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Council Civil Rights Committee Looks to Solve Credit Catch-22

Gotham Gazette - Fri, 09/12/2014 - 1:00am

Council Members Lander and Rose lead a rally in favor of their bill (photo: William Alatriste)

New York City council members are picking up where state legislators left off by pushing a bill that would ban the use of credit history checks in hiring decisions.

The Stop Credit Discrimination in Employment Act, Intro 261, co-sponsored by Council Members Brad Lander and Debi Rose, is being considered by the Committee on Civil Rights on Friday morning. The hearing could decide the fate of the bill that aims, its backers say, to end the harmful and, at times, discriminatory practice of screening an applicant's credit history to make a hiring decision.

Intro 261 is an updated version of a bill that was introduced to the City Council in 2012, but failed to pass. A similar bill was passed by the New York State Assembly in 2012, but not by the State Senate and has since languished, prompting the City Council to take matters into its own hands. The city bill is backed by 40 co-sponsors, including Public Advocate Letitia James, which means it will likely be heading out of committee, through the full council, and to the desk of Mayor Bill de Blasio - who is said to support the principle of the bill.

"Last time, the bill wasn't allowed to come to the floor for a vote," said Council Member Lander by phone on Thursday. "The Bloomberg administration didn't support the bill and neither did the Speaker (Christine Quinn)."

Nearly half (47 percent) of all employers in the United States require personal credit history checks for new workers, according to a 2012 study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). It is perfectly legal and is cited by businesses as a means to protect themselves and even consumers against financial fraud. The SHRM states that these checks are usually conducted near the end of the hiring process and that employees are given the opportunity to explain their record. The checks are federally regulated and medical history debt, says the SHRM survey, is ignored.

But the practice raises complex ethical and legal questions.

Senior policy analyst Amy Traub, of Demos, an organization that advocates for public policy, has addressed these issues at length and has even advised legislators in states such as Colorado, Vermont and Washington, D.C. Traub's report, Discredited: How Employment Credit Checks Keep Qualified Workers Out Of A Job, asserts clearly that worthy applicants are often denied jobs because of credit checks. These checks, which cannot judge a potential employee's character or job performance, can be linked to medical debt, lack of health coverage and unemployment. Traub cites evidence to show that credit reporting errors are common, occurring nearly once in every five reports, and that they can have a discriminatory impact on people of color. Finally, she says, they are an invasion of privacy.

With record levels of poverty and unemployment in New York, credit checks can create a cyclical problem. The catch-22, as Traub puts it, adversely affects unemployed workers: "Job-seekers are unable to secure work because of damaged credit and are then unable to escape debt and improve their credit because they cannot find work," she wrote in a Demos article.

This issue is neither new nor unrecognized. The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) makes it legal for employers to ask for credit histories before employing an applicant. But in the last few years, many states have enacted legislation limiting this seemingly discriminatory policy including Arizona, California, Connecticut, Vermont, Oregon, Hawaii, Maryland and Washington. Just last year, laws were passed by the Colorado and Nevada legislatures. The only city with a law is Chicago.

At the federal level, efforts are also being made to abolish the use of credit checks for employment decisions. The Equal Employment for All bill was introduced in the Senate late last year by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Based on a bill submitted by Representative Steve Cohen in 2011, the new bill seeks to amend the FCRA and end employment credit checks. "This is also about basic fairness," said Warren in her floor speech to introduce the bill. "Let people compete for jobs on merit, not on whether or not they have enough money to pay all their bills." In January this year, President Obama mentioned the problem in his speech on long-term unemployment.

The bill has found little traction in Congress however.

Making matters worse for the fate of the bill is a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth District. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had in 2010 filed a lawsuit against the Kaplan Higher Education Corp., a for-profit education company, for rejecting a higher number of African-Americans than white job applicants because of personal credit histories. This, the EEOC argued, was a violation of Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act.

In April this year, the Court ruled in favor of Kaplan, allowing them to continue screening credit histories of job-seekers. The court also pointed out that the EEOC's case was tenuous since they themselves hired employees based on similar background checks. The ruling could serve to undermine efforts by national and state legislators to abolish the practice.

In New York City, however, the bill seems well on its way to becoming law. Proponents of the bill will hold a press conference at 9:30 Friday morning before heading into the civil rights committee hearing.

Opponents of the bill are wary of the impact it would have on the city's business environment. "With the increasing problems of identity theft and cyber-fraud, it is more important than ever that employers ensure that employees in highly sensitive positions – financial or technological – are carefully vetted," said Jessica Walker, vice president of government affairs at the Partnership for New York City. "Ten states and the City of Chicago have passed similar bans, but those all contain commonsense exemptions for these types of positions."

