September 16, 2015

By Donna Lieberman and Christopher Dunn

After an innocent black man is viciously thrown to the ground by a police officer and handcuffed, newspapers around the country rush to cover the story. The police commissioner and mayor apologize; the officer is immediately placed on desk duty.

Why? Because the man was a famous tennis player standing under a surveillance camera in front of a ritzy Manhattan hotel — a man who responded with grace and had the good fortune to get the attention of the Daily News.

But what about all the other people who every day get pushed against walls, splayed across car trunks, put in chokeholds, struck with batons, doused with pepper spray, tackled to the ground and have guns pointed at them? What about their stories, which often unfold in poor and isolated neighborhoods of color in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island?

The truth is that nobody knows their stories. As highlighted by Commissioner Bill Bratton’s disclosure that he only learned of the James Blake incident from the press, the NYPD has no comprehensive system for collecting information about police officers’ use of force, much less for reporting such incidents to the department’s leadership and to the public.

Simply put, the use of excessive force by NYPD officers is a problem hidden both to the department and to the public. Now is the time to fix that.

While only bits and pieces of information about NYPD use of force exist, what is available suggests significant problems. Looking only at the notorious stop-and-frisk program, where officers are required to record the use of force on stop forms, our analysis of NYPD data reveals that physical force was used nearly 1.4 million times during stops made between 2002 and 2013 — the Bloomberg-Kelly era — even though nearly 90% of those stopped during those years were completely innocent.

In nearly 400,000 instances, the force was serious, with a person handcuffed, put against a wall or car, taken to the ground, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or getting a gun pointed at them.

To be sure, the ongoing drop in police stops that Commissioner Raymond Kelly initiated has led to a significant reduction in physical force incidents connected to them since 2013, but signs of serious problems remain. In 2014, officers used physical force in nearly a third of stops, up from less than a quarter during the Kelly era.

Separate from that internal NYPD information, between January 2014 and the end of last month, civilians filed nearly 7,000 allegations of excessive force with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the city agency that investigates police misconduct complaints. And in the first six months of this year, the number of complaints of all types of officer misconduct found valid by the CCRB almost doubled from the first six months of 2014.

But stop-and-frisk and CCRB figures provide only small windows into officers’ use of force. Right now, in many police-civilian encounters, an officer’s use of force is never recorded. Even when it is, no system is in place for collecting and reporting that information. As a result, no one knows how often NYPD officers in fact use force or the circumstances of that use of force — a gaping hole in NYPD management and accountability.

The solution is straightforward: Require every NYPD officer who uses force against a person, no matter the circumstances, to report in writing that use of force and the details of the incident. Information from those reports must then be entered into a centralized database, which must be made available to NYPD leaders, elected officials, advocacy organizations and the public.

Real reform is not possible without real information. That was the lesson of the stop-and-frisk debate, which turned dramatically once the public learned about the vast number of innocent people being stopped and about the impact of the program on blacks and Latinos.

For the sake of all those New Yorkers who are not famous tennis players, it’s now time to apply that lesson to the NYPD’s use of force.