CCRB Counsel

INCREASED POWER: City voters approved a slate of proposals that gives the Civilian Complaint Review Board more authority to investigate and prosecute alleged wrongdoing by NYPD officers. Above, Deputy Chief Prosecutor Suzanne O’Hare and CCRB Prosecutor Jonathan Fogel following a trial session in the CCRB’s prosecution of Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in May.

In a victory for police-reform advocates and a sound defeat for police unions, city voters by a wide margin approved giving the Civilian Complaint Review Board increased powers to investigate and prosecute allegations of NYPD officer misconduct.

Although police unions poured money into their effort to defeat it, the ballot measure—one of a cluster of five proposals, all of them approved by significant majorities—passed by a three-to-one margin citywide. 

‘More Transparent’

Beginning in March, the board will have the authority to investigate suspected false statements made by an officer during the course of an investigation or during prosecution. Those allegations are currently referred to the NYPD for investigation and possible prosecution.

Although the measure provides for additional staff to carry out those inquiries—another portion of the ballot proposal will provide additional funding, such that there will be one CCRB staffer for every 150 uniformed officers—that increase won’t happen until the start of Fiscal Year 2021. According to current NYPD staff levels, CCRB headcount would grow to about 230 from the current 212.

According to another provision, and effective immediately, the Police Commissioner will have to give the board an explanation when he or she intends to institute discipline different from that recommended by the CCRB or the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner for Trials.

And next July the board’s size will increase from 13 to 15 members, with one of the new members appointed by the Public Advocate and the other, who will serve as board chair, jointly appointed by the Mayor and City Council Speaker. Starting in March, board members will be appointed directly by the City Council, rather than by the Mayor following Council recommendations.

The measure also gives the CCRB’s Executive Director, subject to a board vote, subpoena power. That provision also goes into effect in March.

'Makes Us More Efficient'

The CCRB’s Chairman, Fred Davie, applauded the measure’s passage.

“New Yorkers looked at the facts and voted for greater police accountability in their city. This slate of reforms will make the CCRB more efficient, make discipline more transparent, and bolster public confidence in the integrity of the agency’s process,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the Board, agency staff, and other city agencies to implement these reforms and strengthen civilian oversight of the NYPD.”

The Police Benevolent Association waged a strong campaign against the proposal, saying, among other criticism, that even those complaints investigated by the CCRB that prove baseless or false harmed officers’ careers.

At an Oct. 31 rally on the steps of Staten Island Borough Hall, the PBA president, Patrick J. Lynch, characterized the board as replete with anti-police extremists too easily swayed by “criminal advocates.”

“CCRB is not a fair process,” he said. “It’s not a process where you can get justice. It’s used as a tool to punish police officers by the criminal element. CCRB is staffed by incompetent people that are criminal advocates who are there to punish police officers unreasonably for doing their job.”

Not Enough Members

The PBA urged those of its roughly 24,000 members who live in the city to vote against the proposal and to encourage friends and families to do the same.

The union’s effort fell well short: With about 90 percent of the scanners counted, nearly 75 percent of voters favored the proposal, providing a margin of more than 300,000.

The CCRB, an independent city agency, investigates and prosecutes complaints by the public against NYPD officers. It is the nation’s largest such entity.  

Its attorneys earlier this year prosecuted the case against Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was accused of using a department-prohibited chokehold that led to the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island in 2014. Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill then followed recommendations by the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner for Trials, Rosemarie Maldonado, and fired the Officer.

City voters’ sentiments on the issue of police oversight reflect increasingly progressive efforts by state legislators on matters of criminal justice. With cash-bail limits, discovery obligations and procedures for speedier trials now on the books, state legislators appear increasingly likely to vote next term on the loosening or even the repeal of a law that shields the personnel records of police officers, firefighters and correction officers from public scrutiny.

Challenge for Shea

Taken together, navigating the new reforms will be among incoming police Commissioner Dermot Shea’s more-formidable challenges, particularly given the police unions’ vehement opposition to the measures.

Addressing bail reform and the challenges that restructuring can pose for law enforcement, “the key here is balance,” he said at the NYPD’s monthly crime briefing on Nov. 6.

Although the NYPD’s leadership has shown it supports some criminal-justice reforms—the department earlier this year indicated that some changes to 50-a were necessary—“we want intelligent reform,” said Mr. Shea, the NYPD’s Chief of Detectives, whose tenure as Commissioner begins Dec. 1. “Because ultimately we have the responsibility of 8.6 million people to keep safe.”

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