In NYPD’s use of lethal force, lack of independent investigation a citywide trend
This is the second article in a series about the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
The Civilian Complaint Review Board, New York City’s independent police oversight agency, is not investigating the majority of recent cases in which NYPD officers have killed civilians — including headline-grabbing incidents involving allegations of police misconduct, the Brooklyn Eagle has learned.
At least 52 people in the city have been killed by police since the 2014 death of Eric Garner, according to reports compiled by the Washington Post and the Mapping Police Violence project. The CCRB has only investigated 12 of those cases.
The number provides a more complete picture of the agency’s oversight of police use of lethal force, following an Eagle report Monday that of the last 19 cases in Brooklyn in which people were killed by police, just four resulted in a complaint filed with the CCRB.
In at least 35 cases, including high-profile police killings of civilians, no complaint was ever filed with the agency. In the remaining five cases, it was unclear if complaints had been filed.
In some cases, victims’ families told the Eagle they didn’t file complaints because they did not know the CCRB existed.
“We never knew anything of that. We were never aware of such an area that you could file a complaint,” said Eric Vassell, whose son Saheed Vassell was shot and killed by police in Crown Heights last year.
Police said they thought he was aiming a gun at people on the street. Saheed was carrying a metal pipe. Attorney General Letitia James declined to press charges in the case in March. The family sued the city for $25 million.
The circumstances vary widely around each of the 52 deaths, but even in killings for which the police department or prosecutors have determined an officer’s lethal use of force to be justified, some families have publicly called for an independent review.
The Vassell family called on the mayor to fire the officers involved after James declined to press charges, but no complaint was filed with the CCRB.
The limits on power to investigate
The CCRB has the power to open departmental cases and recommend discipline against officers, including termination from the police force — but the agency cannot begin an investigation until a civilian files a formal complaint.
After learning about the CCRB from the Eagle’s inquiry, Vassell said he plans on filing a complaint.
“Now that I know about it, I will have to file a complaint because we are not pleased about what happened to my son,” Vassell said. “I think the city should have laid out and told us which other steps we could take.”
The CCRB stayed under Vassell’s radar despite a recent publicity boost: The board played a pivotal role in the prosecution of Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who put Eric Garner in a banned chokehold that led to Garner’s death in July 2014.
A Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo in 2014, and the federal government decided to drop the case five years later. The CCRB case finally resulted in Pantaleo’s termination from the police force in August.
“If it hadn’t been for CCRB prosecuting Pantaleo, [he] would still be on the force,” said Joo-Hyun Kang, director of Communities United for Police Reform.
Though the majority of cases in which police used lethal force are not being investigated, the CCRB received more than 5,000 complaints in 2019, a nearly 20 percent spike from 2018.
Complaints could be up because of the city’s new “right-to-know” law passed in 2017, which went into effect in October 2018. The law requires officers to identify themselves by name, rank, command and shield number at the beginning of certain interactions with civilians. The law also requires the officers to provide business cards bearing the same information, as well as information about how to file a complaint against an officer.
Mina Malik, a former head of CCRB, told the Eagle she believes the agency’s power should be expanded so that it may initiate its own investigations in the absence of a complaint.
Currently, the CCRB is bound by a policy not to reach out to victims of alleged police misconduct or their family members to solicit complaints, the agency said.
The different routes to oversight
The CCRB is not the only avenue of investigation, but for some it could be an important fallback to pursue justice. While district attorneys can bring criminal charges and the NYPD has its own internal investigative unit, the CCRB remains an independent agency that can potentially bring departmental charges in cases where criminal charges are not pressed or don’t stick.
NYPD officers stopped George Tillman, a Maryland resident visiting South Ozone Park in April 2016. Tillman was standing next to an SUV with an open bottle of vodka. He reportedly handed the bottle to a friend and the four NYPD officers left, but one noticed what appeared to be a gun in Tillman’s waistband.
Police said Tillman ran away when officers approached him to ask about the apparent weapon. When Tillman turned and allegedly aimed the gun at a cop, five NYPD officers shot at him, striking him 13 times, including a fatal bullet to the head.
After the shooting, the Queens District Attorney’s Office opened an investigation into Tillman’s death before declining to bring criminal charges against the officers involved. Late DA Richard Brown published a 71-page report on the investigation outlining why his office declined to prosecute.
“The evidence clearly shows that Mr. Tillman pointed the pistol in the direction of a police officer and failed to heed police directions to drop the weapon,” Brown said in a statement at the time “The officers had no choice but to fire in order to stop Mr. Tillman from firing his weapon at them.”
Tillman’s family disagreed with the DA’s findings and called for a jury trial.
“Only a jury can help us understand why a father of five, a licensed electrician being investigated for an open container, can get shot 11 times — without getting a shot off — after allegedly pulling a gun on police officers,” the family said in a statement. “It made no sense when it happened and it still makes no sense today.”
No one filed a complaint with the CCRB, however.
Nor was a complaint ever filed in the case of Rafael Laureano, a bodybuilder who was caught in police crossfire in 2014 in Brooklyn when cops responded to a report of another man breaking into an apartment and threatening his ex-girlfriend. Police enlisted Laureano’s help breaking down the door to get to the other man, and then accidentally shot him as well as the other man, killing both.
The NYPD found no violation of policy in their own investigation, though the city paid out over $1 million to Laureano’s family.
No complaint was filed, and the CCRB never investigated.
“There’s still work to be done to ensure that New Yorkers know that CCRB is an option,” said Kang, of the Communities United for Police Reform.
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