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Op-Ed: A Review Board in Name Only (The New York Times)

By Christopher Dunn and Donna Lieberman — Ten years ago this month, independent oversight of the New York City Police Department arrived with the creation of the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Our group, the New York Civil Liberties Union, could not have been more pleased, as we and other civil rights advocates had long fought for impartial monitoring of the nation’s largest police force. We had great hope that the review board could curb police misconduct and improve police-community relations. In its first decade, however, the board has proved to be largely ineffective. It seems we all may have embraced an agency that is hopelessly flawed.

The board’s rocky beginning should have been viewed as an omen of things to come. In September 1992, Mayor David N. Dinkins and the police union were embroiled in a racially charged debate over legislation proposing the independent board. In protest against the bill, the police held a rally at City Hall. Rudolph W. Giuliani, who also opposed the measure and who was preparing to run for mayor, attended. The rally turned into a virtual riot. In a twist, public reaction to it was so strong that the bill was passed. On July 5, 1993, the Civilian Complaint Review Board opened.

Four months later, Mr. Giuliani defeated Mr. Dinkins in the mayor’s race. In the ensuing eight years, the city experienced some of its most racially divisive charges of police misconduct, including the 1997 torture of Abner Louima and the 1999 shooting death of Amadou Diallo. Both cases cried out for action by the review board, yet it played virtually no role. Rather, it focused on processing individual complaints against officers — and it did so ineffectively. It closed around half of its cases without completing an investigation, and referred only a few of the complaints (about 1 in 20) to the Police Department for discipline. Accusing the board of shoddy work, the department refused to accept the findings and conducted its own investigations. The number of officers ultimately disciplined by the department was small, and the discipline often was less severe than that recommended by the board.

Through his control of review board budgets and appointments, Mayor Giuliani attained what had eluded him in 1993: blocking meaningful oversight of the police. By the time Michael R. Bloomberg succeeded him last year, the public, the civil-rights community and just about anyone else who believed in civilian oversight had become disillusioned with the board. Since then, some progress has been made. Convinced that the board’s work has improved, the Police Department has stopped reinvestigating cases; it is also imposing discipline on a larger percentage of officers. The board’s public reports have also improved markedly.

Nonetheless, the board has a long way to go, and it may never be truly effective unless the way it is set up is changed. The 1993 legislation creating the agency allows the mayor and police commissioner to appoint 8 of its 13 members, an arrangement that has produced a board highly deferential to the Police Department. Thus, even after the departure of Mr. Giuliani, the agency has continued to absent itself from important public controversies.

A powerful example is the case of Alberta Spruill, a Harlem woman who had a heart attack on May 16 when officers tossed a stun grenade into her apartment during a raid prompted by faulty information. For years the board had been receiving complaints about improper raids. Finally, in January, it sent a memorandum to the Police Department recommending the creation of a database to track search-warrant practices. Yet the board submitted the memo secretly and never publicly disclosed its concerns about search-warrant practices. Only after the death of Ms. Spruill, when the department announced that it was creating a search-warrant database, was it revealed — in a Police Department press release — that the review board had previously identified the problems.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board cannot succeed if it is unwilling both to pursue police misconduct aggressively and to become a public voice for reform. Without this, individuals will have no reason to file complaints, officers will have no reason to fear discipline, and the Police Department will lack the external check that is crucial to its good health. If the board is to fulfill its promise of 10 years ago, Mayor Bloomberg must assure that its members are prepared to undertake their responsibilities with greater courage and conviction. Otherwise, we will all need to revisit the issue of who should be appointed to the review board and who gets to decide.

Christopher Dunn and Donna Lieberman are, respectively, associate legal director and executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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