This Week’s Ask The Mayor With Brian Lehrer: From Vision Zero To NYPD Oath Keepers – Gothamist

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Mayor Bill de Blasio tours Rikers Island with Department of Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi on Monday, September 27, 2021.
Every Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio calls in to the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC for an Ask the Mayor segment, a conversation that all New Yorkers are invited to join by calling 646-435-7280, or tweeting a question with the #AsktheMayor hashtag. The show airs 10 a.m. to noon on WNYC 93.9 FM, AM 820 and
Below is a transcript, as well as the audio, of this week's segment, where de Blasio fields many questions from Brian and New Yorkers regarding vaccine mandates, Rikers, congestion pricing, Vision Zero and the Oath Keepers investigation.
Brian Lehrer: It’s the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC. Good morning, again, everyone. Time now for a weekly Ask the Mayor call in my questions in yours for Mayor Bill de Blasio at 646-435-7280, or you can tweet a question, just use the hashtag, #AskTheMayor. Good morning, Mr. Mayor. Welcome back to WNYC.  
Mayor Bill de Blasio: Good morning, Brian, and I have up to date information on something I know you're going to ask me about, so I'm just going to jump in and tell you. As of our latest information from yesterday, 90 percent of all Department Education employees now have met the vaccination mandate. That number's going to certainly grow a lot as we get additional reports in. 93 percent of teachers already, 98 percent of principals, and these are very strong numbers. We already have what we need to run the school system well and serve our kids in a safe way, but I know these numbers are going to go up in the next 24 hours, for sure.  
Lehrer: So, you know, I'm going to ask you, 93 percent of teachers translates into how many thousands unvaccinated, who wouldn't be able to report to work on Monday?  
Mayor: Well, the problem – I'm going to answer your question, but with a really honest qualifier, that would be wrong to say a number when we know, in fact, a lot of people are going to get vaccinated today. Let's say it's several thousand in the end who don't get vaccinated in the first instance, if they are not vaccinated by five o'clock today, we'll move substitutes into place – who are vaccinated obviously – and are ready and willing, and really excited to take on these roles and people who want to become teachers in our school system permanently. So, that will be in place for Monday morning. I think what you're going to see is a lot of vaccinations today, and then I think you'll see some people who go into that unpaid leave status and experienced that for a while, and don't like what they're experiencing, and come back and get vaccinated. I think those are going to be the two big thrusts here.  
Lehrer: And then there's the requirement that kicked in for health care workers in many settings this week, and I know the response has also been a pretty good rate, but we do have this report from the Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn now that there are some surgeries and other procedures that are being delayed because they're short-staffed. Want to comment on that?  
Mayor: Well, sure. I think we should separate our public health care system from private, voluntary hospitals and Downstate is not part of the city system, obviously. The city hospitals, Health + Hospitals, 11 hospitals, 70 clinics, we're doing really, really well. Last figure I saw 92 percent of all staff vaccinated. I think that number has gone up since I last saw it. Absolutely all of our hospitals and clinics are running well. We expected in the other side of the equation, the non-city hospitals to have some challenges, but we also think that that will change even over the next few days, because again, mandates are here for a reason. We tried the voluntary approach for many, many months, incentives, everything. Mandates get people to move in a good and honest way. If you got to do something, if there's a deadline, people move. So, I think you're going to see more people in those private hospitals getting vaccinated real quick. I also think some people, again, they stand back for some days and they're not getting a paycheck, and the entire health care system, everyone's under a vaccine mandate. So, it's not like you can go someplace else and be unvaccinated. I think people going to think better of it, come back, get their paycheck, get their vaccination, get their job back.  
Lehrer: Tyrus in Harlem has a question for you about your breaking news, about the school system and vaccines. Tyrus you're on WNYC with the Mayor. Hello.  
Question: Hi, good morning, Mr. Mayor. I have two questions. The first question is if you've been notified that you will be terminated or have been terminated for failure to take the COVID-19 shot, will you – after you take the shot will the termination be rescinded?   
