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 mayor—and to the “all staff” e-mail group at work—Aquino, 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 colleagues—the Voice tracked down half a dozen past and present investigators independent of Aquino—say 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 Voice discovered 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.
At a public CCRB meeting on January 10, 2001, Aquino aired a list of concerns including “management’s common practice of pressuring investigators to change recommendations.” Mentioning the reprimand he received, he asked, “Does the Board continue to object to the investigators’ exercising their right to express their concerns about the agency?” He received no reply.
In March 2001, Aquino reported another instance of his manager’s mishandling a complaint. He says the agency then began reviewing his time sheets. In an e-mail, he told the director of personnel, “I have been the subject of retaliatory harassment” and asked to know the whistle-blowing policy.
The personnel director forwarded his complaint to DOI, where Aquino ultimately was told he did not qualify for whistle-blower status because he had not complained to a designated agency or made serious enough allegations. A DOI attorney then questioned Aquino about a case-related e-mail he had once sent a complainant, which superiors claimed was inappropriate. (Patterson says it was “perfectly natural” for CCRB to supply DOI with the e-mail.) Then the agency suspended Aquino for 15 days on three pages of charges—mostly missed deadlines and one improper reporting of overtime, the document shows. “They didn’t have to present any evidence,” he says. “I had to prove I didn’t do it to the very people who were going to punish me.”
A current staffer says, “There are written requirements that are impossible to meet.” He says he is no fan of Aquino, dismissing him as “overly idealistic.” But, he says, “there’s nobody at the agency they couldn’t discipline if they wanted to. They responded very personally to him.” Patterson says, “We don’t engage in retaliatory acts with our investigators.”
It remains to be seen whether Aquino’s allegations warrant formal remedies. But he says the greatest priority is ensuring safety for any police-misconduct investigator who wishes to voice concerns. “Even if every board member and executive and investigator now was totally honest, there’s no way that always will be,” he says. That doesn’t sound so crazy.