Hundreds of cases alleging misconduct by NYPD officers have been closed without action taken because Commissioner Keechant Sewell and other department brass let the statute of limitations expire, according to a report released Thursday by the Legal Aid Society.
Relying on data obtained under state freedom of information laws, Legal Aid said that Sewell set aside or recommended lesser discipline than that requested by the Civilian Complaint Review Board on at least 425 civilian complaints in 2022, higher than the 346 disclosed in December by the NYPD.
The results show that the department has disregarded civilian oversight of police misconduct and its own disciplinary matrix, according to Legal Aid. The disciplinary matrix is a form of sentencing guidelines, enacted by the NYPD and the CCRB.
Under state law, the statute of limitations for police disciplinary cases lasts 18 months, although it was suspended during the height of the pandemic by executive order before being reinstated around May 2022.
In a statement, Maggie Hadley, a special fellow of the Legal Aid Society, said departures from the discipline matrix and faulty reasoning suggest a disregard by the NYPD for the goals of the guidelines.
“This further erodes public trust in the NYPD’s disciplinary system," Hadley said, "and we demand immediate action by City Hall to ensure that Commissioner Sewell ceases to abuse her discretion to undermine discipline."
The NYPD, in its own statement, said the vast majority of cases set aside or modified by Sewell resulted from the CCRB's inefficiency in filing the complaints with the department before the statute expired.
“The cases were closed after the CCRB failed to provide these 346 cases to the NYPD within a reasonable time period before the expiration of the statute of limitations,” the department said in a statement. The NYPD did not comment on the additional cases mentioned in the report.
Some cases investigated by the CCRB during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic were turned over to Sewell about two weeks before the limitation expired, NYPD officials said. That period was too short for Sewell to make a reasonable determination on whether the charge should be sustained, the officials said.
The NYPD did not provide specifics on which CCRB cases pushed the deadline.
The board was empowered in 1993 to investigate civilian complaints of police abuse of authority, improper use of force and discourtesy, among other matters. In City Council hearings CCRB officials have testified about being understaffed, including in 2020 when the death of George Floyd led to anti-police demonstrations across New York City and a flood of new abuse allegations.
The CCRB, which has repeatedly pushed for final authority over police discipline, and the NYPD, have sparred over what factors result in a substantiated allegation of police misconduct. Currently, once the CCRB recommends an officer be disciplined, the case can also include a recommendation for command discipline or instruction.
But in more serious cases that go to departmental trials, the CCRB recommends a loss of vacation days or termination. Often, department lawyers try the cases, but sometimes CCRB attorneys take over.
A Newsday review of department trials since Sewell took office in January 2022 showed that 50 cases resulted in guilty findings against cops. Department lawyers won convictions on one or more charges 94% of the time, while CCRB attorneys won in 54% of cases, the records showed. By November, records showed, Sewell reversed one guilty finding in a CCRB trial.
In a statement, Police Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch blasted the Legal Aid report, accusing the nonprofit of going on "a quest to strip away [Sewell’s] disciplinary authority and weaken the NYPD as a whole.”