March 1, 2014

When Should Your Clients Use the CCRB?

A simple question on which New York area civil rights lawyers hold differing views is whether or when to send clients to the Civilian Complaint Review Board. I have always been skeptical of the CCRB, and generally avoid the agency when I can, since the downsides almost always overwhelm the meager potential positives. It seemed like an easy call to me, so I was more than a little surprised to find myself in the minority in a debate on a popular listserv.

Quick background: the CCRB is a city agency charged with handling complaints about the NYPD concerning excessive force, abuse of authority, discourtesy, and offensive language. A complainant will have to appear for an interview, provide witnesses, etc. The investigation can take months, or more than a year to complete, even for minor matters, and, in most cases, does not result in the imposition of any sanction, even when the charge is substantiated. My opinion has always been that the CCRB is a good place to go when the complaint concerns rudeness or discourtesy, but that it is less useful for complaints about bad arrests and excessive force, which are better addressed through litigation.

My opposition was that the client, who often still had open criminal charges pending, could not appear for his initial, sworn, interview until the charges were dismissed. It then often take months before the officers would appear for their responsive interviews (and even longer if there was any issue about his/her identity).  It could then take many more months, if not longer, for the CCRB investigator to reach a conclusion, receive supervisory approval for the proposed finding. Only then could the matter be submitted for a final adjudication by the CCRB Board, which also could take weeks or months.  If the civil action was filed during this inevitably lengthy delay, the New York Law Department would often (and successfully) move to stay the case pending the investigation's completion.

In short, the process imposed on me additional prep work, with a guaranteed delay, no real reason to expect the charges to be substantiated (I'll come to that in a minute), and virtually no chance that a substantiated ruling would be admitted at trial. With clients whose most pressing concern was having their case put into suit as soon as possible, the notion of waiting for a period of months, or maybe a year or more, before filing just to get a ruling that would have little or no impact on the case made no sense.

I recently discussed the CCRB with another civil rights lawyer in my office surprised me by arguing that the CCRB officer interviews, when conducted pre-litigation, often resulted in great cross-examination fodder since the cop would not have been prepped by the Law Department's attorneys. He was a fan of complaints to the CCRB and often encouraged them. Of course, our clients may also undermine their cases if they are careless in their responses, but this attorney was confident that this could be avoided with a little preparation.

Coincidentally, days later the matter came up for discussion on a national listserv maintained by the NLG, where I expected a chorus of support (although to be fair, I didn't actually speak up in the debate). However, the attorneys almost universally favored having the clients complain, again primarily to set the stage for good impeachment, and to contribute to each officer's catalogue of complaints.

The outcomes are usually not useful. If there is any factual debate, the CCRB ordinarily issues an "unsubstantiated" finding, meaning that they won't pick between the competing sides. But even if you receive a "substantiated" ruling, it is almost never admissible, and the finding has almost no other utility. Still, some attorneys say, the potential for some decent impeachment material was worth the headaches.

I am not fully persuaded but am curious to hear what others think and how they handle these complaints.


  1. I don't send my clients to CCRB because the process takes too long and the City usually obtains a stay of the lawsuit until CCRB concludes its investigation. I don't see how you can obtain good impeachment material because the CCRB investigators throw only softball questions to the cops and feed them the answers. This stands in stark contrast to the cross examination that the CCRB investigators subject the complainants.

  2. That was always my thought, Rich. But I've heard a lot of attorneys say that the statements the cops gave contradicted the paperwork and the theory of the defense during the later lawsuit. It still doesn't seem like a useful trade-off, but there's plenty of lawyers who will disagree with us.