Op-Ed: Going Too Easy on Police Misconduct (New York Daily News)
By Chris Dunn and Donna Lieberman
Over the last several years, New York City has seen considerable progress when it comes to policing. At a time when crime is hovering at all-time lows, stop-and-frisks have dropped from nearly 700,000 in 2011 to under 15,000 last year, the City Council has passed legislation that should keep tens of thousands of New Yorkers charged with low-level offenses out of criminal court, and the NYPD is rolling out a new community-policing program.
To his credit, newly appointed Police Commissioner James O’Neill seems genuinely committed to improving police-community relations. But he inherits one serious and enduring problem: police mistreatment of civilians. As revealed by figures quietly released earlier this month by the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the last three years have seen a large increase in the number of cases where the CCRB found misconduct. Meanwhile, the NYPD continues to impose virtually no discipline on officers guilty of mistreating civilians. Compounding all of this is the fact that NYPD disciplinary decisions are shrouded in secrecy.
Recognizing that complaints are only allegations, the clearest indicator of actual police mistreatment of civilians is the number of cases each year where the CCRB completes an investigation and finds that misconduct occurred. Troublingly, that number has recently jumped.
Between 2011 and 2013, CCRB investigations confirmed misconduct in 682 cases. By contrast, in the last three years that number ballooned to 1,179 cases, an increase of 82%. That is particularly remarkable because the number of complaints has dropped during the last three years.
We repeatedly have raised concerns about this dramatic increase with the CCRB at its public meetings, but the agency has steadfastly remained silent.
Adding to the problem of increasing police misconduct is what’s happening to officers found to have mistreated civilians. Under the current system, the CCRB can only recommend discipline, with the final decision being left to the police commissioner. But the CCRB’s recommendations are important, both because they guide the commissioner’s thinking and because they reflect the CCRB’s views about the seriousness of police misconduct.
Alarmingly, the CCRB seems to be abandoning the idea of serious discipline for police officers who mistreat civilians. Just four years ago, the CCRB was recommending serious discipline — significant loss of pay, suspension or termination — in about 70% of cases. Last year, that figure fell to 12%. Meanwhile, the agency is now recommending training — which is not discipline at all — in nearly half of its cases.
Not surprisingly, in light of these recommendations, actual discipline meted out to officers is paltry. We met with O’Neill in October and expressed our concern about inadequate discipline, and the newly released numbers confirm our fears.
Of the 518 officers disciplined last year for civilian misconduct, not one was fired and only 20 were suspended for more than 10 days or lost more than 10 days of vacation time. Around 400 officers got off with nothing more than training. These outcomes send a clear message to police officers and the public: Even as Americans across the country have opened their eyes to police misconduct, the NYPD does not care enough about accountability.
Finally, even the slight discipline being imposed is hidden from public view. The NYPD releases only general statistics but nothing about specific discipline for specific officers, and the city refuses to release the judicial decisions issued by NYPD judges that hear disciplinary cases. (We have sued them over this as well.)
Thus, while much of the public knows about the recent public trial of the police officer who shot and killed 16-year-old Ramarley Graham in his family’s bathroom, the city long claimed it could not release the forthcoming decision from the judge overseeing the case.
The department now claims that, because of intense interest, it will go out of its way to make this particular ruling public — but the policy of keeping other decisions secret stays in place.
This all has to change if New York City wants to be serious about police misconduct and to repair the harm done when officers abuse their trust.
Dunn is associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Lieberman is the NYCLU’s executive director.