New York Times
May 14, 2015


Review Board Notes Rise in New York Police Officers’ False Statements

By J. DAVID GOODMAN

An officer drew his weapon on a bystander holding a cellphone but denied using a racial obscenity. In another case, an officer told investigators that he had not shoved a man in handcuffs, but that the man tripped.

In another encounter, an officer who was asked for his name so the person he had stopped could file a complaint said, “Go ahead,” and then gave the name Smith.

When presented with audio, the officer explained away the apparent proof of his misconduct. “Good night, Mr. Smith,” is what the officer said the recording captured. Neither the officer nor the person in the car had that last name.

The encounters were among about two dozen documented in a new report released on Thursday in which investigators from the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent oversight agency for the New York City police, discovered apparently false official statements by officers.

False or misleading statements by officers gained renewed attention last month after video of a fatal police shooting in North Charleston, S.C., showed that the officer involved had lied in his initial account of what prompted him to shoot the man.

In New York, the number of false statements noted by the agency, while small, has grown in an age of easy and widespread video and audio recording by civilians. In 2014, the agency found 26 instances where they believed an officer gave a false statement to investigators, a total equal to the previous four years combined.

“It is more likely now than ever that the officers’ lack of truthfulness is going to be captured, documented, and that is a function of video,” said Richard D. Emery, the chairman of the review board, who emphasized that such instances are far from the norm. “What we’re trying to highlight is that when it happens, it should be taken seriously.”

The discussion of false statements is contained in a 110-page annual report from the review board that includes data on the pace of the board’s investigations, an analysis of the downward trend in citizen complaints about the police since 2009, and sections on trends in officer behavior that emerged from the 4,778 complaints filed last year.

The report, in reviewing 48 substantiated complaints, found a pattern of officers’ conducting improper searches during encounters on the street, in some cases because of a misunderstanding of the boundary between a frisk, done on the surface of a person’s clothing, and a search, which is more invasive and includes going into pockets.

Officers documented 7,283 searches after stops in 2014, according to Police Department data contained in the report. Of those, one in 12 resulted in a complaint to the review board, a frequency that has increased sharply over past two years. In many cases, Mr. Emery said, the problem could be resolved by requiring further training.

“We are sympathetic to the officers who have been forced to do things that the Police Department should have known was wrong,” Mr. Emery said, speaking of the years during the Bloomberg administration when officers engaged in record numbers of stop-and-frisk encounters.

Mr. Emery also said the review agency had worked to speed up its investigations, with some now conducted in less than three months; that reduces the time officers work under the cloud of an unresolved complaint. “It is a bureaucracy that is in a state of turnaround,” he said.

Mr. Emery, who took over as chairman in July, has made a point of trying to align the agency’s recommendations for discipline more closely with what is ultimately imposed by the police commissioner, William J. Bratton, who is a friend.

One new policy in particular, highlighted in the report, has drawn scrutiny: allowing the Police Department to send back discipline recommendations for “reconsideration” of penalties and, in some cases, the agency’s finding of fault. The New York Civil Liberties Union has strongly opposed the new policy since it was proposed last year.

Since October, the Police Department has sent back cases involving 41 officers, roughly 18 percent of the officers in substantiated cases. Of those, the review board decided to lower its recommended penalties for 23 officers, increased it for two officers and exonerated four others after originally substantiating the claim against them.

“It’s great to see the review board highlighting problems with Police Department practices, though we don’t share its rosy depiction of the department’s disciplinary system,” said Christopher T. Dunn, the associate legal director for the civil liberties organization.

Another section of the report examines the use of force by officers in 59 complaints the agency substantiated.

In some cases, investigators found that some measure of force was appropriate, but that one or more officers went too far. The report notes that in the vast majority of the force complaints the agency investigated — more than 90 percent — the officers “used force lawfully.”

But the issue of truth telling has been of central concern to the agency in recent months as police unions have complained that civilians who accuse officers are allowed to fabricate their stories.

Union officials have called for people filing complaints to be required to make their statements under oath and under penalty of perjury, a felony.

“It is patently unjust that police officers are the only ones held accountable for the statements they make to C.C.R.B. investigators,” Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said in a statement last month.

At a meeting on Wednesday, board members again discussed the idea of swearing in those with complaints but decided it should be done only if police officers are also required to testify to the agency’s investigators under oath.

The Patrol Guide, which regulates officer conduct, is clear in its prohibition of false official statements, and the Police Department can fire an officer for lying in his or her testimony.

But the review board cannot make a final determination of an officer’s truthfulness because doing so falls outside its jurisdiction. The agency notes instances where it believes other evidence contradicts an officer’s statements, and sends that information to the police.

A spokesman for the department did not immediately return a request for comment. Mr. Emery said he did not know whether any officers had been disciplined for their apparently false statements.

In the case of the pointed weapon and the bystander with a cellphone, the officer later admitted to using a racial slur after watching a video of the encounter.

The officer accused of shoving a handcuffed man into a door while escorting him away from the scene of bar fight said the man had tripped, and became more compliant after tripping, the report said. After the interview, investigators found video showing the officer shoving the man.

A version of this article appears in print on May 15, 2015, on page A22 of the New York edition with the headline: Police Review Board Notes a Rise in False Statements by Officers.