Precinct gallery session change causes stir

A recent change in the format of a local precinct council meeting has caused a stir.

The Forty-ninth Precinct Community Council president has suspended the public gallery sessions at the monthly meetings over safety concerns after learning that a group of attendees from outside the precinct were posting photos from the meeting online.

Council president Joe Thompson said he’s concerned because he doesn’t know how many other pictures have been taken, what kind of information they’re recording, or what the motivation is beyond attending council meetings to question police tactics.

He’s taking the stance of ‘better safe then sorry,’ since complaints raised during the gallery session are often of a sensitive nature, like drug dealing on someone’s block.

“I have a responsibility to protect the people who come and complain,” said Thompson.

The public gallery sessions have been replaced by private meetings, with complainants having the opportunity to address the council’s executive board and the precinct commander at the conclusion of the meeting.

“Everybody has their questions answered, nobody’s being shut out,” said Thompson.

He said he started the public gallery session about 13 years ago when he was first elected as council president, and that he felt it was a good way to get community information, but not at the risk of people being exposed.

“It really bothers me that I can’t do it,” said Thompson.

The group in question appears to be ‘Why Accountability,’ Bronxites for NYPD Accountability, who posted about the recent council meeting on their Facebook page.

A recent post states that the group does not put online pictures of crime complaints, only pictures of the executive board and guest speakers.

Some attendees at the March meeting voiced disapporoval with the gallery session changes that were implemented several months ago.

Local community leader and longtime council attendee Raphael Schweizer, of Bronx Park East, said he doesn’t think the private meetings are a substitute for the gallery session.

“When other people don’t hear what the concerns are, it puts less pressure on police to follow up,” said Schweizer. “It’s all about accountability.”

He feels safety concerns would be addressed well enough with an announcement that sensitive complaints should be brought up after the meeting instead of in the gallery session, and he said that since the gallery sessions have ceased, the meetings have lost their usefulness as a public forum.

But Thompson contends that the meetings are not meant to be a discussion forum for citywide or national problems that sometimes get brought up in gallery sessions, instead of specific local public safety concerns.

“This isn’t a town hall meeting,” said Thompson. “What it’s doing is taking time away from people who have legitimate problems.”

Reach Reporter Jaime Williams at 718-260-4591. E-mail her at jwilliams@cnglocal.com.

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