NYPD police cars in a single formation (Shutterstock.com)
Police officers are tasked with the responsibility of upholding the law. But what happens when an officer fails to do so or violates the civil rights of a citizen? One hopes swift discipline would follow the infraction. An intensive seven-month review of disciplinary cases conducted by the New York City Police Department (NYPD) reveals that discipline is missing in action.
The months-long investigation covering the period from December 2017 to March 2019, and encompassing 162 official NYPD disciplinary dispositions, revealed disturbing patterns. For instance, punishments were often disproportionate with the offenses committed, especially when the incidents involved ordinary citizens. This practice is aided by the fact that when Police Commissioner James O’Neill orders the final reports, they are not available to the public because of a section in a state law that requires the confidentiality of all personnel files.
The investigation uncovered that cops found guilty in departmental proceedings for offenses that pertained to the public — such as false arrest, assault, or discourtesy toward citizens — received punishments amounting to forfeiting less than 15 days of vacation time. Stricter penalties, the forfeiture of 16 vacation days or more, were imposed in only a third of cases. During that same time, only two cops were placed on dismissal probation, which is the last step before being removed from the NYPD, according to the NY Daily News.
In cases unrelated to the public, punishments seemed harsher. In the cases of 131 officers accused of interdepartmental offenses, 45 officers forfeited up to 25 vacation days. More than 55 others were placed on dismissal probation and forfeited up to 30 days of vacation, according to the publication.
The investigation proves that officers who violate the civil rights of a citizen receive lighter penalties than those engaged in minor departmental infractions.
Department observers such as Anthonine Pierre, a spokesperson for Communities United for Community Reform, recognized this disturbing trend. “It’s unacceptable that when officers abuse, brutalize and kill members of the public, they too often get a slap on the wrist — if they’re disciplined at all — while heavier disciplinary consequences are issued for protocol violations,” Pierre told the NY Daily News.
The struggle for more transparency in disciplinary actions is not new. The fight to address this issue goes back at least to the spring of 2016 when the city decided to no longer make its police discipline records available to the public. Internal lawyers realized that they could rely on Section 50-A of New York’s 1976 Civil Rights Law, which prevents public access to police personnel records.
The move was roundly criticized by advocates of police transparency. With access, the public could keep track of administrative cases against officers in police shootings and other high profile crimes. Advocates were also stunned at the silence of Mayor Bill de Blasio on the matter given his earlier proposals to encourage more transparency, such as his call requiring agencies to file monthly reports regarding police conduct with the public advocate and city council, according to The Daily Beast.
A plan to improve transparency supported by city officials, the NYPD, and the Legal Aid Society sought to place records of the disciplinary trials on the internet in the form of “short, non-identifiable summaries of the outcomes.” The summaries would “omit any information that would allow the public to identify the subject individual police officers.” The NYPD believed that because the summary was not a personnel record, it did not violate the spirit of Section 50-A.
However, the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), the largest municipal police union, opposed the move. They claimed it would still violate Civil Rights Law 50-A. The PBA President Pat Lynch went further to argue that “even partial personnel records can be used to harass police officers or derail criminal trials so that dangerous criminals walk free.”
In February, the New York State Supreme Court sided with the PBA and ruled against the NYPD’s attempt to publish the records online. The judge in the case issued a temporary restraining order stating, the “city’s proposed action simply and clearly flies in the face of the law.” In the order, he stated that “[the summaries would] enable an agency to circumvent a host of statutory protections belonging to covered officers,” according to the Daily News.
The Legal Aid Society responded to this decision by stating, “50-A must be repealed by the legislature in order for the public to access even the most basic information about police misconduct in New York State,” according to the Daily News.
Instead of proposing to repeal 50-A, Police Commissioner James O’Neill offered other proposals in an April op-ed. He suggested that, among other changes, “the NYPD has opened its discipline system to scrutiny by outside review.” He referred specifically to an independent panel convened last June to review disciplinary practices. The panel, which consisted of two former US attorneys and a former federal judge, noted the NYPD’s lack of transparency, with one of the prosecutors citing “its complex disciplinary system.”
The NYPD is also working with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the city’s independent police watchdog group to design a discipline matrix — a rubric that would clearly spell out the appropriate punishment for infractions against the public as well as all interdepartmental violations — to clarify the department’s disciplinary process. At present, the NYPD’s discipline trial calendar is available online, but contains minimal information: the cop’s name and the date of the trial. Commissioner O’Neill also has made the statistics public on disciplinary actions carried out in 2016 and 2017, and he has released the department’s rules on how to deal with officers accused of domestic violence.
About the Author
Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America and is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.