Copping a Budget Plea

Money woes, time limits mean more NYPD misconduct will go unpunished

It's been determined that the man's pants were indeed falling down and that he used soup as a weapon against police. More on that later.

For 13 years, New York City's independent Civilian Complaint Review Board has probed allegations of police misconduct ranging from foul language to outright brutality. Last year it had its biggest head count ever—still only 143 investigators to monitor the largest law enforcement organization in the U.S., the 35,000-member NYPD. But if Mayor Bloomberg's proposed 2007 budget goes through unchanged, the CCRB will have even fewer watchdogs in its kennel: The agency says it will have to cut 24 investigators under the mayor's spending plan, which the City Council is now debating.

If its head count does shrink, the CCRB warns, the city will pay a price: More cases of substantiated police misconduct will expire under the 18-month statute of limitations, and more cops who've done something wrong will escape discipline.

 Democracy in action: The NYPD practices crowd control before the 2004 GOP convention.
photo: Holly Northrop/
Democracy in action: The NYPD practices crowd control before the 2004 GOP convention.

That's just what happened in the case of the pants and the soup. According to a synopsis provided by the CCRB, which cannot release the names of complainants or cops, the story unfolded in May 2004, when cops stopped two boys in a housing project. One of the kids gave a fake name and birth date, but unlucky for him, the name and DOB matched an outstanding warrant in the police system. The kid took off, and officers pursued him into a friend's apartment, where "the young man swung a pot of soup from the friend's stove onto the officer." The cops used force to subdue him, and the kid later charged it was excessive. "After the man was handcuffed," a CCRB report continued, "the officer declined to put him in the nearest patrol car, instead parading him through the courtyard of the housing project past a crowd of civilians while the man's pants were falling down."

Board investigators wrapped up their probe last July. But the NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau was conducting its own review of the case, and the CCRB decided to wait until that investigation was done before rendering a decision. IAB didn't finish until November, and the CCRB didn't close the case until this past January— after the expiration date.

The board found the cops' use of force was justified. But it also ruled that one officer committed misconduct when he paraded the man around. "Since the case was closed after the statute had expired," the CCRB says, "no discipline could be taken as a result of the CCRB investigation."

The CCRB was created in 1953 as an office within the police department. Skeptics didn't trust the cops to monitor themselves, but police unions defeated a push in the '60s to make the board exclusively civilian. When Mayor David Dinkins moved toward today's all-civilian board—with members nominated by the mayor, the police commissioner, and the council—it helped trigger the 1992 "police riot" at City Hall. Many cops express disdain for the modern board, which they see as a constraint on their ability to do the job and a way for disgruntled civilians to make cops' lives difficult.

But cops face pretty good odds at the board. Last year, the CCRB substantiated allegations in a mere 7 percent of the cases it probed. Many complaints were dropped for lack of evidence or because the officer left the force. Most of the time, the allegations were deemed untrue or the cop was determined to have acted correctly.

Even if the board finds the cops at fault, it can only recommend discipline, ranging from verbal instruction to formal departmental charges. The final call is the NYPD's. Commissioner Ray Kelly has ordered discipline more often than his predecessors—better than 70 percent of the time—but he tends to impose more lenient punishment than the board seeks: From 2000 to 2003, in cases in which the CCRB called for formal charges, Kelly ordered formal charges only 17 percent of the time.

State law imposes the statute of limitations, which mandates that cases close 18 months after the date of the incident. The only exception is when a cop's behavior is found to be criminal. In the past two years, 18 cases have gone past their sell-by date. If there are fewer investigators, it's likely that more cases will expire, especially given that the CCRB is seeing a steady increase in complaints. The CCRB projects that in the next two years, under the mayor's budget, 37 cases will expire.

That's not a huge number compared to the 6,500 cases the board closed last year, but more credible complaints can take the longest to investigate. So far this year the CCRB has wrapped several cases just shy of the 18-month cutoff. These give a flavor of the complaints—both serious and trivial—that might go unaddressed should the budget cuts take hold:

  • An 11-year-old Palestinian American boy "stated in his classroom that he would be willing to die for his country." His teacher called the cops, "who questioned the boy and later his family about their relatives and background in Palestine." A CCRB complaint wasn't lodged for six months. The board closed the case in just over 17 months, finding that "interviewing the boy without notifying his parents and allowing them to be present for questioning constituted misconduct."
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