Mayor: So, Tyrus, a very important question. I'll talk about the schools. We had a whole labor negotiation process, and an arbitrator came in and the rule is this, that if someone by five o'clock today, any of our school employees of any kind is not vaccinated, at least one shot, we will move to put them on leave without pay starting Monday. Again, we'll fill their role immediately with a vaccinated person. They will be in that leave without pay status going forward, and at some point, of course, if it's never resolved that does lead to termination, but it doesn't happen immediately. What happens is people don't get a paycheck, and if at any point they want to correct that, get vaccinated then can come back in, we would welcome that. But we're not assuming that, if they don't get vaccinated by five o'clock today, after all these reminders and warnings and incentives and everything else, we're assuming they're not coming back and we're putting them on a pay without – I mean leave without pay status starting from Monday morning.  
Lehrer: And you are still forecasting that you will have zero uncovered classes on Monday because you have enough substitute teachers to cover those who are not yet vaccinated?  
Mayor: Yeah, we have many more vaccinated ready, willing, able substitutes. Then the number of people that we expect to be out. And by the way, that's across different categories, teachers, paraprofessionals, folks who do general education, special education. We have a lot of folks in reserve. We have about a thousand certified teachers in the Department of Education administrative work that can be brought over into schools for a period of time if needed. This has been something we've been planning for a long time, but we had a real example last year where we had to move thousands of substitutes into place. And again, a lot of these are our young folks coming out of schools of education, who never thought they could get into the New York City public schools as a career in the short term and would love to do that. And they're going to bring their energy and we're going to give them a really amazing opportunity now to get into the teaching profession long-term. And that's what we want, we want people who are ready, willing, and able and going to be vaccinated. We're confident about those numbers.  
Lehrer: I think Lauren in Manhattan has a different kind of education question for you, Mr. Mayor. Lauren you're on WNYC, hello?  
Question: Hello, Brian. I absolutely love you. Thank you, Mr., Mayor for taking my call. My son has special needs and because there isn't appropriate placement for him at a public school, he attends a private school for learning disabilities. And we receive reimbursement for tuition from the city, and the problem is that this reimbursement is taking years – plural – and we just can't, we do not have the money to pay this tuition without being reimbursed. And we go through the process every year to settle with the city, and I know that the system has hurt, COVID has hurt everything, but my family is hurting too. And many families are in this position, and I just wanted you to speak to that please.  
Mayor: Yeah. Lauren, thank you. Because this shouldn't happen this way. I'm on a, just from that numb, I'm sorry you're going through it. And I don't want to see it happen to you or any other family. This has been something that we fought on eight years straight to fix this problem, we know we have made some progress, but honestly, we need to make more. Will you please give your information to WNYC? I will have someone call – a senior person call you today and work to get this rectified right away. The bottom line is look we one day, I hope, Lauren, that we can serve more and more of our kids in public schools who have special needs. That's true, for example, kids on the autism spectrum, we can do more and more good work for them. We've got specialized programs, but we also know there are some kids would really profound challenges, it's hard to accommodate them properly in public school. We need to turn to these private schools. Once a decision is made, that that is the right path, a parent should not be put in a situation where they're waiting forever for reimbursement, few can afford that. It's just unfair. This is something we still have to do better on. So, please give us your information. Let me see if we can get this quickly fixed for you and get you the help you need.  
Lehrer: Lauren, hang on. We will take your contact information off the air. Let me turn Mr. Mayor to the ongoing crisis at Rikers Island. As I would imagine, you know, for the first time, since the start of the pandemic, an entire jail on Rikers is now under COVID-19 quarantine. And what I understand this means is that all 900 detainees at the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, part of Rikers, are considered exposed to COVID-19. As a result, they can't see visitors, and in many cases are unable to attend court dates. I want to play you a clip from Alford on Rikers Island, who talked to our Gothamist reporter Jake Offenhartz this week. Alfred designed in on a parole violation and says he just needs to appear before a judge to be entered into a drug treatment program to get released, but they won't bring them before the judge because of the quarantine. Listen.   
Read More: Staff Shortages Leave 20% Of Rikers Detainees Under Quarantine, Slowing Decarceration Efforts
Question: All they got to do is produce me in court, but they're not taking me over there. I feel like I'm being held here hostage. Like [inaudible], I had never been enthusiastic about going to court in my life. [Inaudible] the same thing, you’re in lock down, you’re in quarantine. They keep saying the house that I'm in is asymptomatic and there's nobody going back and forth to court. First, they told me it was just my house. Now they are saying that if the whole OBCC. I felt like I'm being [inaudible] I got bills, my rent, the lady that I paid the rent to, she’s ready to evict me.
