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Eric Garner's Death Dominates NYPD Oversight Board Meeting

The Civilian Complaint Review Board yesterday held its first meeting since the death of Eric Garner.
The Civilian Complaint Review Board yesterday held its first meeting since the death of Eric Garner.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent agency charged with reviewing complaints from the public about the NYPD, held its first meeting with new chair Richard Emery last night.

Emery was appointed last month by Mayor Bill de Blasio -- the CCRB had been without a chair since January, something de Blasio took some criticism for -- just ahead of wave of high profile cases of apparent police brutality by the NYPD.

Garner, 43, was killed during an encounter with the NYPD on July 17, when a Staten Island officer used a long-outlawed chokehold to subdue him during an arrest. The officers suspected him of selling untaxed cigarettes.

Shortly after Garner's death -- which was caught on film, and prompted bitter criticism of the NYPD -- the CCRB announced plans to release a report on chokehold allegations brought to the board in the past few years. It emerged only after Garner's death that the board had received more than 1,022 citizen complaints about the use of chokeholds by NYPD officers, despite the fact that the technique has been officially banned for more than 20 years.

Michael Meyers, president of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, speaking at the meeting, said the report was coming much too late.

"I didn't know about the chokeholds," Meyers said, "the thousand-plus choke holds, before Eric Garner. And we should have known. The CCRB should have sounded the alarm."

A former attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, newly appointed chair Emery is seen by many as having the civil rights bona fides to reform an agency that's failed to process thousands of backlogged complaints, and is perceived by some watchdogs as inept, at best, and apathetic at worst. The board is made up of city council and mayoral appointees who review citizen complaints, hear testimony from officers and citizens, and in some cases recommend disciplinary measures to the police commissioner. The agency has been criticized for producing a substantiation rate of less than two percent, and both de Blasio and Emery framed his appointment as a step toward reform when it was announced in early July.

But if Emery was expecting a welcome from members of the public gathered at the meeting in lower Manhattan, that's not exactly how things turned out. Normally sparsely attended, the monthly meeting was packed with media this time around, and saw a handful of frustrated activists and residents speaking both about the board's failures, and about what they said was a climate of distrust between the police and the community.

Queens resident Agnes Johnson said she'd filed six complaints with the CCRB, but hadn't seen any results. And she took aim at a buzzword that has again taken center stage in the discussion of police tactics in New York, as "stop, question and frisk" has been increasingly discredited in the courts and the public discourse.

See also: 'I Was Choked by the NYPD': New York's Chokehold Problem Isn't Going Away

"We want equal protection under the law. And 'broken windows' is not equal protection ..." Johnson said, referring to the school of policing that targets minor infractions -- like vandalism and broken windows, from where the term derives -- as a way to reduce overall crime rates.

 

The approach was pioneered by current NYPD commissioner William Bratton in the 1990s during his first stint in New York; he spent a decade leading the Los Angeles Police Department before his reappointment last year. "In the community we call you a joke," Johnson said of the CCRB. "Let's be real now; it's 2014, our children are dying, our seniors are being stripped in their own hallways by police, our children are in chokeholds."

Another speaker, who gave his name as Han, turned the question of aggressive policing of low level offenses -- which reportedly affects black and hispanic residents disproportionately -- back on the board.

"I'm willing to bet that a lot of you guys have done things along the lines of what could be considered a low level crime. I'm pretty sure you probably do it now," Han said. "Who's to say you shouldn't be in jail?"

Emery laid out a few ideas for changes he'd like to make to the way the board handles complaints -- most of which seemed intended to reduce the backlog of cases the board is facing -- while stressing that they were in the early stages of development.

One proposal that wasn't particularly well-received was a pre-screening or prioritization system that would attempt to identify "serious" complaints as they came in. Emery also said he'd like to see an increased focus on mediation, which stands as an option for disputes brought to CCRB, but is considered less serious for officers than investigations that can result in disciplinary measures.

Chris Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the idea of categorizing complaints as either important or something less was problematic.

"I'm not sure there's any reason to think that, at the very beginning, they can identify what those complaints may be. Frankly, until they've interviewed the officer, they really don't know what they have on their hands," Dunn said.

One measure that seemed to get a warm reception from the crowd was an attempt to track chokehold allegations more carefully -- perhaps with a dedicated form category -- and make an effort to flag them immediately as they come in.

Emery acknowledged that the volume of chokehold complaints received by the board should have been communicated to the NYPD much sooner. "Obviously, 1,100 complaints might cause you to think there may have been a pattern," Emery said. "All of that is in play, and we will attempt to give answers."


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