Police Commissioner James O'Neill appointed the panel reviewing the disciplinary process. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
Critics of the NYPD’s handling of disciplinary cases want a panel reviewing the system to give the task to an outside agency.
But moving NYPD administrative trials to the Office of Trials and Hearings — which conducts hearings for all city workers except police officers and teachers — would face multiple hurdles, including either a legal change, or deputizing the agency’s judge to preside over NYPD trials.
The panel reviewing the disciplinary process was appointed by Police Commissioner James O’Neill last June following an explosive series of Daily News stories about deep flaws and a lack of transparency in the system.
The panel will present its report to O’Neill next month.
Civil rights lawyer Joel Berger argues that the Office of Trials and Hearings should take over the NYPD disciplinary process because its administrative law judges are “totally independent from the NYPD.”
“No one from the first deputy commissioner's office or the police commissioner’s office is going to make a phone call and say, ‘Hey, I think you should go easy on this guy,’” Berger said. “Right now, the PD controls the whole process.”
To be sure, the Office of Trials and Hearings, does not have the final say on discipline. That is left to various agency heads. Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro for instance, for firefighters accused of misconduct.
But City Councilman Donovan Richards (D-Queens), who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said a layer of oversight independent of the NYPD would go a long way to winning back the public’s trust — which he noted is a hallmark of O’Neill’s administration.
Another civil rights lawyer, Earl Ward, who is a former Civilian Complaint Review Board member, said there is no reason why police discipline shouldn’t be handled by OATH.
“This whole thing harkens back to why the CCRB was created, this notion that police should not be policing the police,” Ward said. “And yet in many cases, they still are.”
For a short time during the Giuliani administration, there were a handful of NYPD cases handled by the Office of Trials and Hearings as part of a memorandum of understanding between police and the CCRB.
But the PBA sued, and an appeals court agreed that giving OATH the authority to conduct hearings that could result in a cop’s firing violated Local Law 891. The CCRB was years later given prosecutorial power, but those cases, as all others, are heard at One Police Plaza.
The three-member panel is also hearing suggestions that safeguards be added to the current system to keep the process free from politics and meddling.
Martin Karopkin, a former NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Trials, said the trials deputy commissioner should once again be allowed to review plea deals — a practice ended in 2014.
“If a plea came in and the penalty seemed inappropriately lenient, I recommended that the police commissioner disapprove it,” Karopkin said. “In the eight years I was there, I do not recall a single case in which the police commissioner approved a plea deal I felt carried an inadequate penalty.”
The NYPD’s top spokesman, Deputy Commissioner Phil Walzak, countered that removing the deputy commissioner of trials from the plea process was done to speed up cases and reduce the case backlog — and that the official still reviews cases prosecuted at One Police Plaza by the CCRB. Walzak added the NYPD “looks forward to the critical insight the panel will provide on how to further strengthen our disciplinary system.”
Addressing a major point of concern — that NYPD disciplinary decisions are shielded from public scrutiny by Section 50-a of the state civil rights law — Christopher Dunn, associate legal director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said all cases before the Office of Trials and Hearings are a matter of public record.
“This would help put an end to NYPD brass being able to manipulate the disciplinary process and help restore public confidence that officers will not be able to get away with serious misconduct,” Dunn said.
Regardless, police critics suspect 50-a may be amended or repealed now that Democrats control the state Senate.
“I think 50-a is dead,” Berger predicted. “Somehow, cops get special protection nobody else in society has, when in fact, cops have more power over people than other civil servants have.
“That makes absolutely no sense.”