The New York Times

July 14, 2003

Review Board Is No Longer a Hot Button


The most interesting thing about this month's anniversary of the city's Civilian Complaint Review Board may be that barely anyone noticed.

After a nearly 30-year battle to have civilians investigate allegations of police misconduct, the fire is out. "It's like it's all over," said Bill Lynch, deputy mayor to David N. Dinkins, who championed an independent civilian review board. "Nobody's focused on it."

People sure were focusing a decade ago, when the opponents predicted that an independent police review board made up of civilians would "handcuff" the police, while proponents predicted it would help improve race relations.

In its 10 years, the review board has clearly borne out neither prediction. The consensus is it has made only incremental change, which would have shocked those who were around a decade ago.

In September 1992, 10,000 off-duty police officers held an ugly protest at City Hall. Some protesters shouted obscenities and used racial insults against Mr. Dinkins. Others blocked traffic, drank openly and applauded raucously when the future mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, made a teeth-baring speech complete with epithets.

In a backlash, the City Council voted to create an all-civilian board, and ecstatic supporters expected near-revolutionary change. "We believed that accountability over police conduct was a dream fulfilled," said Norman Siegel, former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. And now? "The dream hasn't become a nightmare," he said. "At best it's been deferred."

The Patrolmen's Benevolent Association isn't happy either. John Puglissi, the union's first vice president, said on Friday that the board undermines the police and called it a "total failure." But the union is not agitating for change.

Mr. Dinkins theorizes that the city is generally calmer about police relations than it was a few years ago because Mr. Giuliani is out of City Hall.

Mr. Giuliani never hid his antagonism toward civilianization. His successor, Michael R. Bloomberg, is so nonconfrontational that he wouldn't even answer a question about how he viewed his own administration's review board. "This mayor is vastly different than Giuliani was," Mr. Dinkins said.

Mr. Giuliani would not comment, either. His critics argue that through most of his tenure, the newly civilianized board suffered from weak leadership and inadequate budgets. Today it has a larger budget, is receiving more complaints than in the past and is investigating them more quickly. But the investigations still average 243 days, according to the board's executive director, Florence L. Finkle.

The number of complaints judged valid is small: By Mr. Siegel's calculation, about 5 percent are substantiated, compared with 3.5 percent under the old system. Ms. Finkle said the current figure is more than 10.5 percent. Critics say the vast majority of disciplined officers get the mildest form of punishment; Ms. Finkle could not provide figures confirming or denying that.

Ms. Finkle contends the substantiation rate is an inadequate measure anyway. "One way we help the Police Department is to have a strong process to deal with civil complaints," she said. "I think we have that. Civilian review of complaints is not a panacea."

Mr. Siegel says there has been some — but not much — change for the better. The main problem is an insufficiently active board, and a lack of interest from Mr. Bloomberg, he said. Was he naïve to have expected more? "Yes," said Mr. Siegel. "Maybe people never thought this was as fundamental as I did." They declared victory and moved on, he suggested.

And the fight a decade ago was more about politics than substance anyway, some former players say today. "Everybody came up with the worst-case scenarios. Dire consequences were predicted," said former Councilman Thomas Ognibene, a Queens Republican. "But it was hot and heavy because of the politics, not because of the issue."

Mr. Ognibene, who aggressively fought civilianization, said he thought the new and old boards were not that different. Asked if that surprised him, given his strong opposition to change in 1992, he said: "Am I surprised that reality is much better than the demagoguery? No. Reality is always somewhere in the middle."

So it would appear that one generation's political conflagration is the next generation's realistic compromise. A battle over the review board may erupt again. But for now, as former Deputy Mayor Lynch put it, "It's off the radar screen."