Unlike laws passed in other states, and even the bill pending in the New York State Legislature, the City Council legislation has only one exemption, for when a credit check is mandated by federal or state law. "It is stronger than any law passed so far," said Demos' Amy Traub.

"In the absence of action in Congress and Albany," said Lander, "we have taken action to protect the residents of New York City."

***
by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

Categories: State/Local

Pre-Pilot Program, a Test Run for One NYPD Body Camera

Gotham Gazette - Fri, 09/12/2014 - 1:00am

Public Advocate James at a body-worn camera press conference (photo: Rob Abruzzese)

NEW YORK—Last week, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton unveiled the two body cameras that would be used in a pilot program by his department: the VieVu LE3 and the Axon Flex by TASER. During the press conference, two police officers modeled the devices and the commissioner showed a short video taken during a traffic stop to display what the recordings would look like.

While the demonstration was informative, I found myself asking many questions that could really only be answered by using the device: questions around what it feels like to wear one all day and how easy they are to operate.

Public Advocate Letitia James has been a staunch supporter of the use of body-worn cameras by police officers, issuing a report in August on the benefits. As part of the research for this report and body cameras in general, the public advocate's office was given several models to test (James demonstrated these during a press conference of her own).

James' office allowed me to take the VieVu LE3 for a test run to attempt answering some of my questions by wearing it for a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, on the subway, and through Times Square.

Below are specs on the camera, two video clips taken by the VieVu, and an outline of my experience using the device.

Techs and Specs
Note: click to skip the product specs and jump to the Test Run section, with sample video

Size: For those old enough to remember, the VieVu LE3 reminds me of a pager in size (3" x 2.1" x .85" without clip), weight (2.8 oz without clip), and feel. The device comes with two clip-backs and one pin-back to allow the wearer to attach the device to clothing.

Video: The video resolution is HD quality at 1280x720 and records at 30 frames per second. The camera does not have night vision or infrared - features left off because the camera is intended to capture as close to exactly what the officer can see as possible, according to a spokesperson for VieVu. The makers wanted to avoid the possibility of an occurrence like having an officer view a night vision-enabled video showing a suspect reaching for something (like a weapon), and then changing their story to match the video when there was no way they could have seen it happen that way during the actual encounter.

Durability: The LE3, which is made by former cops for cops, offers military grade protection. It is rated non-submersible waterproof (IPX5) meaning it can withstand rain or snow, but cannot be submerged in liquid (i.e. if an officer dives into a pool, it will likely malfunction). The LE3 can handle temperatures from -4 F to 122 F.

According to the spec sheet the LE3 can handle being dropped 10 feet onto a hard surface. I dropped it a few times from about three feet, but since the unit costs $899, I wasn't willing to test the limits (James' office did not give any warnings about testing the durability).

Battery: The lithium-ion battery life is five hours recording at SD quality and three hours at HD quality with a standby life of 72 hours. When the LE3 is empty, it takes three hours to fully charge. I had no issues with the battery running out during my 4 hour test.

Storage: Each camera has 16 GB of non-removable raw storage; and storage capacity of 12 hours at SD quality video storage and six hours at HD quality video. The video can be loaded to a cloud storage service (which VieVu offers) or to on-site storage.

Software: VieVu uses it's own proprietary software called Veripatrol which must be downloaded before the LE3 is ready to use. There is no software disk (its a direct download from the web), which is nice for smaller computers that don't have disk drives. But, the software is not compatible with Mac computers (which I learned the hard way, losing a day of reporting). This shouldn't be an issue for the NYPD because of the City's contract with Microsoft.

The software is fairly easy to use. It has an admin feature which is used to assign a camera to an officer. A separate program is used to download the videos. Without the training that would surely come with use of these cameras and programs, I hit several snags unlikely to be problems for the NYPD. It's worth noting, though, that VieVu IT support is on the West Coast, so when I called at roughly 10 a.m., it was not yet open.

Theft: The VieVu will only work with the software, the cable, and a password, so if the unit is lost or stolen, the system is designed so that the video can't be downloaded to just any computer.

Use Elsewhere
VieVu products (not just the LE3) are currently being used by 4,000 police agencies in 16 countries, according to its website.

-The Oakland Police Department uses LE2 and LE3 models. Started in 2009 with a pilot program of 20, as of 2013, all Oakland PD officers are required to use them (for a total of 559 units). Policy dictates officers are to record during citizen contact, arrests or detentions, evaluation for psychiatric detention, vehicle pursuit, serving a warrant, conducting a search, or transporting a prisoner.

