New York City

Here’s how other cities investigate police misconduct

October 9, 2019 Noah Goldberg

This is the third article in a series about the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

The city’s independent watchdog of NYPD conduct is unable to launch investigations without a citizen complaint, and that has meant a majority of the cases in which police used lethal force go without independent investigations.

In New York City, the Civilian Complaint Review Board investigates allegations of police misconduct — but as the Brooklyn Eagle previously reported, city rules prevent investigating without a complaint. The agency also does not solicit complaints from victims’ families.

To understand the range of options municipalities use to ensure accountability and trust between the police force and communities, the Eagle looked at the policies of the CCRB’s counterparts in other U.S. cities — and found that similar agencies have jurisdiction to begin their own investigations without anyone ever filing a complaint.

Since Eric Garner’s death in Staten Island in 2014, at least 52 people have been killed citywide by police — some armed and shooting at police, others unarmed and killed in circumstances that have spurred allegations of police misconduct. Of those 52 cases, only 12 complaints have been filed with the CCRB.

In five cases, it was unclear if complaints had been filed. But in the remaining 35 cases — including high-profile police killings of civilians — no complaint was ever filed. In New York, this prevents the CCRB from investigating.

That is not the case in other major U.S. cities.

In Miami, Florida, any police shooting or use of force that results in death of a person is automatically investigated by the city’s Civilian Investigative Panel, once any criminal investigation is over.

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“I think it’s a good thing that we automatically investigate,” Cristina Beamud, the executive director of Miami’s CIP, told the Eagle. “There are many reasons why family members or somebody does not make a formal complaint, including they often might want to consider a lawsuit against the city or they don’t know we exist.”

Back in New York, not knowing was the reason no complaint was filed in the case of Saheed Vassell, who was shot and killed by police in Crown Heights in 2018.

“We never knew anything of that,” said Eric Vassell, Saheed’s father, who added that he planned on filing a complaint after being contacted by the Eagle.

Vassell has called on the mayor to fire the officers involved in his son’s death, but had no idea there was another avenue to try to pursue that justice.

In Seattle, the Office of Police Accountability has the ability to investigate in the absence of a complaint. In Chicago, too, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability has the power to initiate its own investigation.

“COPA does have the ability to investigate use of force or police-involved shootings without a complaint being filed,” said Jennifer Rotner, a spokesperson for the Chicago office that was created in 2017. “We can get a complaint from a complainant itself. We can also investigate without a complainant.”

“Our law seems so old,” said Victoria Davis, whose unarmed brother, Delrawn Small was killed in Brooklyn by off-duty Officer Wayne Isaacs in 2016. “I think New York should do that, we seem so far behind,” Davis said of other cities’ ability to investigate without complaints.

While New York’s CCRB can prosecute officers in a departmental trial, the final decision of whether or not to discipline the officer remains up to the the NYPD commissioner.

Across the country, similar agencies also lack the ability to enforce their own punishments on officers, often recommending discipline to heads of police, who can then decide whether or not to implement the recommendation. Of the 50 largest police forces in the country, only six have civilian review boards that have the power to implement discipline directly, according to the Seton Hall Law Review.

New York is not alone in its tighter restrictions, however. In Washington, D.C., the Office of Police Complaints is similarly bound by rules that prohibit it from initiating investigations without complaints.

In Los Angeles, there is no comparable office to the CCRB. Use of force incidents are investigated by the LAPD, and an independent Inspector General’s office oversees the departmental investigation. There is also a civilian-run Police Commission, which technically heads the LAPD. The commission receives reports on investigations from LAPD and the IG and can determine if an officer acted “out of policy” — though it cannot recommend termination.

For the CCRB to initiate its own investigations would likely take a change to the City Charter, or a broader understanding of who can be a complainant — including allowing the CCRB itself to be the complainant in cases.

“When I was there, complaints were initiated based on newspaper articles or the CCRB could be a complainant,” Richard Emery, former head of the CCRB, told the Eagle. Emery was ousted from the agency in 2016 amid accusations of sexist remarks.

The charter currently only invests the agency with the power to “receive, investigate, hear, make findings and recommend action upon complaints by members of the public.”

It’s hard to implement changes like automatic investigations or to strengthen the CCRB because of the power of the city’s police union, said Sateesh Nori, a lawyer who sat on the 2019 Charter Revision Commission.

“I think one factor is there are so many more police officers here than in any other city, and they’re extremely well organized and well repped by their union. They have a powerful lobby,” he said.

There have been some efforts to broaden the CCRB’s ability to collect complaints, however. The “Right to Know” act 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 disperse business cards bearing the same information, as well as information about how to file a complaint against an officer.

That law was credited with the number of complaints against NYPD officers increasing nearly 20 percent. And forces outside of the CCRB can play a role, such as district attorneys and the attorney general setting policy to inform family members of their ability to file complaints.

“Initiating investigations would be a positive step,” Nori said. “But also expanding the CCRB — adding members, adding staff.”

Correction (Oct. 11, 12:45 p.m.): This article has been corrected to note that Los Angeles’s civilian-run Police Commission is an independent office, that receives reports on LAPD investigations from LAPD and the Inspector General’s Office.

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