Wall Street Journal
March 27, 2012


Police Review Board Given New Powers

By SEAN GARDINER

The city on Tuesday gave broad authority to the Civilian Complaint Review Board to prosecute police misconduct cases, a significant shift that comes as the department faces criticism over its street tactics and handling of mass protests.

The agreement between the City Council, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York Police Department would allow the CCRB to prosecute all cases of police misconduct that its investigators have substantiated. Those cases are currently prosecuted by NYPD attorneys.

Under the agreement, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly would retain complete autonomy over the final punishment of officers found guilty. But if Mr. Kelly decides to impose a lower level of discipline than the CCRB or an administrative trial judge recommends, he now must provide a "detailed explanation of his reasons for doing so," the city said in a statement.

Linda Sachs, a spokeswoman for the CCRB, said the board recommended disciplinary action in about 137 of its cases involving approximately 195 officers a year, on average, over the past five years. The CCRB handles noncriminal complaints from the public of excessive police force, abuse of authority, discourtesy and offensive language.

“Public confidence in the disciplinary process will be strengthened.”

CCRB Chairman Daniel Chu called the agreement "a milestone in the history of civilian police oversight in New York City."

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said the shift in authority to the CCRB "will provide significant improvement in police accountability and transparency in the civilian complaint review process."

The Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, however, questioned the fairness of the new powers. "Our problem with CCRB has always been, first, their predisposition that police officers are always wrong, second, their inexperienced investigators who conduct faulty investigations that arrive at improper conclusions, and now those wrong conclusions will be prosecuted at these kangaroo trials," said PBA president Patrick J. Lynch.

The NYPD has come under fire in recent months for its stop and frisk policy, which involves stopping people who police say raised suspicion of a crime. There were more than 684,000 stops in 2011, a record. Mr. Kelly has defended the practice, saying it has reduced crime and taken guns and drugs off the streets. But critics say minorities, who account for almost 90% of the stops, are unfairly targeted.

Police have also had numerous clashes with Occupy Wall Street protesters, including some violent confrontations that have been recorded and posted online. Some City Council members have called for more oversight of the department in the wake of those incidents.

Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, called the CCRB agreement "a good first step toward reform, but much more needs to be done, starting with creating a real system of NYPD oversight and curbing stop and frisk."

The CCRB, in its current form, was created in 1993 as an independent agency to investigate police misconduct. But it has been plagued by funding and staffing shortages.

Mr. Dunn said he believes that there are benefits in the CCRB having the authority to prosecute its own cases, such as boosting public confidence in the system. "Police prosecuting themselves is a non-starter for most people," he said. "Just the fact that they are not the police department helps," he said.

Mr. Kelly retains significant power under the agreement. He will be able to "exercise discretion" to stop the CCRB from pursuing cases that are either undergoing parallel criminal investigations or in which the officer in question has no prior disciplinary record.

In 2001, with talk of a potential federal civil-rights probe into the NYPD, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani signed a similar agreement expanding the CCRB's powers. However, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association was able to prevent the agreement following a court challenge.

And this isn't the first time that the CCRB has prosecuted its substantiated cases.

In 2011, a pilot program called the Administrative Prosecution Unit allowed CCRB lawyers to both prosecute and plea bargain cases. Between last May and November, the CCRB prosecuted three of its cases. Funding for the program was then cut. The funding was later restored but the lawyer appointed to the position had moved to another job within the agency. So for the past five months the CCRB has not prosecuted any of its own cases.

Ms. Sachs, the CCRB spokeswoman, said that the board will need to hire several additional attorneys and investigators. She said it is attempting to determine how many.

She didn't know how much funding the city will provide the CCRB in connection with its expanded responsibilities. City officials didn't release the memorandum of understanding on Tuesday.

—Michael Howard Saul contributed to this article.

Write to Sean Gardiner at sean.gardiner@wsj.com