not expire in a set number of days, or in the face of dire need. I thank the Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless for their fight to preserve this vital right, and the victories they’ve won today. The terms of this settlement, while temporary, are critical in preserving the underlying right to shelter, and to addressing some of the most egregious issues plaguing the system for both newly arriving migrants and longtime New Yorkers.While I believe that the time limits for placements remain worryingly short, this agreement will help to ensure that our newest New Yorkers are afforded more liveable conditions amid the ongoing humanitarian crisis, as well as addressing the need for more shelter space in a less jarring and haphazard way.  

"Today’s settlement is critical, but it is only one among many efforts needed to secure not only shelter but long-term housing for New Yorkers. This case was rooted in the arrival of asylum seekers, but the administration’s attacks on the right to shelter, and the state’s efforts to completely ignore it, began long before the first buses arrived at Port Authority. My office will closely monitor implementation of this agreement as we continue to work for more sustainable long-term solutions to the longstanding housing and homelessness crisis in our city." 


Public Advocate's Response To Speaker Adams' State Of The City Address

March 13th, 2024Press Release

"As Speaker Adams made clear in her address, helping New Yorkers find, afford, and stay in their homes is central to the state of our city. In addition to the vital efforts to create more deeply affordable units in neighborhoods citywide and protect tenants, it’s critical to fight deed theft and other unscrupulous efforts to force largely Black and Brown families from their homes and financial security. My office and I have been on the ground in neighborhoods most targeted, working with residents, and I would be proud to support the Council’s efforts to house New Yorkers now and for generations.

"In addition, as the Speaker noted, any policy is only as effective as its execution and implementation. I am glad to see the Speaker strengthening the Council’s oversight role, in addition to existing accountability tools. The state of our city depends on having a government that is fully staffed, fully functional, and fully committed to helping New Yorkers in need through essential services.” 


ICYMI: Public Advocate Stresses The Need For Increased HPD Funding After Arrest Warrant For NYC's Worst Landlord

March 12th, 2024Press Release

On Monday, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams pushed for increasing funding for both enforcement and development by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) in the city’s budget. Earlier that day, HPD secured an arrest warrant for Daniel Ohebshalom, number one on the Public Advocate’s Worst Landlord Watchlist. In a Council preliminary budget hearing with the Committee on Housing and Buildings, the Public Advocate emphasized the importance of increasing resources and staffing to support creating additional affordable units and improving dangerous conditions. 

“Our housing agencies have faced high attrition rates, with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development losing nearly a third of its full-time employees, many of whom were experienced staff, in the period between April 2020 and October 2022,” Public Advocate Williams stated. “As of January 2024, the vacancy rate for HPD was 7.7%, accounting for 205 positions. While there are clear indications that HPD has rebounded from pandemic lows with production in fiscal year 2023, which we’re happy about, rising from the low point of the previous fiscal year, staffing shortages continue to negatively impact the agency’s capacity.”

On Ohebshalom’s arrest warrant, the Public Advocate noted “He was on the list for many years, and number one two years in a row, and as I said before, I don’t think anything is going to change until arrests are made or buildings are taken away – and what I’m glad to see is that the administration is moving in the right direction.” Public Advocate Williams made increased resources for HPD enforcement a central point of releasing the 2024 Worst Landlord Watchlist, which Daniel Ohebshalom and Johnathan Santana topped. 

In his statement, he highlighted the urgent need for infrastructure safety measures and precautions against fires, specifically the more recent and deadly lithium-ion battery fires, and their relation to landlord abandonment. “We need more inspectors in both HPD and DOB who can identify violations that can potentially cause collapses and fires and further address emergency complaints. It just shows how the type of cuts that we’ve heard about before really impact people’s lives.”

At a press conference earlier Monday, the Public Advocate spoke in support of the “Homes Now, Homes for Generations” initiative which would invest $2 billion in HPD over four years in order to help support the creation of deeply affordable housing. To close the hearing, he reiterated this message: that preservation is necessary for any housing plan to work effectively.

The Public Advocate's full statement as delivered is below.

