The city agency tasked with investigating complaints against the NYPD plans to streamline its mail-in system after an investigation by the Village Voice found officers at dozens of police precincts were unable or unwilling to provide complaint forms when asked.
The Civilian Complaint Review Board tells the Voice it has hand-delivered prepaid envelopes for mail-in complaint forms to 79 percent of precinct station houses citywide in an effort to make good on online instructions, which tell potential complainants they can walk into any precinct in the city to request a form. (They can also file by phone, over email, or on the agency’s website, methods that increasingly make up the majority of the way CCRB receives complaints, according to its own data.)
The CCRB, which was formed in 1993 through a revision to the city’s charter, is tasked with holding the NYPD accountable for misconduct, and has the power to investigate complaints and recommend official sanction against officers. The agency reports that it received 4,483 complaints in 2017, including allegations of abuse of authority, inappropriate use of force, discourtesy, and offensive language.
In addition to the new shipment of envelopes, the CCRB is also distributing new informational posters to precincts, giving instructions on how to file complaints online and by calling 311, in case a precinct is short on forms or the person asking would prefer to skip a trip to a mailbox, says Jonathan Darche, the agency’s executive director.
Darche says he hopes the plan will make it easier for people to submit complaints, and says the agency will conduct follow-up visits to make sure precincts are equipped to handle walk-ins from potential complainants.
Despite the agency’s promises, however, few police reform activists are holding their breath that the new envelopes will bring about significant change, according to Shannon Jones of Bronxites for NYPD Accountability.
“They don’t want the proper paperwork,” she says. “If you don’t know the CCRB, if you don’t know that you are entitled to fill out a form and receive copies, they will not inform you.”
The move comes after the Voice investigation, conducted in November and December of 2017, revealed glaring miscommunication between the CCRB and the NYPD. During that time, a reporter visited every precinct, transit bureau, and public housing satellite office in the city to test the ability for a civilian to walk out hassle-free with the correct CCRB form, which the agency’s website lists as one of the methods for submitting a complaint. The reporter conducted the survey without identifying himself as a journalist in order to more accurately gauge normal procedure at each precinct.
In the end, just 23 precincts handed over a properly addressed CCRB form when asked, while officers at another 45 precincts gave out an internal affairs form, as directed by the NYPD patrol guide.
Of the remaining 33 precincts, 19 provided no form at all. The other 14 gave out various incorrect forms, including forms with an out-of-date mailing address, a handwritten note, and a handwritten note with an out-of-date mailing address. At the 44th Precinct in the Bronx, initially flummoxed officers eventually navigated to the CCRB website and printed out a screen capture of the agency’s homepage.
According to NYPD brass, the confusion stemmed from the lack of a joint policy on which forms to distribute. And while the CCRB website says people can walk into any precinct to get a form, there has been no centralized distribution of forms to precincts.
Because they are separate agencies, the NYPD and the CCRB do not have the same system for logging complaints, but if NYPD internal affairs receives a complaint that falls under the jurisdiction of the CCRB, that complaint will be forwarded to CCRB. If a complaint filed with CCRB requires the jurisdiction of internal affairs, the CCRB will forward it to the NYPD, officials said. (According to a recent CCRB report, the agency is better able to follow up on a complaint if it’s filed directly with the CCRB. When a complaint is filed first with internal affairs, CCRB investigators might have a harder time linking up with the person who filed the complaint, the report said.)
In 2017, 53 complaints were received by mail, making up around 1 percent of all complaints received last year, according to CCRB data. But according to Darche, the agency is committed to making sure no one is turned away.
“Any barrier to filing a complaint may deter an individual from reporting misconduct altogether,” Darche said in a statement. “These envelopes will help ensure that complaints within the agency’s jurisdiction get to the CCRB’s office, regardless of whether a complainant fills out a CCRB complaint form or an NYPD complaint form designating that the complaint falls under the CCRB’s jurisdiction.”
