In the wake of the revelation that New York City Police Department officers involved in the deaths of Ramarley Graham and Eric Garner had previously been investigated for alleged misconduct, City Council members last week discussed legislation that would improve the accountability of the department’s internal system for flagging and addressing improper police behavior.
The bill, introduced by Council Member Dan Garodnick, would require the city to maintain an internal information sharing system to track lawsuits and complaints regarding alleged misconduct by police. The system would be accessible by the police department, law department, comptroller and Civilian Complaint Review Board.
The NYPD currently employs an internal early intervention system to identify officers liable to engage in misconduct, based on disciplinary history and civilian complaints, and place those officers in the department’s performance monitoring system. “I think we can all agree that the goal is that we have an early alert with respect to at-risk officers, and that way we can get these members of the service either monitoring, training [or] increased supervision,” Oleg Chernyavsky, the NYPD’s director of legislative affairs, said at a City Council hearing on the bill April 6.
But critics say the system has failed to stop abusive officers from continuing to engage in misconduct. Civilian Complaint Review Board documents recently leaked to the progressive news outlet ThinkProgress show that the cases of Graham and Garner — unarmed black men killed in high-profile cases of alleged police misconduct in 2012 and 2014, respectively — each involved a separate NYPD officer with a prior history of complaints.
A number of city agencies collect data regarding complaints and lawsuits alleging police misconduct, but there is limited interagency coordination in organizing the information and ensuring all applicable parties can analyze it. The proposed legislation would mandate uniform access to the full scope of available information for all concerned agencies. “It should not be so difficult or cumbersome for agencies keeping an eye on police misconduct to have the full universe of information that is relevant,” Garodnick said at the hearing.
“The police department has had an early intervention system for years, but we want to build on that by giving these other oversight agencies the ability to share and access information easily,” Garodnick said in a later interview. “The hope is that it will assist in early identification of those few officers who are prone to misconduct and ensure action before somebody gets hurt and before the city has to pay considerable sums in legal claims.”
In fiscal year 2016, the city paid out $279.7 million in settlements and judgements of legal claims against the NYPD, the highest total ever. Though payouts have increased every year since 2013, the number of claims filed against the NYPD decreased in fiscal years 2015 and 2016, reflecting the fact that cases often take years to reach a settlement or judgement. For example, in early April, the city agreed to pay $4 million to settle the wrongful arrest suit filed by Thabo Sefolosha, a professional basketball player, in response to his 2015 arrest outside a Chelsea nightclub, during which he suffered a broken fibula and other injuries. The NYPD did not admit to any wrongdoing as part of the settlement.
The bill would not impact current NYPD policy that governs the handling of officers accused of misconduct, but Garodnick believes that increased information sharing between agencies would contribute to better outcomes. “It’s not a guarantee, but it certainly puts an additional level of accountability in place, which will help,” he said.
Robert Gangi, who heads the nonprofit Police Reform Organizing Project and is running for mayor on a police reform platform, said that he supports bills like Garodnick’s, but is skeptical that legislation alone can succeed in reining in police misconduct. “There should be a very strong response from the mayor and commissioner when officers have engaged in reckless, irresponsible or brutal conduct,” Gangi said, adding that the officers involved in the Graham and Garner cases should have been fired immediately.
“We are aggressively critical of the police department’s record in disciplining itself,” Gangi said. “The police department protects its own officers. We lay the blame for abusive and discriminatory conduct by police officers directly on the doorstep of the city’s leadership, particularly on [Mayor] Bill De Blasio and [NYPD Commissioner] James O’Neill.”
The Civilian Complaint Review Board investigates complaints of police misconduct and makes disciplinary recommendations to the police department based on its findings. About 60 percent of NYPD officers have had at least one complaint filed against them, according to CCRB data. Just 10 percent of officers, however, have ever received a complaint alleging misconduct that was later substantiated by the CCRB.
The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation.
Reporter Michael Garofalo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org