August 27, 2014

CCRB Still A Paper Tiger

It was only a few weeks ago that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio named Richard Emery as the Chairman of the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Not surprisingly, civil rights lawyers applauded the choice, being that Emery is a name partner in Emery Celli Brinkerhoff and Abady, LLP, a firm known for its plaintiffs-side work in civil rights cases. While undoubtedly a sound selection, it is likely a pointless gesture that will do little to prop up the CCRB, which has slowly lost whatever limited muscle it might have once had.

According to an article today, NYPD Commissioner Bratton is refusing to discipline officers in more than 25% of the cases where the CCRB has found some discipline appropriate. This rate is similar to the declination rate of former Commissioner Kelly. As Kelly was notably hostile to CCRB oversight, the fact that Bratton's rejection rate is comparable is saying something.

To put these numbers in better perspective, it's important to understand the CCRB's role. People who have certain types of complaints (allegations of excessive force, abuse of authority, discourteousness) can write or phone in their complaints. They are then interviewed by investigators who then speak with witnesses, examine any evidence that might be available, such as police records, videos, photographs, etc., and then interview the officers.

Notably, the officers come to the interview with union appointed counsel, who aggressively defend their clients. When I have come with clients to interviews, I have been told that I cannot object and that any attempt to "interfere" with the interview will result in the complaint being dismissed. I have heard that some investigators weigh the complainant's hiring of a lawyer against him or her, interpreting the complaint as an attempt to increase the value of the civil suit. If this is true, those investigators have a highly inflated view of their importance. The outcome of CCRB cases usually has little to no impact on any subsequent civil suit.

Once the investigation is completed, an outcome is recommended. The possible resolutions include "substantiated" (a determination that the conduct happened), "unsubstantiated" (i.e., the investigator cannot tell if it happened, and when confronted with conflicting stories, chose to punt), "unfounded" (didn't happen), and "exonerated" (happened, but it's ok). The Board then votes on it and the complainant is eventually notified. This process can take many, many months, or longer, depending on the complexity of the facts.

When a complaint is substantiated, it is usually referred to the NYPD, where the Commissioner decided whether or not he will reject the finding, and if he does not, what punishment will be meted out. In certain cases, charges and specs are filed against the officer, who can then either plead out or have a full hearing, but such an event is rare.

According to the CCRB's website, in 2013, only 14% of complaints were substantiated. Of those, it appears that Kelly rejected the findings outright at least 1/4 of the time. And it must be pointed out, the punishments are often pretty minimal; sometimes nothing more than a Command Discipline, which is a note in the officer's file that is removed shortly thereafter, and other times simply a "warn and admonish," which is what it sounds like.

The numbers for the first half of 2014 are right on track. Explaining his decisions, Commissioner Bratton said, "“my sense was that C.C.R.B. was significantly overcharging and overpenalizing." Please. In actuality, Bratton is sending a message to his cops that he's there for them, that he is not to be confused with de Blasio, who appointed him, and who they believe threw them under the bus when he reversed course and settled the Stop and Frisk litigation and paid the Central Park Five.

The point here being that CCRB was given a few teeth last year when they were handed the right to prosecute the really serious charges against officers (as opposed to having the NYPD handle the prosecution). But these cases are far and few between. What we have now is what we have had for years, an oversight agency that engages in relatively little oversight, and whose findings can be summarily discarded by the agency they are overseeing whenever the Commissioner feels like it. In short, a toothless agency forced to gum when it needs to bite. A paper tiger.

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