Lehrer: So, that's Alfred in on a parole violation at Rikers. Mr. Mayor, to his case, and to the larger situation, a spokesperson for the Correctional Health Services blames the widespread exposure directly on mismanagement by the Department of Correction. What would you say about this situation? 
Mayor: Well, I haven't seen what that spokesperson said. What I can tell you is that we had a really big problem with Correction officers not showing up to work. That created a dynamic where we couldn't move people around the way we needed to and provide the support to the health care workers. Now, that situation is being fundamentally changed. One, we've made very clear to the union, which has been unfortunately, a very bad actor and to all employees, if you don't show up for work, you're going to be suspended immediately. That has caused a lot of employees to now show up. And that's allowing us to do the work, to support the health care folks, to get people to court appearances, et cetera. So, there's an underlying problem here that led to this reality, but it's not a long-term reality. That's the bottom line, we have to fix this. We have to fix it quickly. Quarantine is a limited timeframe as you know. We are now getting back a lot more officers. We're bringing in additional help from outside from other agencies. We are getting a lot of those parole violators, and you said, Alfred is one of them. We worked with the State. We worked first with the Legislature to pass the Less Is More bill, than with the Governor to get it signed. Now, hundreds and hundreds of parole violators have either have been, if they're technical parole violators, they don't have other warrants, they've been released. Others have been sent to State prison, not to Rikers. We're reducing the population greatly. The COVID levels in Rikers are being addressed. Watching it literally daily, it is something that's being — a lot of attention is being put on it to make sure that facility is kept safe. And what's going to happen over the next few weeks is the population is going to go down greatly. And the number of officers are going to return that we need. And then you're not going to have a quarantine situation anymore. That should be ending pretty soon. 
Lehrer: Well, I've asked you before about using your 6A powers, but does this lockdown change the context enough for you to give a different answer? For people who don't know those are certain powers that you have as mayor to, and you can confirm if I’m characterizing this exactly right, release some people from Rikers on a preventive health basis? You did that with some people at the beginning of the pandemic. Given what's going on there, would it be appropriate now for you to start using that again for people like Alfred, if his story is as he represents it? 
Mayor: It really depends. First of all, Alfred's in on a parole violation. That's a State issue, not a City issue. So, he's not in that category you mentioned. But it really depends, if he is in on a technical parole violation without any other outstanding warrant, he is likely to simply be released soon. But if he is in for other outstanding matters or a bigger parole violation, not a technical one, but a more profound one, he may be in a different situation. The 6A, we've started releases, but I've told – you know, I've been asked this many times. I've been very clear, it's a very limited number, probably be in the dozens, who can be released by law and do not have other outstanding warrants, did not, were not involved in a violent or sexual crime for example. I'm not releasing folks who did a violent crime or a sexual offense or have a history around that. 
That's not the kind of folks I'm going to release. That's just the blunt truth. But careful review process with the DAs, NYPD. There will be some people we can release. The much bigger solution, Brian is to release and or transfer to State prison, hundreds, and hundreds of inmates. That's what we're doing right now with the State effectively. We need the courts though, the courts, they have about, we've got over a thousand people who have been waiting over a year for their trial. They're not people we can release. They have to get a trial. I've asked the courts to calendar 500 cases immediately and move them. Court system is still far from fully functioning. Almost everything else in the city is fully functioning. The courts are not. That's hurting us deeply. 
Lehrer: It sounds at least from what we heard, like the courts are ready for Alfred, but Alfred can't get there. Is there a way that you could facilitate it for him and people like him? 
