In testimony today before the City Council, legal and community advocates called for NYPD accountability and demanded immediate steps to strengthen civilian oversight of the police force.
The New York Civil Liberties Union was among the dozens of organizations to address the Public Safety Committee about the need to transfer authority to prosecute substantiated misconduct complaints from the NYPD to the independent Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB). The committee is examining the NYPD’s failure to prosecute police officers named in substantiated misconduct complaints. Advocates said a stronger independent review board is vital to restoring trust between the police department and the community it protects.
“Accountability benefits everyone, including the vast majority of cops who are dedicated to making their communities safer and stronger,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman, who testified before committee. “New York City residents need to know that if they call for help, their calls will be answered by a trustworthy, dedicated public servant. That makes them and all of us safer, and it allows them to perform their jobs more effectively.”
A 1993 amendment to the City Charter established the CCRB as an independent oversight agency responsible for fielding and investigating complaints of police misconduct. However, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly decides whether to prosecute substantiated complaints and if offending officers are disciplined. He often uses that authority to allow officers who engage in misconduct to go un-penalized.
During Kelly’s tenure, prosecution and discipline of officers found guilty by the CCRB has dramatically decreased. In 2007 and 2008, the NYPD decided not to prosecute nearly 35 percent of complaints the CCRB substantiated – a dramatic spike over the period from 2002 to 2006 when less than 4 percent of substantiated cases were dismissed without prosecution. These are not just cases involving minor misconduct. Excessive force cases – the most serious form of police misconduct – accounted for more than 10 percent of cases dropped in 2007 and nearly a quarter of cases dismissed in 2008.
When officers are prosecuted, the resulting discipline often amounts to a slap on the wrist. Since 2005, only 25 percent of officers found guilty of misconduct received punishment more severe than “instructions” – what amounts to a talking to. Between 2002 and 2004, about 50 percent of officers found guilty by the CCRB received punishment more severe than instructions.
“A system in which the police prosecute and discipline themselves is a system designed to fail,” said Christopher Dunn, NYCLU associate legal director. “Commissioner Kelly has consistently turned a blind eye to police misconduct, making the CCRB little more than a glorified fact-finding body. If the CCRB is to fulfill its mission, then Mayor Bloomberg must give it the authority to prosecute misconduct cases, which would be a significant initial step toward creating true accountability.”
The unwillingness to prosecute and discipline officers for substantiated misconduct accompanies a striking increase in the number of complaints filed with the CCRB. The oversight agency received 7,421 complaints in 2008, a 75 percent increase over the 4,251 complaints lodged in 2000.
Establishing a CCRB prosecution unit would eliminate the problem of cases being dropped by a police department that may be protecting its own officers. It would force trial room judges to make decisions about these cases and help establish a record of the NYPD’s disciplinary practices.
“Independent must really mean independent,” said Robert Perry, NYCLU legislative director. “Allowing the CCRB to take over prosecutorial functions will give the CCRB more credibility as an independent oversight agency. It will allow New Yorkers to finally have some faith that filing a complaint will be worth their time and result in the prosecution of police misconduct.”
During Mayor Giuliani’s administration, the NYPD and CCRB agreed to a plan to establish a CCRB litigation unit to prosecute substantiated misconduct cases. A court has ruled that the CCRB possesses the authority to prosecute cases, but the transfer of prosecutorial authority was never implemented. CCRB Executive Director Franklin Stone, a Bloomberg appointee, is a strong advocate for giving the oversight agency prosecutorial power.
That move is just one of several steps needed to provide effective civilian oversight of the police. Advocates also urged Mayor Bloomberg to create a CCRB unit to review police practices and recommend reforms, and to establish satellite CCRB offices in each of the city’s boroughs.
There is a wealth of expertise in the New York City metropolitan area on the full range of policing issues that arise in investigating complaints of police misconduct. Scholars, police professionals and legal practitioners could be recruited to assist, pro bono, in analyzing policing polices and practices and recommending reforms.
CCRB satellite offices could be easily located in the offices of borough presidents or council members, which would make it easier to file complaints and facilitate interviews with investigators. This would provide a better sense of the types of misconduct cases arising in specific areas of the city.