Complaints leveled against police by city residents increased by 19 percent in the fiscal year that ended in June compared to the year before, according to the Mayor’s Management Report released last month. The 5,236 complaints against members of the service registered in FY 2019 reached a five-year high. There were 4,392 complaints against police in FY 2018.
But while an attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union suggested there was good news in those numbers, he also expressed frustration that few details about the disposition of those incidents were ever released publicly.
CCRB, NYPD Credited
The NYCLU’s Michael Sisitzky suggested that the spike in complaints is a result of more outreach from the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates and prosecutes complaints by the public against NYPD officers, and more transparency from officers in giving information about the CCRB to members of the public as they're required to do under the Right to Know Act.
That law requires officers to hand out their business cards following some encounters with civilians and includes information on where residents can comment or complain about those encounters.
“What it points to is the fact that when people have more information about what their rights are...then they're better equipped to assert their rights and to pursue redress through agencies like the CCRB when they feel their rights have been violated,” Mr. Sisitzky said. “That's something that's encouraging.”
Mayor de Blasio also credited the CCRB, saying it likely played a big part in the increase in complaints, and called it “an important check and balance.”
Mayor: ‘Deepening Trust’
“CCRB is playing that role, it’s part of the balance we strike, and I ultimately think it's part of how we deepen trust between police and community,” he said during a Sept. 18 press briefing. “I think a more active, engaged CCRB by definition means more people report their concerns and that's ultimately going to help us to have the right relationship between police and community.”
Despite the increase in complaints, though, the Mayor said the rapport between residents and police officers had strengthened as a consequence of the community-policing efforts implemented by Commissioner James P. O’Neill.
“Now, it's a very respectful, positive situation where a lot of crime is being stopped because of community members, and that's going to protect the community and protect the NYPD,” he said. “I think the reality on the ground is actually improved substantially over the last few years.”
Mr. Sisitzky, though, said the lack of clarity about the process and outcome of disciplinary actions taken as a result of wrongdoing by police—a consequence of a state Civil Rights law that precludes the release of personnel records, including any disciplinary actions, of uniformed personnel—amounts to “a crisis in democratic accountability.”
‘Shrouded in Secrecy’
“As soon as these complaints get into the system, they're shrouded in secrecy and the public doesn't get to see what happens,” he said. “With this increase in the number of complaints being filed, there's a concurrent need to know what's happening at the end of the process.”
The section of the law known as 50-a shields personnel records, including disciplinary matters, of police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and corrections and other peace officers, deeming them “confidential” and free from public scrutiny.
The latest CCRB annual report, he said, shows “an alarming number” of disciplinary outcomes where Commissioner O’Neill, who has the final say with regard to discipline, ultimately imposed penalties less stiff than those recommended by the CCRB. The report showed that in about half of all complaints taken up by the CCRB that did not reach a full departmental disciplinary trial, the Commissioner imposed either no discipline or less than that recommended by the board.
In those complaints that were subject to a full disciplinary trial, there was a concurrence rate of 38 percent.
Don’t See Reasoning
While the public can access those statistics and that information, “we don't get to see what is underlying those decisions,” he said.
Mr. Sisitzky referred to the recent leak of a report by NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Trials Rosemarie Maldonado that ultimately paved the way for Mr. O’Neill to fire Officer Daniel Pantaleo in connection with his use of a department-prohibited chokehold during his confrontation with Eric Garner as a rare window into the process. In it, he said, she referred to a number of cases within the NYPD’s trial room in coming to the conclusion that the officer should be fired.
“And it was really instructive to see how she reached that determination. But that's the type of analysis that the public is routinely denied because of 50-a,” he said. The same goes for a Police Commissioner’s decision.
“We don't get access to the qualitative information underlying these decisions, which is something that is really vital to know about” in order to determine whether the NYPD is doing an adequate job of holding officers accountable, Mr. Sisitzky said.
State Senator Jamaal T. Bailey, Democrat of The Bronx and Mount Vernon and the chairman of the Senate’s Codes Committee, is expected to solicit testimony later this month on proposed legislation that would weaken or repeal 50-a.
The Police Benevolent Association and others are vehemently opposed to any weakening of the law, arguing that undermining it could expose officers and their families to retribution.
Mr. Sisitzky said those concerns were already addressed in protective standards built in to the state’s Freedom of Information Law, allowing for the withholding or redaction of information that would invade officers’ privacy or create a risk to their safety.
“We want to make sure that officers are having their real needs to protect their privacy and their safety addressed,” he said. “Applying the same standards in FOIL will allow for officers' safety to be addressed and for the public to get access to critical information about misconduct that's currently shrouded in secrecy.”
Regardless of the outcome of that legislation, the CCRB could have increased clout if voters approve a package of proposals in November that would increase the board’s budget and grant it additional prosecutorial authority.
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