The New York Times by Al Baker - March 28, 2012
Lawyers for the independent agency that investigates allegations of police abuse in New York have been given wide new powers to prosecute officers in misconduct cases under an agreement city officials reached on Tuesday. The changes follow a period in which the Police Department has withstood an onslaught of corruption cases and increased scrutiny on several fronts, including its surveillance and stop-and-frisk practices, the integrity of its crime data and its use of force in policing Occupy Wall Street protests. Details of the agreement were contained in a memorandum signed on Tuesday by the department and the independent oversight agency, the Civilian Complaint Review Board. The changes are intended to shine light on a police disciplinary process that critics have long said is murky and secretive. The agreement means that board lawyers, instead of police agency employees, will act as prosecutors in cases in which board members have substantiated wrongdoing by officers and have recommended that the most serious kinds of internal, or administrative, discipline be handed out. From 2007 through 2011, the board substantiated an average of 200 cases annually that it referred to the police so officers could be put on trial by departmental lawyers before an administrative judge who also was a Police Department employee. “I think this is a question of, for me, the C.C.R.B. felt like a toothless tiger, the place where people went to make complaints about the few bad apples out there, but they did not know what happened since the prosecution was not done by the C.C.R.B.,” said Christine C. Quinn, speaker of the City Council. The speaker announced the agreement with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and the board. Ms. Quinn said the agreement, which mirrors one sought by the Giuliani administration in 2001, “not only gives teeth, but gives transparency to a part of the process that New Yorkers feel is opaque.” Under the agreement, Police Department employees will still serve as judges in misconduct cases, and Mr. Kelly will retain his powers as ultimate arbiter in such matters, with the ability to accept or reject a trial judge’s recommendation. What is different, several officials said, is that Mr. Kelly must make his rationale known to the board, in writing, in cases in which he deviates from the judge’s recommendation. Then the board can appeal his ruling. “And all of this can be reported publicly,” Ms. Quinn said. She said the staffing needs for the board, which was separated from the Police Department in 1993, would be addressed in the city’s budget process. Dick Dadey, the executive director of Citizens Union, an advocacy group, who has been pushing for four years for board lawyers to be prosecutors, called the development a milestone, forcing greater accountability in the way the Police Department polices itself. In a vast majority of cases, he said, the department had not followed the board’s recommendations that officers guilty of misconduct be given the most serious penalty. From 2002 to 2010, he said, the board recommended that 2,078 officers receive the most severe penalty. That suggested discipline was given to only 151 officers.
“Public confidence in the police to keep New York safe and secure is high,” Mr. Dadey said. “But that confidence doesn’t extend to the way the department handles those officers who are charged with violating the public trust when they use excessive force, abuse their authority, or are discourteous and use offensive language. Before the agreement, a police commissioner could opt not to send any substantiated cases to trial. But the cases of wrongdoing substantiated by the board that make it to trial are only a small part of the function of the department’s trial room. Internal Affairs Bureau cases and other matters brought directly by the police make up much of the work, and in those cases departmental advocates will still work as prosecutors. Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, took issue with both sides of the disciplinary process — the board’s role and the department’s internal disciplinary process. “Our problem with the C.C.R.B. has always been first, their predisposition that police officers are always wrong, second, their inexperienced investigators who conduct faulty investigations that arrive at improper conclusions, and now those wrong conclusions will be prosecuted at these kangaroo trials,” Mr. Lynch said in a statement. The union fought over whether the agency should get new powers when Mr. Kelly’s predecessor, Bernard B. Kerik, sought to reinforce the public’s confidence during a turbulent time more than a decade ago. Though the city prevailed in court, the “Bloomberg administration never re-took up the possibility,” Ms. Quinn said, until now. The announcement came on the eve of a speech on policing issues that the public advocate, Bill de Blasio, who, like Ms. Quinn, is planning to run for mayor, was set to deliver on Wednesday at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. In recent years, in fact, he and Councilman Daniel R. Garodnick drafted legislation on the issue. Assemblyman Hakeem S. Jeffries, a Democrat who represents Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, said the agreement should be seen against a host of other police practices, like the “out of control” numbers of streets stops, mostly of minorities, that officers carry out each year. Ms. Quinn said she would push for a change in state law to address the issue of police trial-room judges being police employees. Daniel D. Chu, the board president, said: “This agreement is a milestone in the history of civilian police oversight in New York City. Public confidence in the disciplinary process will be strengthened by having the C.C.R.B., an independent agency, prosecuting these cases.”