The hard work of prosecuting cops: Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg’s Police Accountability Unit helps keep the NYPD honest
Last week’s news that the head of former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s security detail had pled guilty to crimes connected to his NYPD work for the mayor was noteworthy for many reasons, including because he was a high-ranking NYPD member. As an inspector, the now-disgraced Howard Redmond held the rank just below that of chief. In modern times, it’s extremely rare for such a prominent member of the NYPD to be prosecuted.
Behind this high-profile prosecution is a special section of the Manhattan district attorney’s office that has received scant attention. The Police Accountability Unit has been energized since Alvin Bragg became Manhattan DA in January 2022. Given that my organization, the New York Civil Liberties Union, is deeply committed to strengthening police oversight, I pay close attention to this unit. And what I have seen so far, while far from perfect, is encouraging.
Criminal prosecution of police officers encounters two powerfully conflicting realities. On the one hand, some cops commit serious crimes, including shooting and beating people without justification, coercing women into sex, stealing money and other property, and lying while testifying in court. On the other hand, the authorities responsible for prosecuting such crimes — namely district attorney’s offices like Bragg’s — work closely with police departments and rely heavily on them. Because of this, prosecutors are deeply compromised when it comes to going after criminal activity by cops.
Some of the difficulties of this relationship surfaced last month when Bragg’s unit charged an NYPD officer with assault for punching a man in an Apple store on the Upper West Side. Prosecutors offered the officer the chance to plead down to a non-criminal offense, but his high-powered union lawyer refused the deal at the officer’s July 19 arraignment and proclaimed the officer’s intent to go to trial. The courtroom reportedly was packed with NYPD officers and union officials, who later staged a press conference to denounce Bragg.
Given this dynamic, one is right to be deeply skeptical about how far prosecutors can and will go in taking on cops. Nonetheless, Bragg’s unit has become more active. A report provided to me earlier this year detailed the unit’s work in 2022 and early 2023. During that time, it obtained convictions or guilty pleas from six NYPD officers and two other law-enforcement officers for assaults, thefts, sexual misconduct and criminal use of NYPD databases to thwart an investigation.
That is a start, but much remains to be done. With the NYPD having about 35,000 officers and excessive force alone being a widespread problem — the police beatings during the George Floyd demonstrations being just the most recent dramatic example — one can easily imagine scores of prosecutions each year.
Even in the cases being prosecuted, officers too often receive minimal punishment. To take former Inspector Redmond as an example, despite having been guilty of two felonies arising out of his sustained efforts to obstruct an investigation — including deleting thousands of messages from his phone — he did not receive any jail time and was allowed to keep his pension. He may be disgraced, but he’s not behind bars.
And then there are the district attorney offices in the city’s other boroughs. Most notably, the NYPD’s current highest-ranking official, Chief of Department Jeff Maddrey, ended up in the news recently for a November 2021 incident in Brooklyn where he intervened on behalf of a former NYPD colleague who had been arrested and taken to a precinct, charged with pointing a gun at a group of teenagers.
Soon after Maddrey went to the precinct, the colleague walked out the door, with Maddrey later claiming he had only asked precinct detectives to investigate further. That story fell apart earlier this year when video of his precinct visit emerged showing Maddrey warmly greeting the arrested cop 20 minutes before his release. In April, the Civilian Complaint Review Board concluded Maddrey had committed misconduct, but news accounts report the Brooklyn district attorney’s office found no criminality. One can only wonder how rigorous that investigation was.
We long have decried the lack of accountability for NYPD officers, and those concerns are particularly pronounced when it comes to criminality. Furthermore, we now have a mayor who seems to relish associating with those with suspect histories, including his deputy mayor overseeing the police department who resigned abruptly as the NYPD’s chief of department in 2014 shortly after becoming the target of an FBI investigation. We don’t harbor illusions that our local district attorneys are the solution, but they can play an important role in fighting police criminality from the bottom to the top of the NYPD.
This piece was originally published in the New York Daily News.