Protecting Police Against Complaints

A new watchdog will have to confront a broken cop-complaint system

New York's Civilian Complaint Review Board has a new executive director, Joan Thompson, who will hear plenty of complaints—particularly from New Yorkers who argue that charges against Police Commissioner Ray Kelly's officers often don't result in any discipline at all.

Thompson is leaving her post as the Department of Education's director of equal opportunity. Previously, she was a member of a Baltimore Police Department committee that dealt with disciplining cops there.

Upon starting her new job, Thompson said that the astringent recent reports on the CCRB by the New York Civil Liberties Union—culminating in a very specific and detailed 72-page report, "Mission Failure: Civilian Review of Policing in New York City, 1994–2006"—have provided "something for me to work on."

I am happy to be of assistance as Thompson tries to understand why confidence in the NYPD keeps dropping, especially in black and Hispanic communities. Although the police commissioner resolutely insists that there has been no softening of punishment for officers with substantiated complaints against them, Kelly—as Eugene O'Donnell of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice told The New York Sun in its June 27 issue—is concerned about his legacy: "He knows that public safety and the confidence of people in the police go together."

More important than Kelly's "legacy" (as a potential mayoral candidate) is the effect that such malevolent policing has on the department's own morale. Police officers who don't abuse citizens—and I've known many over the years—resent the fact that wearing the uniform leads many New Yorkers to lump them in with the brutal and arrogant cops who do. Thompson can remove that burden from these unfairly stereotyped officers by finding out why so many of the complaints that the CCRB refers to Kelly as "substantiated" are not taken seriously by the commissioner.

Let's look at the record, as reported in the NYCLU's "Mission Failure."

"In 2005, civilians filed 6,796 CCRB complaints—a 65 percent increase over the 4,116 complaints filed in 2000." (Ray Kelly's second stint as police commissioner started in 2002.)

"Complaints [to the CCRB] filed in 2006," the NYCLU continues, "jumped again, to 7,669—a 13 percent increase relative to 2005. . . . Half of all complaints filed with the CCRB charge that a police officer used excessive force. The unjustified use of force is a crime; it is no less a crime if committed by a police officer." (Emphasis added.)

Most of the rest of the complaints also put a different face on the 10-year-old motto of the NYPD, "Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect." These other complaints involve the abuse of authority: unjustified stop-and-frisks (as noted in this column last week) and threats of force and of arrest. A good many New Yorkers—not only blacks and Hispanics, and including me—have a fear of asking a glowering cop merely to give us his or her badge number. That alone is enough to get you busted at times.

Before getting to the commissioner's responsibility for the ultimate disposition of this rising number of complaints, the NYCLU report zeros in on the CCRB itself:

"The CCRB has historically closed about 50 percent of police-conduct complaints without initiating an investigation: between 2002 and 2005 the 'truncation' rate increased to 55 percent"—as it did the next year:

"In 2006, the CCRB closed 60 percent of all complaints without undertaking an investigation. . . . The CCRB has substantiated, on average, 5.2 percent of complaints closed—far below the substantiation rates reported by civilian oversight agencies nationally." (Emphasis added.)

I expect that, as the CCRB's new executive director, Thompson will inform us of her agency's criteria for dismissing so many complaints without investigating them—and why so few of the investigated complaints are substantiated when contrasted with the rates of civil-complaint agencies around the country.

Are New Yorkers more easily bruised, more hypersensitive to authority, than other Americans? That seems unlikely—no less an authority than Mayor Michael Bloomberg has often assured us that New Yorkers are tough and resilient.

Now we get to what happens to the substantiated complaints that the CCRB hands over to the NYPD for investigation. Thompson, having had experiences in these matters elsewhere, will surely schedule a meeting with Ray Kelly on this critical piece of information in "Mission Failure":

"The Police Department has consistently and persistently withheld documents or delayed the production of documents needed by the CCRB to investigate police-misconduct complaints." Even more tellingly, the report continues, "investigation of serious misconduct runs up against the eighteen-month statute of limitations, which results in the premature curtailment of CCRB investigations." (Emphasis added.)

And here's another issue that Thompson might care to raise with our police commissioner: "CCRB investigators also report that on any given day, approximately half of all police officers scheduled for an interview at the CCRB—including witnesses and those named in a complaint—fail to appear, further compromising investigators' ability to complete timely investigations."

Commissioner Kelly, why can't you require your officers to show up for these interviews, instead of allowing them to shirk their duties under the law?

Even more to the point: According to the NYCLU, "The CCRB has failed in its reporting to address the fact that the NYPD rarely disciplines police officers for acts of excessive force:

"A police officer against whom the CCRB has substantiated a complaint involving excessive force is 70 percent less likely to receive discipline than a police officer with a substantiated complaint that does not involve force." (Emphasis added.) Doesn't this practice actually encourage the continued use of excessive force by those officers?

"In more than one instance," the report says, "the CCRB has documented a troubling pattern of misconduct allegations and forwarded a policy recommendation to the police commissioner—only to fall silent as the police commissioner blatantly disregards the agency's recommendations."

How does the NYPD's chief spokesman, deputy commissioner Paul Browne, respond to the issues raised in the "Mission Failure" report? With these judicious words: "Nothing will appease the NYCLU unless we fire every officer and go back to lawlessness."

Is he speaking for you, Commissioner Kelly?

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