Review Board Has No Power Over NYPD
by Kevin Bliss
The New York Police Department (“NYPD”) has consistently hindered police misconduct allegation investigations, withholding documentation and body-camera footage, as well as advising its police not to cooperate with interviews.
That’s according to an August 2020 article in ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization investigating abuses of power. With the assistance of THE CITY, WNYC/Gothamist and The Marshall Project, it investigated the NYPD and its historical lack of cooperation with the Civilian Complaint Review Board (“CCRB”), leading to a lack of discipline for misconduct and a large number of cases resolved as “inconclusive.”
The CCRB in New York was created in the 1950s in response to a coalition of advocacy groups in the city that wanted accountability in “police misconduct in their relations with Puerto Ricans and Negros specifically.” Relations between the two have been strained since the beginning.
Sometime in the 1990s, New York’s first Black mayor, David Dinkins, made the review board independent from the NYPD and gave it subpoena powers. These powers allowed the CCRB to “compel the attendance of witnesses and require the production of such records and other material as are necessary for the investigation of complaints.”
Activists say the problem is in the enforcement of the CCRB’s duties. Without the cooperation of the mayor, its powers are blunted. The NYPD circumvents requirements by withholding documentation or camera footage based on privacy rights.
Body cameras were mandated by federal Judge Shira Scheindlin in an attempt to record interactions between police and citizens. So withholding footage undermines the intent of the ruling. “This just seems like contempt,” said Scheindlin when told of the NYPD’s circumvention. “I understand privacy concerns. But they’re refusing to meet their obligation,” she told ProPublica.
In 2018, a CCRB staffer listed all the apparent withheld documents by the NYPD after comparing notes with others: warrants, arrest records, station house documents, officer injury reports, and more. The NYPD also redacts names on many of the records, hindering the CCRB’s ability to locate and interview potential witnesses. Lastly, the police union advises police under investigation not to cooperate with interviews. They now claim social distancing prevents them from attending interviews.
The CCRB and the NYPD share the same Law Department, are represented by the same lawyers, and are both under the control of the mayor. “If the mayor isn’t going to back it, it’s a completely meaningless entity,” said former CCRB member Richard Emery. Even filing suit against the NYPD would be fraught with politics. “The CCRB would need to get permission from the Law Department before they could even serve a subpoena on the police department,” stated a staffer who wished to remain anonymous. “It would be a huge deal.”
After a conclusive finding of guilt at a CCRB review, a police officer would still have to be found guilty in an internal trial by the courts, and then the police commissioner would have to make a final ruling before he or she could be disciplined.
The NYPD has a $6 billion budget, 36,000 officers, a direct line to Mayor Bill de Blasio, and groups of lobbyists to push its agenda. Even with the largest CCRB in the country, an independent inspector general devoted to police matters, and a federally mandated ruling requiring the use of body cameras, the NYPD has still been able to affect investigations by controlling access to information. Statistics show that when body camera footage is used, substantiated allegations against police more than double. Without footage, the CCRB was only able to substantiate 73 cases out of the 3,000 allegations filed in 2018.
When asked by ProPublica to comment, the NYPD said, “The NYPD makes every effort to provide both the IG and CCRB relevant information they need to perform their work. In certain instances, such as sealed records or information that may identify a sex crime victim, state law requires that certain redactions are applied or records protected. The NYPD works with both agencies to exhaust available alternatives when such legal constraints are present.”