New York

Cop Complaints: Is 311 the Culprit?


Allegations of police misconduct are up—again—in the latest report from the Civilian Complaint Review Board, covering the first six months of 2006. That’s nothing new: The CCRB has been reporting heavier volume for years. When asked to explain the rise in cases, the agency has usually pointed not to worsening police behavior but to the advent of the 311 System as a possible cause, arguing that the ease of complaining over the phone was facilitating more complaints.

But the 12 percent increase in cases filed from January to June 2006 compared to the same period in 2005, leading to more cases than in any other six-month period in CCRB history, might be showing something else. While 311 is still probably a “significant cause” of the increase in complaints, the CCRB points out that complaints started rising before 311 started and has kept increasing even after 311 became a household word. “That the rate at which members of the public are filing complaints has continued to increase even as the system has matured makes it all the more unlikely that 311 is the sole cause of the increase,” the agency reports.

Police behavior is a hot topic these days in the wake of the Sean Bell shooting. But the vast majority of CCRB complaints concern claims of illegal stop-and-frisks or cops being rude, not allegations of excessive force.

The furor over the Bell shooting has turned largely on race, and has been fueled by the perception that while fatal shootings of unarmed men are not typical, unpleasant contacts between black men and the NYPD are. And that’s why the protesters feel race was a factor in the shooting, even if some of the shooters were themselves black and/or Hispanic.

The complaints received by the CCRB reflect both the resentment among young blacks and the diversity of the cops who allegedly mistreat them. The leading precincts for complaints were in East New York, Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Mott Haven, and Harlem. “As in past years, from January through June 2006, males, blacks, and individuals between the ages of 15 and 34 were over-represented in comparison to their share of the city’s population,” the report finds. “By contrast, the race and gender of officers against whom complaints were filed resemble the demographics of the police department as a whole. For example, while the percentage of subject officers who are white decreased from 62% to 57% from 2003 through June 2006, the proportion of white officers within the department changed as well, falling from 64% to 56%.”

Cops in general dislike the CCRB, seeing it as a way for civilians to retaliate against cops who are just doing their jobs, or for bureaucrats to micromanage the difficult decisions cops have to make on the street. Getting probed by the CCRB, even if it leads to exoneration, is perceived to be damaging to one’s career. But the fact is the CCRB rarely finds against the NYPD. It substantiated a mere 5 percent of the allegations it investigated from January to June 2006—the lowest share in years. (Of course, many allegations never get fully investigated. Sometimes the complainant drops the case or disappears. And in 11 percent of cases, the NYPD was unable to identify the officer involved. The rise in these “officer unidentified” cases is “an ongoing concern,” says the CCRB).

And even when the CCRB substantiates a complaint and recommends discipline, Commissioner Ray Kelly has the final say. In the first six months of ’06, Kelly punished more cops (77 percent of substantiated cases) but also continued a trend of ordering “instructions,” the most lenient form of discipline, in the vast majority of cases.


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