New York Daily News

October 1, 2015, 10:30 AM



NYPD failing to stop cops who use excessive force: inspector general


Police clash with demonstrators protesting Eric Garner's chokehold death on the Staten Island in December 2014. The NYPD's inspector general says the department is failing to control cops who use excessive force on civilians.

A scathing new report released Thursday found the NYPD is falling down on the job trying to rein in cops who use excessive force on civilians.

An investigation by NYPD Inspector General Phil Eure found NYPD cops “too often did not de-escalate encounters, failed to intervene in encounters where other officers used excessive force against members of the public - and escalated encounters themselves.”

The 62-page report, released in the Department of Investigation’s downtown offices, comes three weeks after a plainclothes cop rushed and tackled ex-tennis star James Blake outside a Midtown hotel in a case of mistaken identity.

In response, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton announced policy upgrades aimed at improving training to reduce excessive force and better tracking officers’ behavior.

“I am announcing new, state-of-the-art use-of-force policies for the NYPD,” Bratton said in a statement released to all officers. “We’ve developed new procedures to guide your use of force and new reports to record it.”

He added that the guidelines will include recording incidents in which civilians use force against police.

The department currently tracks force only on arrest forms, which means force used when a civilian isn’t arrested isn’t counted. As part of its policy changes, the NYPD will require cops to fill out two-page “use of force” forms in all instances, including non-arrests.

Not surprisingly, Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch rejected the idea of requiring cops to fill out a new “use-of-force” form.

"More paperwork coupled with a serious shortage of police officers and the continual second-guessing of their actions is a formula for disaster. It is a call for police officers to disengage themselves from the very proactive policing that brought this city from the brink of disaster in the 1990s,” Lynch said.

DOI Commissioner Mark Peters welcomed the reforms as “progress,” but said “there is a lot more work to be done.” He noted that the reforms include zero details on improved training and how to achieve consistency in disciplining cops caught crossing the line.

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said the IG’s report was “troubling and I am encouraged that the NYPD recognizes this with their announcement this morning. It's important that the NYPD take steps to resolve these issues as quickly as possible and I look forward to examining their plan.”

The NYPD’s policy shift comes as the inspector general singled out some hot-headed officers’ propensity to turn up the heat instead of trying to cool things down.

“In dozens of incidents, officers were presented with the opportunity to de-escalate the situation but ultimately did not,” the report states, finding the NYPD’s “policies and training currently do not adequately address de-escalation as a useful tactic for officers in the field.”

The IG’s investigation followed the July 2014 death of Eric Garner, in which a cop put the Staten Island man in a banned chokehold while trying to arrest him on suspicion of selling loosies, or cigarettes.

The IG looked at excessive force cases brought to the Civilian Complaint Review Board to explore how the NYPD handles this hot-button issue. The vast majority of the 10,000 cases were deemed “unsubstantiated” due to lack of corroborative evidence.

But the CCRB was able to substantiate 207 such allegations brought in 179 cases from 2010 through 2014, often because there was video or audio of the encounter.

None of those cases resulted in a civilian death, but they did include 137 uses of physical force, 16 in which cops used nightsticks, 15 involving pepper spray, 11 chokeholds, 10 in which a cop drew his gun, nine in which the civilian was “hit against inanimate object,” four involving a vehicle and five listed simply as “other.”

The IG found 26 cases in which officers made mild confrontations worse by using “incendiary language,” “unnecessary physical contact” and even “drawing weapons at inappropriate times.” He referred all 26 back to the NYPD for “further review.”

In one particularly disturbing episode in the Bronx, a cop went ballistic on a man using his cell phone to take video of the arrest of two other men.

The cop “violently swings his right arm towards the complainants’ cell phone, then draws and points his firearm at the complainant and uses profanity and racial epithets while aggressively commanding the complainant to put away the phone,” the report said.

The IG noted that even though the entire incident was captured on a nearby security camera, no discipline was imposed because by the time CCRB forwarded the case to the NYPD, the statute of limitations had expired.

