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Looking at Policing Complaints

Terry H. Schwadron

Aug. 4, 2020

Here’s a piece of good journalistic work that shows what it takes to seriously question the details of police brutality over the objection of police unions, who are lobbying hard to keep such records secret.

It’s a quick social morality tale about whether we want to fix what goes wrong or not, about getting beyond slogans into the meat of issues before us.

The work was done by ProPublica, the Marshall Project, WNYC/Gothamist and The City, a local news outlet in New York City, and has produced a searchable database naming 4,000 of the city’s 36,000 police officers who have had at least one substantiated allegation before the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board — a fraction of the complaints filed with the board.

The incidents cover complaints from 1985 to this year, so it would be important not to take the results as a photograph of current practices. But since we need to look into actual fact about police procedures that can run amok, the reporting effort is a fresh, useful gauge for what is in such records not only in New York, but likely in police departments across the country.

There were tons more complaints to the board than reflected here, naturally, since many were found to be justified incidents or those for which no determination could be made by the board. The database was the result of seeking records from the review board after the state changed the rules governing secrecy — only to be stopped by a temporary order in the courts.

For decades, these type of disciplinary records of police officers in New York and elsewhere have been kept from public review, with police unions very active in protecting members from public questioning, and, civil liabilities beyond the reach of the NYPD or the review board.

The records reflect the name of each officer, the race of the complainant and the officer, a category describing the alleged misconduct, and whether the CCRB concluded the officers’ conduct violated NYPD rules — and so can be searched by officer or complaint type. Its investigators must rely on the NYPD to hand over crucial evidence, such as footage from body-worn cameras.

For a host of reasons, ProPublic has previously reported that NYPD is not always forthcoming despite a legal duty to cooperate in CCRB investigations. Allegations of criminal conduct by officers are typically investigated not by the CCRB but by state or federal prosecutors in conjunction with the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau or the FBI.

The results

So, what do we learn from the database?

On a gross level, almost 7,640 of the more than 12,000 complaints in the data reflect complaints of excessive force (4,849), from physical force to chokeholds (244) to the use of various pieces of equipment as cudgels. In all, there were 20,000 allegations of abuse of authority, from unwarranted stops and searches to threats and foul interchanges.

As expected, there were complaints about offensive language as well, about race, gender and ethnicity, and plenty of complaint about plain old discourtesy.

Still, these were a fraction of the total of complaints to the board, many of which never fully get investigated for internal obstacles and conflicting accounts.

Journalists took the information and found the incidents that matched some of the statistics.

There’s the guy whose van is stopped by police, who invasively search him in the middle of the street. There is the story of officers, guns drawn, ransacking an apartment, another of a man held in a chokehold while other police punch him, and any number of foul-mouthed exchanges, including threats, sometimes in front of children. Some of the officers are listed multiple times.

The City published reports about 244 complaints against 13 officers, including those named in various civil suits that were settled by the city even though the review board had not reached a conclusion about the cases. NYPD said in response that the department has been working on better relations with communities, and declined to comment about specifics.

Anyone who has watched even TV police dramas understands that the simple listing of these rough incidents doesn’t come close to describing the nature of policing in dangerous, ever-changing situations. You can easily imagine the provocations, and there is an argument that these incidents occurred over 35 years.

Whether there is a little, a lot or way too much abuse in the system seems a function of who’s looking for it.

Should We Know More?

We have a national debate under way about these issues, of course, and a current federal government that does not want to acknowledge systematic problems. The U.S. Justice Department under the Trump administration specifically has turned away from reviewing such patterns in city police jurisdictions, and Donald Trump’s repeated remarks always favor even rough police tactics over urban disorder.

Without systematic public record keeping , it is easy for Trump to simply assert, for example, that abuse issues are few or that Black citizens are not disproportionately victims in police brutality cases.

Clearly, policing is a local matter. But information about policing need not be, and the kind of effort involved in this singular effort in New York shows what it will take to move beyond slogans and political mottos.

As the adage goes, we can’t fix or address things that we don’t understand. The FBI has some records, but basically, the story of police abuse is not fully known because we don’t set up systems to study what has gone wrong.

Obviously, police unions want to protect members, who are cops. But cops ostensibly want to protect the public. And so, eventually, this comes back around to city police departments and mayors and council members to want to know what’s really happening in their communities. Otherwise there is no chance of addressing the issues.

The question, as always, is do we want to know — or simply to repeat slogans.


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Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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