By Christopher Dunn & Donna Lieberman — Caught on videotape: An NYPD officer lowers his shoulder and viciously levels an innocent bike rider in the heart of Times Square; another officer repeatedly hits a man curled up on a public street with his baton in broad daylight; and yet a third officer beats a handcuffed man with his baton, takes a break to answer his cell phone and then resumes the beating. Shocking as these recently revealed incidents are, they are no surprise. Rather, brazen attacks like these are the predictable result of Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly's decision to turn a blind eye to officer misconduct over the past few years.
Most complaints of police abuse of civilians are investigated by the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent city agency. But when the board finds misconduct has occurred, Kelly controls whether the Police Department pursues the case. He also has final say over all discipline, which can range from merely giving verbal "instructions" about how to handle future civilian encounters to firing the officer. And Kelly doesn't have to explain his decision to anyone. During Kelly's most recent tenure as commissioner, discipline of officers found guilty by the CCRB has deteriorated dramatically. Between 2002 and 2004, about one-half of those officers received discipline more severe than instructions, about one-quarter received instructions, and a tiny number of cases were closed by the department without further action. (The remaining cases ended without discipline for miscellaneous other reasons.) Since 2005, however, only one-quarter of officers have received punishment more severe than instructions - half the rate of the three previous years. Conversely, slap-on-the-wrist instructions rose dramatically, comprising more than half of all cases completed in 2006. Most troubling, the rate of cases the department has simply closed without action or discipline has spiked, from less than 4 percent each year between 2002 and 2006 to nearly 35 percent in 2007 and more than 30 percent so far this year. As a result of all this, the proportion of officers given only instructions or whose cases are just dropped has more than tripled since 2002, rising in 2007 to 66 percent of the cases where the CCRB had found misconduct. And we are not just talking about minor misconduct. Officers using excessive force against civilians - the most serious form of misconduct - accounted for more than 10 percent of the cases dropped in 2007 and more than a quarter of the cases so far this year. Meanwhile, minor misconduct like offensive language or discourtesy has accounted for less than 5 percent of the dropped cases since 2006. This lax discipline, which contrasts starkly with the department's zero-tolerance approach toward regular New Yorkers, sends a clear message to the rank and file: If you engage in misconduct, chances are you will get away with it (unless you are stupid or unlucky enough to get caught on videotape). It is long past time for Mayor Bloomberg, the City Council and even the Justice Department to do something. First, to eliminate the problem of cases being dropped by a Police Department that may be protecting its own officers, control over the prosecution of CCRB cases must shift from the NYPD to the board. Next, it may be time to take away from the police commissioner exclusive control over discipline. At a minimum, misconduct cases should be heard by a judge outside the NYPD who would recommend discipline. If the police commissioner departs from that recommendation, he should have to provide a detailed, publicly available explanation. Finally, since local officials seem unwilling or unable to take on Kelly, it's time for the Justice Department to investigate whether the NYPD is sweeping misconduct under the rug. A new day is coming in Washington, and one of the new administration's first initiatives must be to demand pubic accountability from the nation's largest Police Department. Dramatic as they may be, chance videotapes of police beatings are no substitute for real oversight. Christopher Dunn is associate legal director and Donna Lieberman executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.