Eure found the “NYPD frequently failed to impose discipline even when provided with evidence of excessive force.”

Though 59 of the 179 cases are pending, Eure found the NYPD imposed no discipline in 37 of the 104 cases that hadn’t passed the statute of limitations.

The trend has improved somewhat, with no discipline in 44% of cases 2010-2013 dropping to no discipline in 11% of cases 2014-2015, but dozens of the more recent cases are still pending.

Over the last four years, cops mostly received lesser forms of punishment than what CCRB recommended. As the report stated, “Historically NYPD has frequently failed to discipline officers who use force without justification."

Other examples highlighted the NYPD’s reluctance to punish cops who went over the line with civilians:

*At 2:40 a.m. one night in Manhattan, a 45-year-old man accidentally locked himself out of his house when he took out the trash. Two officers didn’t believe his story and ordered him to leave the area. The conversation — all of which was caught on video — quickly escalated, with one officer suddenly pushing the man to the ground and standing over him yelling and pointing his finger in the man’s face. The second officer stood by with his hands in his pockets. The aggressor cop received a “command discipline,” which meant no more than a loss of vacation days.

*At 12:50 a.m. in Manhattan, a 15-year-old walking on the sidewalk was stopped and questioned by cops, then minutes later was stopped again by a second set of cops. In a conversation he appears to have secretly recorded, the teen protests the stop, and a verbal disagreement quickly escalates. One of the cops pushes the teenager repeatedly. The cop received no punishment.

*At 9 p.m. in Queens, two officers stopped a man riding a bike on a sidewalk. In an altercation captured by a nearby security camera, the man objected to a demand for ID, waving his arms and moving about the sidewalk. One of the officers appeared to be yelling back, and at one point punched the man four times in face, pulled his legs out from beneath him and sent him sprawling to the pavement. As the man lay on the ground, the cop straddled him and punched him twice more in the face. The second officer stood by with his thumb in his belt and only intervened after the man was punched while lying on the sidewalk. No punishment had occurred as of this week, seven months after the incident.

*At 10:30 p.m. in Queens, two men were standing at a shopping center entrance when an off-duty officer brushed into one of them as he entered the shops. The man responded with a hand gesture, and the officer turned and confronted the man, lifting a shirt to show his shield and service weapon. He unclipped an object from his waistband and pushed the man with his hands. He then struck the second man in the face with his hand. The officer denied pushing the man, but all of this — including the push — was captured on store video. Twenty months later, the officer has not been punished.

In general, the report found the NYPD’s current use-of-force policy “is vague and imprecise, providing little guidance to individual officers on what actions constitute force.”

“An officer is not informed whether shoving or taking a suspect to the ground is a use of force. The patrol guide’s silence on this issue results in individual officers determining for themselves whether their actions should be reported,” the report states.

At the police academy, recruits spend just nine of 468 hours on the topic. In Seattle, officers get 32 hours of use-of-force training.

And the department can’t accurately track these incidents because its method for documenting and reporting force is “fragmented across numerous forms.”

Cops often use “generic language” such as “hands on suspect” or “forced victim against wall.”

The IG report cited “a particularly troubling pattern” in 54 cases where the CCRB had substantiated excessive use of force, but the cop checked “NO” on the arrest report query about whether force was used.

Not surprisingly, the report found excessive force tended to be a problem of rookies, with nearly half of the 207 allegations involving officers with five years or less on the force.

More than 96% of encounters involved male officers, though men now make up 83% of the force. More than 56% of the substantiated cases involved white officers, with 15.8% involving black officers and 23.7% involving Hispanic officers.

When white officers were involved, the vast majority of complainants were black — 67 of 103 allegations. Blacks constitute 57.8% of complainants, though they make up 22% of the city’s population.

On the radio Thursday, Mayor de Blasio cheered on Bratton for his planned reforms but made no mention of the Inspector General’s findings: “The message for all New Yorkers is, we're going to make sure that only the amount of force that is necessary is used. This is something that people all over the city have wanted to see acted on for years.”

With Jennifer Fermino