Mayor de Blasio has a public relations problem lately with the uniformed community. It’s been a complex division between the Mayor, the NYPD, and others. But. There is a significant way Mayor de Blasio can show he’s genuinely on the side of the men and women who put themselves on the line every day to serve the public: announce an initiative to make NYC a truly veteran-friendly and military-friendly city.
NYC has a population of more than 200,000 military veterans, in addition to the thousands who serve on both active and reserve duty at installations like Fort Hamilton, Fort Wadsworth, and Fort Totten, and the many armories and units across the five boroughs. Many NYPD are themselves military veterans and/or reservists who participate regularly with Reserve and Guard units, as many of the City’s other employees, both uniformed and civilian, are as well. I’ve personally found that NYPD, FDNY, and other public safety employees within NYC feel a close connection with the military and veterans as a result of the shared experiences of the 9/11 attacks and subsequent terror threats against NYC, and there is most definitely a shared sense of purpose and service between uniformed personnel in NYC and the U.S. military.
Veterans and military members span across all generations, ethnicities, and geographic areas within NYC, and are integral in both presence and spirit to our City’s uniformed services. It would be both easy and relatively low-cost to introduce and publicize an initiative that would ensure NYC’s veterans and military members received the services and benefits to which they are entitled. Because as of right now, this simply isn’t happening.
As I’ve mentioned before, it is one thing to say how much you appreciate your people in uniform, and it is entirely another to put that appreciation or recognition into policy and practice. Here are a few quick fixes that I propose for this potential initiative, which I’ll hashtag as #NYCVetsMatter:
Fast-Track and Incentivize Veteran Service in NYPD, FDNY, EMS, Emergency Management, and other NYC Public Safety agencies and units. The City employs tens of thousands of dedicated professionals in areas related to public safety, and the City government itself is the single largest employer in NYC. The City has much to gain from the experience and commitment to service that many veterans would bring to the job with these simple fixes:
Implement a NYC Government Veterans Hiring Preference. There is currently no veterans hiring preference that parallels the mandated veterans hiring preferences of the Federal and New York State government agencies. To the Federal and State government, military service counts as government service, and the hiring preference recognizes the training, skills, sacrifice, and commitment of honorably discharged and service-disabled veterans. The City should value this as well, and agencies–and the public they serve–will benefit.
Recognize and fast-track military experience into NYC public safety jobs. Military veterans are hanging out all across this City with a wealth of experience that could be put to immediate use: brave, dedicated medics who put people back together in combat; highly disciplined soldiers and marines who spent months and years following exacting rules of engagement and building trust and rapport with villagers and community leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan; brilliant intelligence analysts who have a detailed knowledge of both localized and international terrorist organizations and cells and experience in operationalizing that intelligence; truck and heavy equipment operators licensed and experience in moving big things around in a safe manner; smart, forward-thinking planners with experience and know-how in designing and leading operations in unpredictable environments–and these are just what I can think of off the top of my head. Yet it’s been a heavy burden on all of these veterans to “sell” their experience to NYC agencies, when the far greater share of the benefit would be to the agencies. These veterans are being employed by corporations and organizations who value and seek them out. NYC government is losing out by not actively finding ways to recruit and fast-track this talent and experience into public safety. Veterans come to the job already trained and experienced.. all NYC government needs to do is place them.
Tailor intake questions to veteran experience. I keep hearing stories about how NYPD seems to inadvertently screen out combat veterans as new applicants for the police academy. Adding a subset of questions (on the NYPD and other agencies’ intake questionnaires) specifically aimed at garnering honest responses from experienced–and highly desirable–combat veterans would easily change this. Welcoming in experienced individuals who are highly disciplined with weapons safety, with observing restraint and strict rules of engagement, and with managing crises in dangerous environments–well, that would be a profound win for all of us.