-The Houston Police Department uses the LE3 model. The HPD pilot program began with 100 cameras in December of 2013. Its policy dictates officers must activate the camera any time they are in a law enforcement interaction and are required to leave it on until the incident has concluded. By phone, HPD Captain Michael Skillern said there was pushback from officers at first, but after a few months, "the attitude had turned 180 degrees and they were happy to have them." He added that when HPD was looking to move cameras to different units, some officers personally called him and asked them not to take their cameras away.

Gotham Gazette Test Run
I performed two test runs: a jaunt across the Brooklyn Bridge and a subway ride into a wander through Times Square. On the day I tested the device, it was partly cloudy, in the low 70s, and did not rain.

The instructions say, "the ideal position to attach the camera is level with the sternum but it will vary depending on user." I don't own a tie, which is where the officer at the NYPD press conference displayed the LE3, so I pinned the camera level with my sternum to a heavy shirt for the walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.

A related note on NYPD dress code: police officers are not required to wear ties during the summer with their short sleeve shirts. If wearing long sleeve shirts, they must wear a tie, unless they have a turtleneck underneath. If wearing a sweater over a shirt, a tie is mandatory, however the tie is worn underneath the sweater, thus not allowing the officer to clip the camera to it. Officers should be able to clip the camera to their tie or to their shirt if not wearing a tie, though a sweater could pose a problem.

The LE3 is incredibly easy to use. When ready to record, one simply flips down the lens cover. The cover is easy enough to pull down with one finger while on the go, but the cover also has enough tension that it won't just fall down while on the run - important functionality for officers expected to begin recording as a chase or other abrupt encounter occurs.

There is a roughly two-second delay before a small green light begins to blink on the top of the device to signal recording has begun. I found it was sometimes difficult to see the light blinking in the sunlight, and it was a partly cloudy day (my sunglasses may have had something to do with this too though).

As the video below shows, much of what I recorded with the LE3 pinned to my shirt is almost unwatchable. In the video it looks like the camera must have been swinging like a pendulum, however it was moving only slightly from left to right as I walked. I was not wearing a bulletproof vest like NYPD officers are required to do, so it is unclear if that vest would have provided a flatter, more stable surface behind the camera.

Captain Skillern of the Houston Police Department said of the 100 cameras in their pilot program, they had no issues with the video quality from cameras placed on the sternums of female officers versus males.

{module Body Cam 1}

 

For members of the NYPD, the LE3 will blend in well with their black uniforms. I had on a bright blue shirt and a black pager-like device pinned to the middle of my chest and only about a quarter of people I walked by seemed to look at it. However, when the device was on, I did notice more people looking my way - a trend I attribute to the fact the camera lens is outlined in a bright green circle, making it much more noticeable.

I did not perform any tests at night, so it is unclear how noticeable the blinking green light would be or how the quality of the video would turn out. The camera does not have night vision or infrared, which will will likely lead to a specific policy regarding recording in those situations.

As the video shows, when my interview subject was sitting down, I could not capture him in the frame of my shot. I didn't have him stand or move my camera as I may normally have done to get the best shot as a journalist because I wanted to represent (as best I could) what an interaction between a police officer and a citizen might be like. Training officers regarding positioning to capture the best footage could address certain limitations.

Second Test
For the second test I changed out the pin-back for the clip back (which was very easy, but did require a small philips head screwdriver). Wearing a backpack this time, I clipped the LE3 to the loop it has on a shoulder strap and pulled the strap as close to the center of my chest as possible. I knew it would provide the more stable video the camera is capable of that my first use did not show.

{module Body Cam 2}

 

The second clip shows much more stable video except when I tested it running up and down stairs. I wasn't chasing a suspect but rather trying to catch a train. As you can see in the clip, the video is pretty shaky. When going down stairs, the camera focuses on the ceiling, making the camera seemingly unable to catch video of a suspect.

Despite the limitations, I was impressed with the quality of the camera, particularly its ability to react to changes in lighting. This was evident when I went underground and transitioned from sunlight to fluorescent. It was also evident during an interview when the sun was directly behind my subject. The lens was able to adjust to ensure the subject's face could be seen.

Audio
A key element of what these cameras can capture is sound and the audio on the LE3 is superb. I was amazed at what I was able to pick up from these clips. At one point I followed a police officer with a dog from roughly 10-15 feet behind. When viewing the video I could hear the jingle of the dog's collar and leash.

From the video, I could hear every single conversation from the people walking by me. The construction and street noise didn't overpower, but instead blended seamlessly with conversations, and any other noise.

