The NYPD Operates With Near-Impunity, Finds NYCLU Report

December 14, 2021

The New York City Police Department ignored the disciplinary recommendations of its oversight board in more than two-thirds of substantiated misconduct cases over more than 20 years, according to a report released by the New York Civil Liberties Union on December 14.

The report, which the civil rights organization described as the “most comprehensive analysis yet released of over 20 years of the NYPD’s handling of misconduct complaints,” looked at 180,7000 specific allegations involving 35,435 police officers. Yet just over 2 percent of total allegations resulted in any form of discipline, and less than 1 percent resulted in a loss of vacation days or any more serious penalty.

The report additionally found stark racial disparities in terms of who reported experiencing police misconduct. Black people were six times more likely to report misconduct than white people. And 93 percent of minors who alleged that they experienced police misconduct were people of color.

“The numbers make clear that NYPD oversight and discipline is largely a fiction.”

The allegations range from using offensive language to excessive use of force. If the CCRB substantiates an allegation, it can recommend training, command discipline—which can result in an officer losing up to 10 vacation days—or charges and specifications. If the CCRB recommends the last category, a trial is held by the NYPD’s administrative prosecution unit.

“The numbers make clear that NYPD oversight and discipline is largely a fiction,” Christopher Dunn, the NYCLU’s legal director, said in a press release. “With revelations that only 2 percent of complaints result in officer discipline, that the NYPD overrides [Civilian Complaint Review Board] recommendations in substantiated cases three out of four times, and that misconduct disproportionately affects New Yorkers of color, it is little wonder why the City concealed misconduct records for decades and police unions fought to keep them secret. Now that the secret is out, the NYPD’s monopoly over discipline must end.”

Even after the June 2020 repeal of 50-A, a provision that hid the disciplinary records of police, corrections staff and firefighters, unions fought to keep the records shielded from the public. While publicly supporting the disclosure of police disciplinary records via the freedom of information process, the city’s law department fought a separate legal battle to shield misconduct records from disclosure in federal court.

In 67 percent of cases substantiated by the CCRB, the NYPD chose not to hand down any punishment.

The NYCLU analysis found that 12,890 complaints, or 7 percent of the total allegations, were substantiated by the NYPD—7,302 of them from 2000-2013, and 5,678 during Mayor Bill de Blasio’s time in office. The CCRB, which is an independent oversight board tasked with investigating alleged misconduct by the NYPD, found 29 percent of all complaints against the NYPD were unsubstantiated, meaning not enough evidence existed to say whether an officer violated department guidelines. Twenty-seven percent of complaints were truncated due to uncooperative witnesses or an inability to identify victims, while the CCRB exonerated officers of misconduct in 25 percent of allegations.

In 67 percent of cases that were substantiated by the CCRB, the NYPD chose not to hand down any punishment.

“Mayor de Blasio ran on a platform of police reform, but like his refusal to fire officers who killed Delrawn Small, Antonio Williams, Kawaski Trawick, and officers and officials who engaged in misconduct related to Eric Garner’s killing, this report is emblematic of his legacy of enabling the impunity of the NYPD,” Kesi Foster, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, told Filter in an email. “Mayor-elect Adams must learn from the failures of the de Blasio administration, fire officers who brutalize, harass, and abuse New Yorkers, and release all misconduct and discipline records, not just the narrow sliver of records that the NYPD chose to put in its database.”

The mayor’s office did not respond to Filter’s request for comment by publication time. The NYPD meanwhile claimed that the low substantiation rate happened for a reason. “Because of improvements made by the NYPD and CCRB in the last eight years of collaboration, investigations have improved, processes have been streamlined and cooperation has increased between the two agencies,” NYPD Sergeant Edward Riley told Filter. “It is important to note that about 90 percent of NYPD officers go through their entire career without a single substantiated CCRB complaint or departmental charge. An allegation is just that, it is not evidence of misconduct.”

But activists maintain that the low rate of substantiation is due to the CCRB being an ineffective means of regulating the NYPD.

The report shows “that there are vanishingly few consequences for cops who commit misconduct, and such, shows that the NYPD disciplinary system is designed to give the appearance of accountability without providing real transparency or consequences,” Gideon Oliver, a police misconduct attorney, told Filter in an email.

Previous reporting has shown how the NYPD can impede investigations by the CCRB. The oversight board cannot directly obtain officers’ body camera footage, and instead must request the NYPD to provide access. Reporting from ProPublica has found that the NYPD inhibits CCRB investigations by refusing to share its videos and by lying to the CCRB about whether footage exists.

After New Yorkers flooded the CCRB with misconduct allegations last summer during the protests against police brutality, police unions refused to cooperate, saying they would not submit to video questioning. (Misconduct claims decreased in 2020 despite the hundreds of allegations stemming from the protests.)

“It’s clear the NYPD can’t hold itself accountable. We must reduce the size, scope, power and budget of the NYPD.”

Last week, the city council passed legislation that would allow the CCRB to initiate its own investigation into possible misconduct, rather than waiting for a complaint to be filed. Still, the NYPD commissioner will maintain the sole power to impose discipline on officers.

That’s something Council Member Adrienne E. Adams, who sponsored the new legislation, wants to change. “The findings in this report by NYCLU reinforces our call for final authority over discipline to belong to the CCRB,” she told Filter in an email. “New Yorkers deserve greater transparency and accountability when it comes to police misconduct. We should continue to strengthen the ability of the CCRB to access sealed records and have the resources they need to fully investigate, issue findings, and make recommendations for cases.”

“It’s clear the NYPD can’t hold itself accountable,” Foster said. “We must reduce the size, scope, power and budget of the NYPD, and City Council can do that by refusing to reward failed policing strategies and a department that plays by its own rules in next year’s budget. Instead, City Council must prioritize investing in Black, Latinx and other communities of color with non-police safety solutions that create real community safety, like health and mental health care, safe and affordable housing, and education.”

“The next administration must transform the culture and structures that reinforce NYPD impunity,” Dunn told Filter in an email. “This starts with an end to the department’s evasion of its legal responsibility to be transparent and extends to breaking the NYPD’s monopoly over discipline. At the same time, the new mayor must shrink the NYPD’s responsibilities to eliminate community interactions that don’t require the police but do often lead to misconduct and abuse.”



Photograph via Pixabay

Daniel Moritz-Rabson

Daniel is a freelance reporter whose work has been published in outlets including Fortune, The Appeal and Gothamist. He will FOIA documents related to criminal justice if you ask nicely. He lives in Brooklyn.

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