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By Tessa Stuart
A veteran observer of city government recently said all whistle-blowers are crazy. He didn't mean it in a bad way. It's just that it takes a certain kind of person to invite what former police-misconduct investigator William Aquino has experienced.
Long before he sent a lengthy letter on June 4 alleging managerial bias and deceit at the Civilian Complaint Review Board to the mayorand to the "all staff" e-mail group at workAquino, 28, had complained internally that his superiors were tainting probes of cop abuse. This time, he resigned moments after hitting Send, but overall he has endured retaliatory harassment, he says.
Indeed, as the city reviews the letter's charges, according to a Department of Investigation (DOI) spokesperson, Aquino worries that his experience will discourage others from coming forward.
"Mr. Aquino is nothing more than a disgruntled employee," his former manager, John Cipriano, has said. CCRB spokesperson Raymond Patterson tells the Voice,"Mr. Aquino was a few weeks away from being let go. He was not one of our star investigators." Aquino's mass e-mail, which he sent believing others either shared his concerns or should, was immediately erased from the system, a current CCRB employee told the Voice. But the agency organized office-wide viewings of the rather dramatic television news reports. "People were rolling on the floor" with laughter, the employee said. Aquino has heard the agency is combing through his old cases, presumably in search of mistakes.
Still, he seemed perfectly calm as he waited to testify at a City Council hearing last week on whistle-blower protections. He sat alone wearing a well-tailored black suit, crisp white shirt, dark tie, and polished shoes. He always dressed that way on the job, he says, out of respect for complainants. Several of his colleaguesthe Voicetracked down half a dozen past and present investigators independent of Aquinosay he stood out for his "idealism" and "stick-to-it-iveness."
Aquino was not among the "raving lefties" who tend to sign up with the CCRB, according to a former workmate who knew him casually. Rather, "He was an earnest investigator who became increasingly frustrated with the agency."
A job evaluation states that at times, "Aquino's thoroughness has positively effected [sic] the entire team and possibly the whole agency." He remained for almost four years, twice the typical stint. But as he voiced objections, work became a site of scrutiny and stress. He told the council committee, "I felt I was an object example in the agency."
Perhaps he was, for, as the Voicediscovered in interviews, others share his most substantive criticisms. There is too much emphasis on speeding through cases, he writes, improper discouragement from substantiating officer misconduct, and a failure by the board to document its final decisions and establish accountability.
External criticism of the CCRB is nothing new. Only about 7 percent of all complaints are substantiated and referred to the NYPD for discipline, while over half are never investigated. Decisions are not subject to outside review. Thirty percent of investigators are minorities, compared to over 80 percent of complainants. Theoretically independent, CCRB leadership is picked by politicians and the police and approved by the mayor, inviting accusations of partisanship and incompetence on all sides.
But Aquino's is the first sweeping critique to emerge from within. With numerous examples"a quick rubber stamp exoneration of a police shooting" and his confession to having followed orders and "subtly skewed evidence"he alleges "a pattern of bias by the leadership . . . that severely damages the integrity of our investigations."
Noah Norberg-McClain, an investigator from June 1998 until July 2000, agrees. In one case, he says, agency leaders told him to change an "impolitic" finding of "excessive force." He refused, but, he says, "I don't know what happened after it left my hands." Some cases he marked as "officer unidentified" were changed to exonerations, he says.
Says another former investigator, "They would actually tell me what to write," or sometimes alter the reports in his computer. A current investigator says, "The entire system is skewed toward needing too much proof to substantiate [misconduct]." All those interviewed complained of having to juggle 20 to 30 cases at a time and compete in rankings, posted monthly, of case closings.
In 1999, 37 investigators planned to release a document accusing CCRB of failing to recognize "patterns of police misconduct" and record why "an investigator's recommendations on cases are overturned during Board review." But, several signatories say, the effort died when executives found out and pleaded with them.
Says Norberg-McClain of Aquino's complaint to the mayor, "Almost everyone thinks about it." But, he says, there is great fear of burning bridges with the nationally prominent CCRB. And, staffers say, they are not informed of whistle-blowing procedures. Patterson confirms, "We don't have a little road map that says [where to go] if you don't find satisfaction at the agency."
Aquino's experience hardly provides a reassuring path. He first complained in June 2000, when, he says, his manager improperly transferred a case of excessive force out of CCRB to the police department. Executives reprimanded him, he says. He received a poor work review, costing him a promotion. He appealed it and renewed his complaint about his manager to no avail. "They basically blew it all off and said, 'You're just a bad worker,' " he says.