In some places the wind was blowing fairly strongly, but had no effect on the audio. The wind was picked up, but did not prohibit hearing the interview audio.

Since I have never walked the streets as a police officer it is hard for me to definitively say if this will work for the men and women of the NYPD. I didn't test how well the LE3 would stay on during a physical altercation. While there's no doubt an officer can easily turn the camera on in a tense situation, it is unclear how useful the video would be of an officer using this camera model and chasing a suspect. But, physical altercations and chases are not the bulk of officer interactions.

As with every piece of technology, the LE3 has limitations; more fully learning them and finding ways around them will surely be essential to the NYPD pilot program.

image via VieVu

***
by Kristen Meriwether, Gotham Gazette
@MeriwetherK

Categories: State/Local

Cuomo and Teachout make a final pitch

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 09/11/2014 - 5:07pm

Albany

Gov. Andrew Cuomo traveled the state to rally supporters while his liberal challenger Zephyr Teachout sought to promote her campaign to oust him as they made their final pitches before Tuesday's Democratic primary.

Cuomo, who has largely avoided the campaign trail, held a rally with union members in New York City before flying to another rally outside Buffalo, the home of his running mate, former congresswoman Kathy Hochul.

Teachout, a Fordham University law professor, participated in several radio interviews ahead of a New York City rally Monday evening. She and her running mate, Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, also touted their campaign's proposals to encourage technological innovation.

"We are really tapping into something very deep, and Andrew Cuomo is feeling it," Teachout said. "... We know we're going to see a lot of new voters."

While polls show Teachout isn't well known, her candidacy has galvanized liberal dissatisfaction with Cuomo.

Teachout has said Cuomo hasn't addressed corruption or done enough to combat income inequality. Cuomo stresses his work to pass gay marriage and gun control while playing up his and Hochul's experience.

Drug law activist and comedian Randy Credico also will be on Tuesday's Democratic ballot.

The primary winner faces Republican Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive, this fall.

Categories: State/Local

Cahill criticizes FOIL rejection

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 09/11/2014 - 1:07am

Albany

Republican attorney general candidate John Cahill appeared outside the Robert Abrams Building for Law & Justice to criticize Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for failing to release communications between his office and one of his top political consultants.

In June, Crain's New York Business reporter Chris Bragg wrote about Schneiderman's rejection of his Freedom of Information Law request for exchanges between Jennifer Cunningham, a partner in the powerful SKD Knickerbocker firm, and all attorney general personnel — including Schneiderman, who is Cunningham's ex-husband.

The attorney general's office initially claimed that all communications with Cunningham were "intra-agency records" because she served as an informal adviser to Schneiderman and his staff. SKD is also doing work for Schneiderman's re-election campaign.

After Bragg appealed the denial, the office admitted that it had erred by not releasing 72 pages of emails in which Cunningham was communicating with Schneiderman and his staff in her capacity as a consultant for other SKD clients. But Schneiderman's office continues to hold back other communications with Cunningham, insisting that the question of whether a formal or paid arrangement exists between the attorney general's office and the consultant was immaterial.

On Monday, Schneiderman's press office refused to discuss the FOIL dispute on the record.

Outside the Abrams Building, Cahill suggested that Schneiderman was trying to claim Cunningham was a "contractor to the attorney general's office" — a "phony status" that he said made a mockery of FOIL law. "You know, this sounds all too familiar to the Alan Hevesi-Hank Morris scandal of years ago where we had political consultants directly involved with the operations of state government," Cahill said. "It's an absolute disgrace."

In an email, Cunningham said, "I strictly adhere to the state's lobbying laws, and none of these activities constitute lobbying." She gave up her status as a lobbyist in 2011.

Asked for a response, Schneiderman campaign spokesman Peter Ajemian sidestepped, noting that Cahill has refused to disclose his own consulting clients in the natural gas industry. Cahill supports the controversial natural gas drilling technique known as hydrofracking, and has made that advocacy a central tenet of his campaign. "Cahill should stop stonewalling and come clean about his work as an unregistered corporate lobbyist," Ajemian said in a statement.

"This isn't about who does business in natural gas," Cahill said. " ... (Schneiderman) might want to distract this issue, but this issue goes to the heart and the core of competence in our state government."

Categories: State/Local

Boomers bound for other places

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 09/11/2014 - 1:07am

Albany

Among members of the baby boom generation living in New York, 60 percent say they are "at least somewhat likely" to leave the state after retiring. And 27 percent say they are "extremely" or "very likely" to leave.

That can bring significant economic loss given the number and spending habits of Boomers, according to "State of the 50-Plus in New York State," a report released by AARP that was discussed at a symposium Monday.