Mayor: One of the things – two points. One, I don't know Alfred’s situation. Like you said, we will take it on face value but we need to confirm. If it's a quarantine situation, quarantine is limited. It's ten days is the normal time frame. So, obviously he's going to come out of quarantine soon. We would get him where he needs to be. But also, something very good the Governor did that we asked for was allowing us to do certain court procedures by video. And that we will start doing immediately. That was not legal in New York State, but we got the dispensation we needed to start that up. That's going to solve a lot of problems. So, we'll look into his case. And I want our team to follow up with you on Alfred's particulars. And we'll follow up on him immediately. But I think the bigger point is we're moving a series of things that are going to change the equation. The quarantine is going to come off. People are going to get their opportunity to go to court. But we need the court system to actually schedule the cases or it's moot. If they're not willing to move hundreds and hundreds of cases, people are stuck in limbo. That's the biggest thing we need to fix right now. 
Lehrer: And last thing on this, Gothamist is reporting that this lockdown was actually in effect since last week. So, before you visited Rikers on Monday. Were you aware of the quarantine then? And if so, why didn't you mention it during your press conference on the island? 
Mayor: There's been a variety of actions taken to address the COVID situation. I obviously knew that quarantine was one of the specific tools that's being used. And that's been used throughout. So, it does not strike me as something unusual. It's something that has to be fixed because it inter-related with other problems. But since those problems are being fixed, the quarantine period will run its course. And then everyone will be moved accordingly. 
Read More: "They Kept Him Off The Dark Side": Rikers Detainees Say De Blasio Intentionally Ignored Jail's Worst Sites
Lehrer: Right. But this was apparently the first time that there was this widespread a lockdown and you were or weren't aware of it on Monday? 
Mayor: I was not –I'll be very straightforward. I was not aware of the exact number. I was aware that there was a number of folks under quarantine. I don't know if I actually think what you're saying is as novel as you think it is. Clearly anyone exposed should be under quarantine. That's been the rule all along. And if this was the interpretation that health folks made, that doesn't strike me as surprising. It's the cautious thing to do. We do not want to see a spread of COVID on Rikers. Again, quarantine is a tool we've been using for a year and a half. It's a brief process and then everything continues. 
Lehrer: Michael, on Staten Island, member of the NYPD. You're on WNYC with the Mayor. Hello, Michael. 
Question: Hi, Brian. Thanks for having me. Thanks for choosing me. Mayor, you may remember me. We met two years ago at Gracie Mansion at Italian Heritage night. I took a picture with you. I told you I was putting on an event, told you my wife was in recovery. Do you remember? 
Mayor: I am. It's coming back as you're saying it. I remember you being at Gracie, go on. 
Question: Yes. And so basically you told me and wife congratulations. Then I gave my information to your Community Affairs Unit. Anyway, I'm doing another event in Bay Ridge, October 16th. And I would love for you to be there. You could find my information on the Instagram Sobriety Walk. I even give you my tax number, 9-4-2-9-7-6. I am a police officer, 15 years. I work out of the 6-0 Precinct. If you can't come, please, in all sincerity, tweet out the image, all through digital. Everyone needs to come to this event. We cannot let the pandemic combine further issues with the ongoing epidemic. And this is not some tabling event. It’s not NARCAN. This is going to be powerful speakers who talk to the truth about it, who use science. So, whatever you could do to help me, I would greatly appreciate it. Thank you. 
Mayor: Hey Michael, thank you. Thank you for what you're doing, both, you know, serving us as an officer, but also really working on these issues. As you know, I've dealt with issues of recovery. And unfortunately, folks in my own family who didn't take that path. You know, my dad, in this case, was an alcoholic. It was a very, very painful reality in my childhood. And many times people have tried to convince him there was another opportunity and he just couldn't see it. But other members of my family have really successfully followed the path of recovery. And I really want to thank you for encouraging people and doing events like this. And I'm going to try and to get down there if I can. And certainly we're going to support you online as well. Thank you very much. 
Lehrer: Michael, thanks for checking in. Different kinds of questions related to the NYPD. I know you're familiar with the article that WNYC and Gothamist published yesterday about possible ties between a far-right militia group called the Oath Keepers that had a notable presence at the storming of the Capitol in January and members of the NYPD. The reporters, just to let our listeners in on this, searched through data on Oath Keepers membership that said to have been hacked from the group. And found the names of two NYPD officers who they then contacted. But we didn't release their names because they couldn't be confirmed as members. Your office has launched an investigation, you confirmed. But could you tell us more about the scope of that investigation? Will it be limited to just the two officers the story mentions, or will it involve going into the data and looking for more possible names? 
