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Reporting by the New York City Corporation Counsel on Civil Damage Claims Related to Police Misconduct

Statement of the New York Civil Liberties Union Before The New York City Council Committee on Government Operations Regarding Int. No. 1025: Reporting by the New York City Corporation Counsel on Civil Damage Claims Related to Police Misconduct

Prepared by NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn
and Legislative Director Robert Perry

The New York Civil Liberties Union submits this testimony regarding Int. No. 1025, which would require quarterly reports by the Office of Corporation Counsel regarding the nature and status of civil lawsuits brought against the New York City Police Department. We commend the Council for this bill and support the bill’s goal.

We believe, however, that much more needs to be done to establish effective oversight and monitoring of the police misconduct that has cost the city nearly $500 million over the last ten years. And even in the limited area of reporting by the Office of Corporation Counsel, we believe the Council can and should require much more, both in terms of what information is reported and to whom it is reported.

Before addressing these issues, however, we address the scope of the underlying problem implicated by this legislation.

Police Misconduct Lawsuits Filed Against New York City

From 1999 to 2008, the City of New York paid out nearly $400 million in damages to individuals who filed civil lawsuits against members of the NYPD:

Police Misconduct Lawsuits against New York City
Claims Filed & Settlements, 1999-2008

  1999 2000 2001 2002 2003
Number of Claims Filed 2,400 1,779 1,984 1,793 2,067
Number of Settlements/Judgments 749 835 788 563 613
Claims Paid (in millions) $41.0 $38.0 $89.0 $21.7 $32.9
  2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 Total
Number of Claims Filed 1,930 2,588 2,211 2,485 2,863 22,100
Number of Settlements/Judgments 693 567 554 710 951 7023
Claims Paid (in millions) $42.6 $40.4 $24.6 $25.2 $35.2 $390.6

On top of this, the mayor’s office has estimated that the legal costs of defending these cases amounts to approximately $78 million. In this ten-year period, then, the city has expended close to half a billion dollars to resolve damage claims related to acts of police misconduct against civilians.

And there are indications the underlying problem – serious conflict between police and civilians – is growing worse. There were 2,863 claims alleging police misconduct filed in 2008, the greatest number filed in any year since the mid-1990s, when the department significantly expanded the ranks of police officers. And the claims filed in the years 2005, 2007, and 2008 exceed the number filed in any other year since at least 1986.

It was 1992 when then Comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman urged that the NYPD analyze legal claims, lawsuits, and CCRB complaints for purposes of imposing discipline and identifying and correcting problems with police department policies and practices. The city failed to act on her recommendations. In 1997 Comptroller Alan Hevesi made the same recommendations, observing that there is a “total disconnect between the settlements of civil claims and police department [disciplinary] actions.

A subsequent report prepared by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York found that the absence of police accountability gives tacit approval to dangerous police practices. That report, issued in 2000, concluded that “the city consistently misses opportunities to increase the protection of the rights of persons in the city and to reduce injuries that poison the relations between police and citizen, and in doing so saving millions of dollars.”

The Need for a Comprehensive Lawsuit Early-Warning System

While the NYCLU supports Int. No. 1025, we want to emphasize that we believe that reporting by the Office of Corporation Counsel about police-misconduct lawsuits is only one small part of what should be a comprehensive system of responding to lawsuits alleging police misconduct. Given the enormous costs to the city and the threat that police misconduct poses to public safety and to the integrity of the police department, the City Council must work to create a comprehensive system of tracking, analyzing, and responding to lawsuits that reveal misconduct. Such a system would require a coordinated approach involving the Office of Corporation Counsel, the NYPD, the local District Attorneys and United States Attorneys, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the Comptroller’s Office, and the City Council.

We recognize that creation of such a system is well beyond Int. No. 1025, but we believe that this bill marks a valuable starting point for the creation of a more comprehensive system of oversight. We therefore urge the Government Operations Committee and the Council to view this bill as only the beginning of a much broader undertaking.