Riko Guzman of the Justice Committee has seen firsthand the difficulties of the CCRB complaint system. When he approached the uninviting 48th Precinct in November 2016 — the station house sits beneath the Cross Bronx Expressway on a street that has been closed off from public traffic — he hoped to pick up a handful of CCRB complaint forms to distribute to others who would not feel comfortable going to the precinct.
After an incredulous response from several officers, however, who told Guzman he couldn’t have the complaint forms unless each person who wanted one came in and presented identification, he left empty-handed.
“I might as well have asked for, I don’t know, Bill Clinton’s date of birth or something, you know?” he recalls. “Now, as an organizer, I’m a little more knowledgeable. But that did not change the fact of, ‘Aw man, here we go, with a back-and-forth with an authoritative figure.’ ”
The experience left Guzman frustrated, and reinforced in him a feeling common among police reform activists that the CCRB can be inaccessible to many New Yorkers.
“There’s just so many obstacles and hurdles, it’s actually easier to just say, ‘I was a victim of misconduct but so what,’ ” he says.
Guzman’s thwarted attempt to get the forms is just the kind of situation CCRB honchos say they’re trying to address with the rollout of envelopes and updated informational posters to precincts. But Guzman says he remains skeptical, and called for the agency to invest more time and resources into making sure officers are properly trained to handle walk-in complaints.
“We could have at least seen an up-to-date training,” he says.
Even when a complaint does land on an investigator’s desk, it can be a frustrating process, according to M.J. Williams, an attorney and member of Copwatch Patrol Unit, who filed a complaint in January 2017, accusing NYPD Deputy Inspector Andrew Lombardo of misuse of force when he arrested her as she observed a Bash Back! march during the 2016 Pride celebrations in the West Village.
Williams, whose charge of “disobeying a flag person” was later dismissed, accused Lombardo of using excessive force, punching her, and accidentally brushing her breast as he and other officers arrested her during a brief moment when the march stepped off the sidewalk to navigate around police barricades, according to interviews with Williams, a witness to the arrest, and her CCRB complaint form.
After successfully fighting for the charges to be dismissed, Williams wanted a chance to not only exonerate herself, but also to expose what she felt was an inappropriate level of force that Lombardo used against her in the incident.
“I was motivated to file because I felt the arrest required more scrutiny than the criminal process allowed,” says Williams, whose case was dismissed later in 2016.
Williams submitted her report online, and heard back within a day from an investigator, she says. After submitting video evidence, and the contact information for witnesses, she attended an interview later that month, where investigators grilled her on the events that led to the arrest.
In July, Lombardo was exonerated, according to documents shared with the Voice. The whole experience left a bad taste in Williams’s mouth.
“I don’t think I would do it again,” she says.
The NYPD’s willingness to ignore the CCRB’s recommendations appears to be growing. According to a recent CCRB report, Commissioner James O’Neill ordered discipline of officers in 73 percent of cases recommended by the board in the first half of 2017, down from 83 percent in the first half of 2016. And in an additional 25 percent of cases, O’Neill’s actions were less severe than those recommended by the board, the report found.
At the same time, in the first half of 2017, just 34 percent of complaints were fully investigated, according to the board’s semi-annual report. The majority of complaints, 57 percent, were closed without a full investigation, while 9 percent were referred to mediation or attempted mediation between the civilian and the officer.
The skepticism of Guzman and Williams reflects the attitudes of many police reform activists in New York, who tend to view the CCRB as ineffective at best and, at worst, in bed with the very department it’s tasked with holding accountable, according to Janos Marton, a former legal and policy council at the agency.
“Even when it’s functioning at its best, the CCRB is burdened with overcoming at least a generation of New Yorkers who have perfectly good reasons to doubt its legitimacy,” says Marton, who now works as director of policy and campaigns at the advocacy group JustLeadershipUSA.
“Regaining the trust of the community to engage with the process is a painstaking and long-term effort, and it’s undermined when you have something as brazen and obvious as a precinct not issuing a form that they’re required to give out. You’re turning that person away from engaging with the system.”