Super PAC Ads Distort New York Congressional Candidate’s ‘Help Not Handcuffs’ Quote

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC, is running ads on TV and social media that distort Democratic House candidate Josh Riley’s positions on crime.

One ad misleadingly claims that the New York Democrat said he “supports help not handcuffs” for criminals. Another ad from the super PAC accurately says that Riley is supported by the Working Families Party, but misleadingly implies he shares that group’s position on defunding the police. 

Riley, an attorney and former Democratic congressional staffer, is running against Duchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro, a Republican who lost the governor’s race in 2018. The pair are competing for the seat representing New York’s 19th Congressional District, which was recently redrawn due to redistricting. The seat is currently held by Democratic Rep. Pat Ryan, who is now seeking the seat for the redrawn 18th Congressional District.

Contrary to the CLF ads, Riley has said he doesn’t support defunding the police, and the “help not handcuffs” quote was edited from Riley’s statement during a candidate forum, where he actually said that “folks having a mental health crisis deserve help not handcuffs.”

He was quoting a phrase used by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which promotes “help not handcuffs” in instances when the police are called on someone experiencing a mental health crisis. 

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC dedicated to “winning a Republican Majority” in the House, paid for at least four ads focused on Riley.

“For criminals, Josh Riley supports help not handcuffs,” says the narrator in the ad titled, “Vote Against Josh Riley: Not On Our Side.” The ad’s description on YouTube repeats the claim. CLF began running the ad on TV on Sept. 30, according to Kantar Media, a media company that tracks political ads. CLF is currently running three versions of a Facebook ad that says “When it comes to CRIME, Josh Riley supports HELP over HANDCUFFS.” 

CLF also posted the ad on Facebook with the caption, “As crime runs rampant throughout #NY19, Josh Riley continues to put criminals before New Yorkers. New York does not need another criminal coddling politician like Josh Riley.”

In small print, the ad cites a forum hosted by the Tompkins County Democratic Committee in June as proof for the claim that Riley said he supports “help not handcuffs” for criminals during the forum. After the citation, the ad says in parentheses, “quoting National Alliance on Mental Illness.”  

When we asked about the ad’s claim that “for criminals, Josh Riley supports help not handcuffs,” Calvin Moore, CLF communications director, told us in an email: “Josh Riley is literally on video saying he wants ‘help not handcuffs,’ and that clip is played in the ad, so you have the video proof right there.” 

But as we said, the ad edits Riley’s quote. In Riley’s full comment during the forum, he said he supports a concept advocated by the National Alliance on Mental Illness that “folks having a mental health crisis deserve help not handcuffs.” His comment followed a statement from Osun Zotique, who was one of Riley’s opponents in the primary.

Riley, Jun. 21: Osun was right when they said that the mental health issue and the intersection between the mental health system and the criminal justice system is a huge challenge that we need to address. So, when I was working as counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, I was hearing both from law enforcement officials and also advocates in the community that because our mental health system is so badly underfunded, a lot of folks in crisis end up not getting the care that they need, not getting the services they need, and then their first encounter with anybody is with law enforcement because of a 911 call. That’s really bad for folks in crisis. You know the National Alliance on Mental Illness says folks in crisis deserve help not handcuffs and I believe that is really, really true. But the system as we have designed it doesn’t operate that way, so when people in the mental health crisis are interacting with the criminal justice system, it’s bad for folks in crisis, it’s bad for law enforcement officials who have to make do those responses, and it’s really bad for the taxpayer because one of the least efficient things you can do is take somebody who’s having a crisis and lock them up when what they really need is help.

Riley’s campaign spokesperson told us in an Oct. 20 email that the ad takes Riley’s comments “out of context and presents them to voters in a shamefully deceitful manner.” 

“Josh has never said any such thing. Rather, Josh has a clear position supporting law enforcement and community safety, and he has a proven record to back it up,”  the spokesperson said. “Josh repeatedly and explicitly said that people in mental health crisis – not criminals – deserve help, not handcuffs, and he was quoting the National Alliance on Mental Illness when he did so.”

“In fact, just seconds before Josh said that people in mental health crisis deserve help, not handcuffs, Josh said the following about law enforcement: ‘Our folks in law enforcement put their lives on the line everyday to serve and protect our community and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude for that,’” the spokesperson added.

Support for Law Enforcement Funding 

The CLF ad titled,Vote Against Josh Riley: Whose Side Is He On? Not Ours,” says Riley is supported by “a radical group that wants to defund the police,” referring to the Working Families Party. The ad, which also repeats the “help not handcuffs” claim, began airing on TV on Oct. 11, according to Kantar Media.

Moore said the ad’s claim that Riley “is supported by a radical group that wants to defund the police” is “100% correct and indisputably true.”

It’s true that Riley will appear on the ballot under both the Democratic Party and the Working Families Party — a minor political party that endorsed Riley and has expressed support for defunding the police. But Riley has said he doesn’t support defunding the police. 

In a radio interview on Oct. 7 with Ithaca’s Morning News, Riley said he supports law enforcement and has “never ever” suggested defunding police.

In the same interview, Riley said he worked on legislation that provided more funding and support for the police during his stint as general counsel to then-Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota when Franken was on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Riley also said in the radio interview that he comes from a law enforcement family and his mother was a probation officer for nearly two decades, adding, “I’m not going to defund my mom.”

On his website, Riley says he would support, “Justice Department programs that support law enforcement, including the Byrne JAG [Justice Assistance Grant] program and COPS [Community Oriented Policing Services] program; collective bargaining rights for law enforcement and first responders; proposals to end the Government Pension Offset (GPO) and Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP), which reduce law enforcement’s retirement benefits; and amending Section 7(k) of the Fair Labor Standards Act to ensure that law enforcement and first responders are eligible for the overtime pay they deserve.”

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