Read More: Hack Of Oath Keepers Militia Group Includes Names Of Active NYPD Officers, De Blasio Launches Investigation
Mayor: I’d say this, first of all, when you look at the manifesto of the Oath Keepers, they're basically telling their members to defy orders from democratically elected civilian governments. It's such an ironic – painfully ironic name because they claim to be supporting the United States Constitution while telling people to violate it. So, anyone who's claiming allegiance to the Oath Keepers is inherently denying their own oath as a police officer, and they can't serve as a police officer under that status, they just can’t. If we confirm that any police officer has pledged allegiance to the Oath Keepers and to those values, then time there'll be – there'll be due process, of course, they deserve a trial, but, you know, if that's found to be the case they shouldn't be a member of the NYPD. In terms of how we would identify anyone else, again, we're not going to do – I was asked this yesterday – we're not going to go through all the ranks of the NYPD looking for what people's political values are. That smacks of McCarthyism to me. And I said yesterday, my parents went through the McCarthy era and were victims of the McCarthy era. I'm not going to start a new, progressive vision of the same thing. I don't accept that. But what is appropriate, if there are known databases, of course, we'll cross-check them. If there's any report of someone being involved. Of course, we're going to pursue that. So, we will investigate specific leads a hundred percent. And any officer who pledges allegiance to something other than the people of New York City and democratically elected government, shouldn't be in public service, period. 
Lehrer: It's a very interesting tension that you point out. In a democracy, you don't want to engage in anything that looks like McCarthyism, but it is a threat to the public safety if members of any police force are involved in something like right-wing militia groups, such as the Oath Keepers. So, how do you monitor that it isn't taking place without violating people's privacy rights? 
Mayor: I think it's about being specific. I mean, the problem, again, just very briefly to say, you know, my parents were put through loyalty tests and put through a proceeding in the 1950s on loyalty, which was just disgusting – I've seen the details of proceedings – because they literally had glancing contact with people who happened to be members of the communist party. They had nothing to do with what my parents' values were or their lives were anything, and yet their lives were fundamentally affected by the madness and the hysteria of that time. And my dad was a decorated World War II veteran, who lost his leg on Okinawa, and he was still put through that. As loyal an American as you could possibly imagine. So, we cannot, as progressives, go down that road. What we can do, and we are doing with all of the right-wing far-right nationalist, you know, all the efforts to attack people violently because they are immigrants, because they are of different ethnic backgrounds, all the ethnically and racially motivated violence – we're constantly scanning for that. The NYPD has a very aggressive effort looking for threats, because those are the biggest threats right now, the right-wing militias, etcetera – the biggest threats to democracy, they are the biggest threats to law enforcement officers, ironically. We have had many violent confrontations with law enforcement by those kinds of forces. So, we're scanning constantly for any activity. And if we see any inter-connection to an NYPD officer, it's going to be followed up on immediately, but I think it's looking for the activity rather than asking every person whether they're loyal to one set of values or not, that, to me, is where it gets very slippery.  
Lehrer: Friedman, in Brooklyn, you’re on WNYC with the Mayor. Hello, Friedman. 
Question: Hi, first time in a long time. Good morning, Mr. Mayor. I had a question because I recently read an article about congestion pricing and how that – how discussions are being held and, on that topic, now. And I'm curious about how the City plans to deal with how it's going to affect the outer boroughs. You know, ever since the pandemic started, we've had increased traffic throughout all five boroughs due to people moving towards more individual centric modes of transportation versus public transportation. And, you know, it's not only getting a little dangerous out here with all the cars on the road, it's also increasing noise pollution. You know, I hear honking from 8:00 AM to 7:00 PM every day, you know, right outside my living room window. And it's starting to become a little unbearable. 