Proposed Amendments to Int. No. 1025

While we believe the city must work towards a comprehensive system for responding to police-misconduct lawsuits, we fully recognize that reporting is an important part of any such system and therefore fully support the concept of Int. 1025. Nonetheless, we believe the bill should be strengthened by broadening the information that must be reported and by broadening the agencies to which the information should be reported.

Starting with the issue of the scope of information to be reported, we note at the outset that there is virtually no city reporting about police-misconduct lawsuits. To our knowledge, the only reported information is about total annual payments as reflected in the annual claims report issued by the Comptroller. This contrasts starkly with reporting about other related NYPD activity. For instance, the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) produces detailed reports on a monthly, semi-annual, and annual basis about police-misconduct complaints filed with that agency. And, pursuant to legislation recently adopted by the City Council, the NYPD produces detailed reports about police shootings and stop-and-frisk activity. These reports provide useful benchmarks for the types of reporting the Council should expect about police-misconduct lawsuits. Among other areas, the bill should be amended to require much more specific information about those filing lawsuits (e.g., race, age, gender, neighborhood), about the officers accused of misconduct (e.g., race, age, gender, command, time on force, prior lawsuits), and the specific allegations being made. We also believe that the Office of Corporation Counsel should produce copies of every complaint filed and every settlement or other disposition. Simply put, there is much more information about lawsuits that can and should be produced.

We also believe that the bill should be amended to require that NYPD lawsuit information be reported not just to the Council but also to the Comptroller and to the CCCB. The Comptroller, as the chief fiscal officer, has a duty to examine the city’s liability exposure as regards police misconduct and to recommend measures to reduce that exposure. In the most recent claims report issued by his office, Comptroller William C. Thompson states that city agencies must be held fiscally accountable for damage claims, and the report recommends financial incentives to hold down claim activity and costs. Timely access to civil lawsuit information involving police misconduct along with cumulative data regarding complaints filed would facilitate the comptroller’s ability to establish fiscal oversight and accountability regarding police-misconduct litigation.

The CCRB is charged under the City Charter with conducting complete, thorough and impartial investigations of police misconduct complaints; and based upon these investigations the CCRB makes recommendations regarding police department policies and practices, with the objective of preventing misunderstanding and conflict when police officers interact with civilians. The CCRB’s staff could utilize information and data regarding police misconduct lawsuits to identify police officers with a history of conflict with civilians; to analyze the circumstances that give rise to such conflict; to determine whether training or counseling is called for; and to make recommendations regarding the need for heightened supervision or disciplinary sanctions.

It is quite likely that the CCRB has no record of, or access to, the information contained in a police misconduct lawsuit. (Particularly when more serious forms of misconduct are involved, the complainant often proceeds directly to court.) With this information, however, the agency could expedite investigations against a police officer subsequently named in a CCRB complaint who may pose a serious risk of harm to the public. Information regarding civil damage claims would enable the CCRB to flag serious flaws in police department practices.

For example, with timely access to civil damage complaints, the CCRB might have been able to identify police officers with a record of using unauthorized choke holds; and with the NYPD’s reliance on questionable intelligence provided by informants when executing “no-knock” warrants. The agency might have brought attention to these highly dangerous police practices before they led to the deaths of Anthony Baez and Alberta Spruill.

Additional Technical Amendments

In addition to the foregoing, the NYCLU proposes the following amendments to Int. No. 1025:

  1. Include in the reporting provision cases in which corporation counsel may not have “appeared or agreed to represent” a party. A decision not to represent a police officer may indicate a serious breach of the law or NYPD rules.
  2. Include in the reporting provision information related to settlements and judgments (that is, pursuant to a jury verdict).
  3. Make clear in the bill’s reporting requirements that new claims as well as pending claims must be separately identified.
  4. We thank the Committee for the opportunity to testify, and we look forward to working with the Council in developing a comprehensive and sensible system of monitoring lawsuits revealing police misconduct.

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