The two men who for most of the past three decades served as what might be called Imperial Police Commissioners, Ray Kelly and Bill Bratton, guarded their power regarding discipline of cops like it was Fort Knox and resented any potential incursions on that authority.
Mr. Kelly was Police Commissioner at the time that Mayor David Dinkins sought an all-civilian police review board, which might never have come into being except for a mini-riot by cops who lost track of the purpose of a rally against the board, with their boorish and scary behavior ultimately making it inevitable.
Mr. Kelly wound up publicly apologizing for the union-organized travesty, but when he returned to the NYPD for a second 12-year run as Commissioner under Michael Bloomberg, he defied the board's rulings. Mr. Bratton, who became a rival while also serving two shorter tenures, first under Rudy Giuliani and later for Bill de Blasio, was less openly contemptuous of the CCRB but also felt free to ignore its disciplinary recommendations.
Mayors and City Council leaders who negotiated budgets were not much help; while NYPD officials questioned the quality of the board's investigations and the professionalism of its staff, CCRB managers cited low salaries that made it difficult to attract and retain good employees.
But fairly or not, the wave of criticism of the NYPD since last spring, and the lack of strong pushback from civic leaders or the public as a whole has made clear that the days when powerful commissioners could just bulldoze their way past calls for accountability were gone and perhaps not returning.
We may never know whether a City Council bill floated Jan. 29 that would have stripped the Police Commissioner of final disciplinary authority in cases involving allegations of excessive force and abuse of authority was an effort orchestrated with the Mayor to force a compromise that would make far more sense. But the announcement Feb. 5 of a memorandum of understanding between the NYPD and CCRB appears to strike the best possible balance, leaving the Commissioner with the final word on discipline but requiring him to explain in writing the instances in which he or she issues a ruling that's outside the CCRB's recommendations.
Mr. Shea as part of a mayoral briefing that morning called it "an historic event." CCRB Chair Fred Davie, noting that the NYPD's application of discipline following board findings had "long been inconsistent and inconsequential...downgrading or reversing" its recommendations, said the MOU had the teeth to end that, while also giving the board the authority to investigate possible misconduct without someone lodging a complaint.
That evening, appearing on NY1's "Inside City Hall," he said that the board would be guided by the NYPD's new disciplinary matrix in recommending penalties in substantiated cases, and unless there were "extraordinary circumstances" to justify a penalty outside the prescribed range, the Police Commissioner would adhere to those guidelines.
In cases where the Commissioner concluded that a departure from the range was called for, an explanation would be provided in writing and be made available to the public.
Not every affected party was pleased: later that day, Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch accused the Mayor of using "the NYPD disciplinary matrix as a political prop." But by maintaining Police Commissioners' role in controlling discipline—a key element for a paramilitary organization—but requiring them to step off their pedestals to explain why they went against CCRB recommendations, an important step was taken in reassuring the public that such deviations may be justifiable even if they prove controversial.
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