STATEMENT OF PUBLIC ADVOCATE JUMAANE D. WILLIAMS TO THE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL COMMITTEE ON HOUSING AND BUILDINGS MARCH 11, 2024

Good afternoon,  My name is Jumaane D. Williams and I am the Public Advocate for the City of New York. Thank you very much to Chair Sanchez and members of the Committee on Housing and Buildings for holding this hearing and allowing me the opportunity to provide a statement. Just first before I even get this statement, before the statement was written, this morning there was an announcement, an arrest of Daniel Ohebshalom, so I just want to congratulate HPD and the administration. I did read in your press release that there was a reference to his name being on lists of worst landlords, I’m sure it was an unintentional omission, but those lists are Public Advocate lists, we’re very proud of those. He was on the list for many years, and number one two years in a row, and as I said before, I don’t think anything is going to change until arrests are made or buildings are taken away, and what I’m glad to see is that the administration is moving in the right direction.  New York City’s housing crisis has progressively worsened over the past couple of years with the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating it in every aspect. Our housing agencies have faced high attrition rates with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) losing nearly a third of its full-time employees, many of whom were experienced staff, in the period between April 2020 and October 2022. As of January 2024, the vacancy rate for HPD was 7.7%, accounting for 205 positions. While there are clear indications that HPD has rebounded from pandemic lows with production in FY23, which we’re happy about,  rising from the low point of the previous fiscal year, staffing shortages continue to negatively impact the agency’s capacity. The average time for capital project completion has increased as well as median times for application approval in the housing lottery, up to 192 days from the previous median of 88 – leaving affordable units sitting empty for months on end. And I will be speaking about DOB later, but I’d like to say: With a vacancy rate of 5.6%, the Department of Buildings (DOB) faces similar staffing challenges, having met only 43% of its goals in the first few months of FY24. From building and parking lot collapses to dangerous crane incidents, there is a concerning trend in overall infrastructure and building safety. According to the Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report, enforcement inspections fell 4.3% even as development inspections completed rose by 9.5%. DOB also issued fewer violations and average wait times for construction and plumbing inspections increased as a result of ongoing budget constraints and staffing shortages.  Finally, I want to highlight a trend in all five boroughs—fires and crippling infrastructures. The Bronx, in particular, has experienced many tragedies due to landlord abandonment and neglect and it’s no surprise that these fires are taking place in communities of more color. There has also been an increase in lithium-ion battery fires throughout the city. In 2022, these batteries caused 220 fires and six deaths and in 2023 they caused 243 fires and 17 deaths and 124 injuries. The most recent lithium-ion battery fire that took place last month in Harlem causing the death of Fazil Khan, a young journalist, was truly a tragic incident that could have been prevented. It is critical that we maintain the ample funding that provides these vital services to residents that survived a fire. In addition, we need more inspectors in both HPD and DOB who can identify violations that can potentially cause collapses and fires and further address emergency complaints. It just shows how the type of cuts that we’ve heard about before really impact people’s lives.  I hope during today’s hearing the administration will provide more information on the issues I highlighted in my statement. We cannot have unsafe and weakening infrastructure that puts New Yorkers at risk everyday. I would also like to know if the administration plans to end the hiring freeze and meet the goal of being fully staffed for HPD and DOB. For any housing plan to be successful, preservation has to be  a large part of it, and that means making sure we’re taking care of the infrastructure. Thank you so much. 


NYC Public Advocate's Statement On HPD Arrest Warrant For NYC'S Worst Landlord

March 11th, 2024Press Release

"Accountability for the worst landlords in our city is the only route to changing their practices and the unlivable conditions at their buildings. Daniel Ohebshalom has spent years at the top of our Worst Landlord Watchlist, and in recent months he has lost millions of dollars in settlements, lost control of one of his buildings, and now, faces arrest. When tenant power is combined with the resources of the city, we can bring penalties that are more than the cost of doing business.  

"Ohebshalom is an example, not an outlier. Hopefully today’s escalation is a sign of a renewed commitment by the city to holding bad actors accountable – and a signal to the worst landlords around our city that severe negligence will lead to severe consequences. We can’t stop at one building or owner – we need to change the systems that have permitted putting profit over people for too long."


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