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July 14, 2022, 5:01 AM

Police watchdog agency weighs rule changes that would expand its power to investigate misconduct

By Samantha Max

New York City’s police watchdog agency is considering rule changes that would drastically expand its powers to investigate allegations of officer misconduct.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) is currently limited in the types of cases it can probe. The agency’s rules allow investigations into just a handful of potential New York Police Department policy violations: excessive force, abuse of authority, discourtesy, offensive language and untruthful statements made during investigations.

A new proposal, discussed at the board’s monthly meeting Wednesday, would expand that list. If approved, the CCRB would also be allowed to look into claims of bias-based policing and racial profiling, as well as improper use of body cameras. The rule changes would also permit the board to initiate investigations into officers’ actions even when no one has filed a complaint.

The City Council has already paved the way for the proposed changes through local laws.

The adjustments would bring the decades-old board on par with similar bodies that have been created across the country in recent years, said Andrew Case, senior counsel at the advocacy group LatinoJustice and a former communications and policy director for the CCRB.

“Most newer boards have broader authority,” he said. “So, all of this cleaning up of what the CCRB investigates and saying, ‘Yes, this is within our jurisdiction. Yes, we can make a finding on that,’ is really just keeping the agency up to date with the times as civilian oversight evolves.”

The police union, on the other hand, called the suggested changes “unnecessary power-grabs.”

“While New Yorkers are demanding more investments in public safety, CCRB is pumping even more taxpayer dollars into its activist campaign to kneecap the NYPD – and unfortunately they’re succeeding,” Police Benevolent Association Patrick J. Lynch said in a statement to Gothamist. “Cops know they won’t get ‘fair and impartial’ treatment from CCRB. It’s one more reason they’re quitting in droves.”

Bias-based policing and racial profiling

One major change the board is proposing would allow investigations into bias-based policing and racial profiling. More simply put, the agency would be able to look into whether an officer took action based on a person’s race, gender, housing status or other aspects of their identity. If an officer had committed a “severe act of bias,” such as an act of bias that causes death or sexual misconduct, investigators would be permitted to review the officer’s history, to look for patterns of similar behavior. In particularly egregious cases, off-duty conduct would also trigger an investigation into past conduct.

A 2019 Department of Investigation examination found the NYPD had not substantiated a single claim of bias-based policing since the department started to track those complaints in 2014. It also recommended that the CCRB broaden its scope to take on those types of investigations.

“Biased policing, actual or perceived, undermines the core value of equal treatment under the law and also poses a threat to public safety because racial profiling and other types of biased policing undermine the public’s confidence and trust in law enforcement,” Inspector General Philip Eure said in the report. “NYPD must ensure that these complaints are thoroughly investigated and tracked. In addition, the independent CCRB should expand its authority to investigate biased policing complaints filed with that agency.”

The City Council granted the CCRB the power to investigate bias and racial profiling last year, when it passed a local law to amend the city’s charter. Now, the board needs to formalize the update in its own rules.

The CCRB has hired the prominent civil rights attorney Darius Charney to run the new unit that will investigate allegations of bias and racial profiling. Charney played a leading role in Floyd v. City of New York, the lawsuit that uncovered widespread discrimination and constitutional violations in the police department’s use of stop-question-and-frisk.

In a memorandum, Charney noted that concerns about discrimination and use of force against Black and Latino communities “greatly influenced” the creation of the current iteration of the CCRB nearly three decades ago.

“Moreover, placing racial profiling and biased policing complaints under CCRB’s jurisdiction aligns with all the other independent police oversight agencies associated with the twenty largest U.S. police departments, each of which investigates biased policing complaints,” he wrote.

Body cameras

Another change would expand the board’s definition of abuse of authority, to allow for investigations into officers’ improper use of their body cameras. The NYPD patrol guide requires officers to activate their cameras while performing many of their duties, including before responding to potential crimes and during interactions that could become “adversarial.”

In a memorandum explaining the proposal, the CCRB noted the importance of body camera footage for oversight and the impact footage has played in the agency’s ability to investigate cases in recent years. The memo also noted that officers often misuse their cameras – either turning them on too late, switching them off too early or neglecting to activate them altogether.

Misuse of body cameras can result in discipline ranging from informal instruction to 30 penalty days, according to the police department’s disciplinary matrix. The CCRB referred more than 400 such cases to the NYPD in 2020 and 2021. About 60% have resulted in some form of discipline, according to the CCRB’s memorandum.

In a letter to the CCRB obtained by Gothamist, the NYPD objected to the agency’s proposal to investigate body camera violations, calling it “misguided” and a “substantial overreach.”

CCRB-initiated investigations

For years, only victims or witnesses of alleged police misconduct could file complaints with the CCRB. Without a complaint from someone directly involved, the agency had no power to launch an investigation

Several years back, the board moved to expand the parameters somewhat, to allow those who witness potential misconduct on social media to file complaints. For instance, someone who watched a recording of a shooting by a police officer on Twitter would be allowed to flag the case for the CCRB.

The police union has challenged the rule change, as well as updates to allow investigations into sexual misconduct, in lawsuits. The courts ultimately upheld both.

Now, the CCRB wants to be able to launch its own investigations when it is concerned about officer conduct, even when no complaint has been filed. The City Council passed a bill granting the agency permission to do so last year.

The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, which recommends best practices for oversight boards across the country, notes that some other agencies can already initiate their own probes. Nashville, Tennessee’s Community Oversight Board, for instance, allows the executive director to open investigations, which often occurs after a shooting by police.

Community weighs in

Some questions and concerns about the suggested rule changes arose during the board meeting.

Several board members wondered how investigations into officers’ records in cases of bias-based policing would fit within the CCRB’s statute of limitations. The board can only investigate complaints filed within 18 months of an officers’ alleged misconduct, with a few exceptions. A 2021 city law that the CCRB is moving to adopt now would allow the agency to review five years of officers’ history in some cases.

Public officials, police oversight advocates and community members also had the chance to weigh in on the proposed updates. Most expressed support.

“Allowing the CCRB to investigate these claims of racism and other biases against police officers will enable the public to know that these officers are not able to engage in these sorts of behaviors with impunity,” said Bronx Borough President Vanessa L. Gibson, who sponsored the bill to allow investigations into biased policing and racial profiling while serving in the City Council. “This is especially important for vulnerable BIPOC communities, low income communities that have often and historically been targeted by unfair police practices over the years.”

The board is expected to vote on the suggested changes later this year.