America Protests New York

UNLEASHED? The Civilian Complaint Review Board would be empowered to instigate its own investigations into alleged misconduct by NYPD officers according to a recently introduced City Council bill. The watchdog agency generally relies on residents’ complaints before launching its investigations. Above, NYPD officers arrest a protester near the Plaza Hotel on 59th Street for violating the city’s curfew June 3, 2020.

The city’s police watchdog agency would be able to initiate investigations into alleged officer misconduct on its own and not rely on complaints from residents under a recently introduced Council bill. 

Should the legislation get the Council’s green light, it would bring about a sea change to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which generally cannot open its cases on its own and can only do so within limited jurisdictional domains.

'Significant Reform'

Councilwoman Adrienne Adams, who introduced the bill at Mayor de Blasio’s request, called it “a long-overdue measure.”

“This is a significant reform that brings further accountability where it is needed,” she said during the Council’s Nov. 10 meeting.

The president of Police Benevolent Association, Patrick J. Lynch, who has been fiercely critical of the CCRB, was the product of progressive overreach. “The grim irony of this bill is that it essentially cuts the public out of the police accountability process," he said in an emailed statement. "Instead of investigating community complaints, CCRB will serve nobody except anti-police activists."

The board since last year has been able to follow up on complaints by “non-witnesses,” such as when residents tag the CCRB in social-media posts that include video or even newspaper articles alleging or purporting to document officer misconduct. 

Can Now Probe Profiling

A new unit within the CCRB, the nation’s largest civilian police-oversight agency, was recently authorized to initiate cases of suspected bias-based policing and racial profiling by NYPD officers. That investigatory perquisite empowers the board to reach back five years to open those types of cases.  

But this new bill, co-sponsored by Councilwoman Farah Louis and Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo, would give the board much-wider latitude by granting it the power to initiate investigations into the CCRB’s traditional “FADO” jurisdictions: force, abuse of authority, discourtesy and offensive language.  

“This bill is particularly important for the people of New York as it shifts the burden of responsibility away from victims and civilians most in need. If the CCRB is aware of misconduct, it should not go ignored because a victim does not have the capacity to file a complaint,” the board’s Chairman, the Rev. Frederick Davie, said in a statement. “All misconduct should be addressed, and this bill will bring us one step closer.”

Mr. Davie was scheduled to address the bill’s provisions during the Nov. 22 meeting of the Council’s Public Safety Committee, which Ms. Adams chairs. 

Powers Called Insufficient

Mina Malik, the board’s Executive Director from January 2015 until December 2016, also called the legislation “long overdue” but said the CCRB should be further strengthened to gain true independence. The current bill, while welcome, “is just window dressing,” she contended. 

“As long as City Hall and the Police Commissioner control the leadership of the agency and the final word on discipline for offending officers, the CCRB will not reach its full potential in curbing police abuses,” Ms. Malik, a lecturer at Harvard Law School, said in an emailed statement.

The legislation, which would go into effect immediately following passage and Mr. de Blasio’s signature, was expected to bring about just a small increase in caseloads, since the near-ubiquity of video-recording devices and the board’s new “non-witness” provision have together only increased CCRB’s cases by a fraction. Out of the 346 complaints tied to last year’s George Floyd protests filed with the board, just 26 were reported by a non-witness, according to the CCRB. 

Budget Increased

The board’s budget increased about 17 percent, to $24.8 million, for this fiscal year compared to FY 2020-21.

Voters in 2019 overwhelmingly approved revisions to the City Charter that increased the CCRB’s budget and headcount. The revisions also gave the board the authority to investigate an officer’s suspected false statements, a provision recently sanctioned by a judge following a court challenge by the PBA. The measure also gave the CCRB’s Executive Director, subject to a board vote, subpoena power and increased the number of board members to 15 from 13. 

Notably, the charter amendment also obliges the Police Commissioner to provide the CCRB an explanation when he or she intends to institute discipline different from what's recommended by the board or the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner for Trials. 

Cites Rochester Board

Ms. Malik said much more needs to be addressed before the CCRB is granted “the true independence and authority it needs.” She said city officials would do well to look to Rochester, whose newly composed Police Accountability Board she said will have the authority to independently open investigations into any police misconduct when it convenes in full starting next year.

“The broad jurisdiction and powers of Rochester's PAB is exactly the type of legislation that should be advocated for in New York City,” Ms. Malik said. 

That board's parameters, though, have been the subject of court battles as well as conflicting visions among city and PAB officials. 

For his part, The PBA's Mr. Lynch referenced another locale—and one renowned for its decidedly liberal leanings—in further castigating New York's leadership for the bill: "The only other city in the country with such a backward arrangement is Berkeley, Calif. Mayor de Blasio, the current City Council and even the NYPD brass seem to have no qualms about handing CCRB carte blanche on their way out the door, because they won’t be around to deal with public safety consequences."

Ms. Adams said her bill was designed to sharpen the board’s oversight powers so that it can proactively “investigate and recommend actions for alleged wrongdoings” and consequently “increase accountability and justice.”

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