February 16, 2014

Is Accountability Coming to the NYPD?

As a plaintiff's lawyer, I have become accustomed to being blamed for the abundance of lawsuits against the City of New York and it's police officers. Newspaper articles seemingly point their fingers at attorneys, as though we are somehow to blame for those cops who deliberately arrest people without probable cause, fabricate evidence, or beat up people without any justification. 

This is not to say that there aren't silly or frivolous civil rights lawsuits. There are abusive claims filed in virtually every field of law subject to litigation. But this "kill all the lawyers" approach ignores the wide range of serious, deliberate, abusive conduct that does real and meaningful harm to individuals, groups, and our criminal justice system as a whole. Much of this misconduct is carried out by a relatively small handful of officers who act with impunity, primarily because they know full well that they will never be disciplined in any way, and that the City will carry all the freight. Try this as a lawyer, doctor, or fry cook at McDonald's, and see what happens.

Indeed, the NYPD seems to be one of the few places where an employee can be sued repeatedly for the same misconduct, cost his employer hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages, and untold hundreds of thousands more to pay for the City's lawyers to defend them, without suffering a single adverse consequence. These officers are not fired or even suspended. The allegations in the lawsuits are almost never even investigated or reviewed, and the officers' supervisors often don't know or don't care about the lawsuits against their subordinates. It has historically been viewed as a cost of doing business, and nothing more.

How many times are we talking about? Well, according to an article in today's New York Daily News, the officers atop the current leaderboard are Peter Valentin, Vincent Orsini, and Fritz Glemaud (shown above with Det. Warren Rohan), who collectively have been sued at least 70 times, while 52 other officers have each been sued 10 or more times.

But the Daily News article suggests that a change is on the (very distant) horizon. The NYPD has finally initiated a Civil Lawsuit Monitoring Program, which monitors civil actions against officers. The tracking program does not identify the allegations or the results of the suit, so it is not clear whether the program offers any real utility. It is a departure, however, from the "so what" position held by the prior administration.

The police unions respond that the numbers are misleading, that many of the allegations are unfounded, that the City often pays on meritless cases as a cost-saving measure, and so forth. While these defenses contain a kernel of truth, surely nobody can deny that these numbers are indicators of a larger problem. It appears that the City finally agrees and is beginning to lay the groundwork for future action.

The key word is accountability. We are far from that goal, but starting to inch forward.