New York has 6.8 million people age 50 and older. Those older than 50 make up 34 percent of the state's economy, according to 2013 data, and support 1.2 million jobs in health care and 821,000 retail jobs.

The survey reinforced the image that a significant number of New Yorkers ponder fleeing high state and local taxes. It concludes that 52 percent of those older than 50 are concerned about being able to afford their property taxes in the future, and 49 percent say they worry about paying for utility costs.

That's not to say everyone will be retiring when they want: A majority (56 percent) of those polled say their retirement will be delayed for financial reasons, and 26 percent have no retirement savings plan through their employer.

Some panelists at Monday's event, co-hosted by City & State, noted the influx of immigrants remains strong both in New York City and upstate.

"Immigrants are coming and others are leaving," noted Stephen Acquario, executive director at the state Association of Counties.

Nor is everyone convinced that migrating Boomers are the biggest problem. "The really big storm cloud on New York's horizon is the loss of young people," said E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center think tank.

In a 2012 study, "The Graying of New York State," the Empire Center found between 1990 and 2010, the number of state residents between ages 20 and 34 dropped sharply. And while New York City continues to draw the young, many leave during middle age.

The population of children and teens decreased across the state between 2000 and 2010.

Categories: State/Local

Casino applicants to make public pitches

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 09/11/2014 - 1:07am

ALBANY (AP) — Developers seeking state permission to open casinos in upstate New York are set to present their plans before a state board.

The New York Gaming Facility Location Board plans two days of presentations from the developers on Monday and Tuesday near the state Capitol.

Each developer will have 45 minutes for their presentation followed by 15 minutes for questions from the board.

Three additional public hearings on the proposals are scheduled for later in the month in Albany, Poughkeepsie and Ithaca to allow for public comment on the proposals.

New York state has authorized up to four casino licenses to be divided among three upstate regions: the Albany-Saratoga area, the Southern Tier-Finger Lakes region and the Catskills and mid-Hudson River Valley.

The board is set to announce recommendations this fall.

Categories: State/Local

Police say drunk woman had child drive car

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 09/11/2014 - 1:07am

BRATTLEBORO, Vt. (AP) — A Vermont woman has been arrested after police say she had a child drive her car while she was drunk.

Forty-two-year-old Jessica Mathiau of Brattleboro was arrested Saturday evening and charged with child endangerment. State police say a trooper noticed a car parked in the middle of the road, and upon speaking with the occupants, discovered that a child had been driving while Mathiau rode in the passenger seat.

Police say Mathiau was highly intoxicated, and during her travels, had activated the car's emergency brake numerous times in the middle of traffic.

A phone number for Mathiau could not be located Sunday. The child's age was unavailable.

Categories: State/Local

State grapples with foreclosed, abandoned homes

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 09/11/2014 - 1:07am

Albany

New York has an estimated 15,000 homes that have been abandoned by owners after receiving foreclosure notices. With no one taking care of the properties they often fall into disrepair, hurting surrounding neighborhoods and putting a drain on local governments. Now, New York officials are trying to deal with the zombie home epidemic.

The problem

Zombie homes are a particular problem in states like New York, where foreclosures can take years. Too often, a homeowner leaves the property after they get a notice of foreclosure, even though they have a right to remain until the process is complete. In some cases, lenders never follow through with the foreclosures.

With no regular maintenance, the home's condition deteriorates. Grass doesn't get cut. Weeds spring up. Pipes burst, mold grows and pests move in. The homes often become magnets for vandalism and crime.

In New York one in 10 mortgages is at risk of foreclosure, according to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

The solutions

Legal and financial assistance is available to homeowners looking to avoid foreclosure, which Schneiderman says is the best way to stopping the wave of zombie homes.

Several local communities in hard-hit areas have created land banks that allow them to purchase, refurbish and sell abandoned properties.

The New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal supports several programs intended to help local communities rehabilitate homes and redevelop neighborhoods.

Some initiatives fund home maintenance for low-income elderly owners; others aim to help homeowners avoid foreclosure by adjusting their mortgages. Community housing agencies funded by the division completed more than 8,600 minor home repairs and more than 12,000 home repairs and more than 4,000 rehabilitation projects in 2012.Since the state's neighborhood preservation program began in 1977, more than $350 million has been spent throughout the state. Other programs, like HOME Program, provide assistance to low-income home buyers or groups looking to rehabilitate older homes.

Legislation proposed by Schneiderman and backed by mayors from several cities would require banks or other lenders to maintain a property once it has become abandoned. The proposal would also create a registry of zombie homes.

Categories: State/Local
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