Establish a NYC Department of Veterans Affairs to centralize NYC’s policies and services for veterans. Currently there is a Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs, which under Mayor Bloomberg was weak and ineffective (half of the office’s $500k annual budget went to the commissioner’s salary, just as one example), and Mayor de Blasio waited more than 8 months to appoint a new commissioner. While I appreciate the experience and service of Commissioner Loree Sutton, she nevertheless appears to be as constrained in her approach to the City’s veterans as the previous administration. MOVA’s annual budget remains the same, and de Blasio’s office opted not to fund the veterans’ benefits counselors that had been grant-funded under Bloomberg. Mayor de Blasio also at this point in time is not supporting the proposal by City Councilmember Eric Ulrich to empower NYC government to better serve our population of veterans by establishing a separate department to manage veterans affairs. If de Blasio changed course and supported this, here’s what a NYC Department of Veterans Affairs would do:
Show that NYC is among the cities choosing to lead on veterans affairs. A number of cities already have an independent city-level agency to manage and coordinate veterans affairs, to include Houston, Los Angeles, and even nearby Yonkers. NYC has agencies outside of the Mayor’s office dealing with almost every flavor of issue to be had in a large urban environment, yet veterans affairs is not currently among them. This is for no other reason than a lack of leadership and commitment in our NYC government.
Consolidate and coordinate the City’s efforts to ensure veterans receive the full benefits they have earned. A department-level agency would have the staffing and oversight needed to coordinate the actions of other City agencies (working on homelessness, housing, business licensing, workforce development, mental health, education, the needs of aging and disabled persons, just to name a few) to ensure veterans can access and receive the rights and benefits due them. For example, Legal Services NYC recently had to legislate against NYC agencies–including the NYC Dept. of Consumer Affairs and the NYC Housing Authority (NYCHA)–in order for them to either enforce or abide by laws currently on the books to ensure veterans receive their earned benefits. We have a giant City, and giant agencies that need to all be on the same page with serving veterans. The only way to do this is to allocate the right staffing and the right resources to make this coordination.
Control and provide accountability for funding that goes to organizations within NYC to serve veterans. Currently grants to organizations that serve (or claim to serve) veterans in NYC are given out piecemeal, whether by City Council officials, or various agencies, and with no respect to other initiatives that may or may not be happening within the City. Funds are currently administered through the NYC Department of Youth and Community Development, which has no specific competency in veterans affairs or the actual competencies of local organizations presenting themselves as serving veterans. (Note: there are many tremendously effective nonprofits in NYC serving veterans; there are also several organizations claiming to serve veterans that offer few or no direct services to veterans, yet have been recipients of NYC funding.) Once granted, oversight is assigned to agencies that may or may not even understand what the grant is intended for, what the recipient organization does or claims to do, and so on. To manage the $3-4 million in annual NYC funding that goes out to various veterans causes, we badly need staff members who have an actual understanding of NYC’s veterans community, service organizations, and ongoing needs. Accountability is a win for everyone.
Provide a centralized hub for referring veterans to the resources and services they’ve earned and need help with. As I’ve mentioned before, NYC can’t afford to keep outsourcing the needs of our community’s veterans to Washington, D.C. If a veteran in NYC needs resources or help with earned benefits, he or she shouldn’t have to talk to someone on a D.C.-run hotline who has no idea how much it costs to rent a NYC apartment or what the process is to find a job in NYC. There are organizations right here in NYC with missions to help veterans with specific, localized issues–if only there were a centralized place for connecting veterans with these organizations.
Implement Veterans Treatment Courts in each borough. The concept of veterans treatment courts is to route veterans to specific resources available to them based on their military service in order to prevent future criminal behavior and help them get back on the right path. These courts have been highly successful, and have been operating in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn for some time, and Staten Island currently has one in the works. NYC’s Public Advocate has introduced a push to establish a veterans treatment court for Manhattan. Taking this a needed step further by standardizing this for all five boroughs is completely within the purview of the Mayor and would be a substantive statement that all veterans, even of those generations who did not receive the services they should have had when they returned, matter–in all parts of the City.
Solicit genuine input and participation from veterans. The Veterans Advisory Board (VAB) was established in 2006 to have members of the veterans community advising the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs on the needs of veterans in NYC–yet it has been problematic at best. Meetings have not been made public, and it remains uncertain whether the VAB has even been having meetings. The three-year terms for many members have long since expired, and many are either still serving beyond their appointed terms, or have yet to be replaced. Appointments appear to be symbolic, and are not representative of the leaders and organizations who are most active in the NYC veterans community. Councilmember Ulrich has introduced a bill that reforms the VAB, and a push from the Mayor to not only reform this, but publicize the VAB to the City’s veteran population as an important and accessible way to make their voices heard and needs known would send a tremendous message that what we have to say is valuable.
Got more ideas? Post in the comments below.