Mayor: Yeah. I got to tell you, Friedman, I am right there with you that this is – this whole reality we went through, COVID leading people to turn back to their cars after years and years where mass transit had gotten better and better, and in many ways – and obviously the subway has had a lot of problems – but I'm saying, you know, the Citi Bike, Select Bus Service, the efforts we made with NYC Ferry, I mean, there's been so many more options. They've been embraced by people, and that was really working. And then COVID put everything into like full reverse, folks went streaming back to their cars. It's been really problematic. We have to go back the other way. Congestion pricing is going to be one of the ways we do it. I believe in it, I think, bluntly, the MTA has been dragging their feet. The State's been dragging their feet. The federal government has been dragging their feet. It's time to get this done. It's urgently necessary to reduce congestion, to reduce emissions, to end what you're going through because that's – because there's too many cars on the road, what you're experiencing, we're seeing more fatalities from crashes. This needs to happen a hell of a lot quicker. And I'd like to see the other levels of government really embrace this more than they are right now. 
Read More: This Is What We Heard From The First 6 Hours Of Public Comments On The MTA’s Congestion Pricing Plans
Lehrer: I read a story this morning that Governor Murphy is threatening to stop cooperating with New York at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey if this congestion pricing fee goes into effect. Do you want to respond to him? Did you see that? 
Mayor: I did. And I think – I'm just a huge fan of Phil Murphy. I really am. I feel, you know, close friendship and a lot of respect for what he has done. He has been – led a very progressive vision in New Jersey. But on this one, I understand where he's coming from. He has constituents who are upset. I would like to argue that, you know, let us figure this out together. If there are some appropriate things to be addressed, like, you know, should your George Washington Bridge toll be counted so you're not double tolled? Okay, that's a fair discussion. I think there's a lot of things we can do to appropriately lighten the burden without losing the value of congestion pricing, which is that it should discourage people from using their cars, when there's lots of other great opportunities and alternatives, and allow us to deal with a growing emissions problem and congestion problem. I think that we can strike the balance. So, I imagine he is standing up for his constituents, but I also believe he's a very reasonable person and we could all work together to find a solution. 
Lehrer: And I also read, the Times has this article today and a version yesterday, that the numbers of people killed in traffic crashes this year is up to 189 as of mid-September, which would be the most since you took office. It had been going way down to record lows before the pandemic, but we have these trends you mentioned, more people getting private cars, 120,000 more new car registrations than last year, according to the Times, but at the same time, again, from like they report traffic tickets, traffic violations as issued by the NYPD, have plummeted by more than half. So, why are traffic tickets plummeting while vehicular deaths are soaring? 
Mayor: Hey, Brian, you know, look, I think this is one of the places where we got to have an honest conversation and a thoughtful conversation. I'll do this very quick, but let's be real. I am still amazed a year-and-a-half plus into a global pandemic, this kind of surprise in the voice of so many folks when asking questions without actually starting with guess what, there was a global pandemic that disrupted absolutely, positively everything. It disrupted policing. We had a period of time where we had a huge number of officers out. We had a whole host of new problems, obviously all over this country. We saw an uptick in shootings and violence. That's where we've been putting the energy of our officers. We need to get back to intensive traffic enforcement. That worked for six years. Vision Zero was, as you just noted, you know, really profoundly reducing the number of crashes and deaths and injuries, but we've been in, essentially, a wartime footing for the last year-and-a-half. And we've got to get back where we were, but the way you do that is get everyone vaccinated, which is why we need the mandates, get an essentially full recovery of our economy, get things back to normal. That's going to affect reductions in violence and shootings as well. A normal city, a normal economy is going to help public safety. Then we can take officers and move them on to the things we were doing before the pandemic. But every single thing we've talked about today, including schools, including Rikers, the roots of all of these problems are a global pandemic. The good news is we're coming out of it, really powerfully, because this city is now so vaccinated. 83 percent of New York City adults have had at least one dose, let's keep going with that. Then we can literally turn the corner on each and every one of these challenges. 
Lehrer: So, a quick follow-up, advice to the next mayor on furthering the safe streets work? 
Mayor: Go deeper into Vision Zero, it worked. More enforcement, absolutely, as we can free up officers, more ticketing for speeding and failures to yield, more speed cameras, which we fought for a long time with Albany on, get the Crash Victims Rights bill passed in Albany. That would help us immensely. Double down on Vision Zero. As things come back, that's the perfect moment to take it into the next gear.  
Lehrer: Thanks as always, Mr. Mayor. Talk to you next week. 
Mayor: Take care, Brian.  
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