It has been a winter of reckoning for the NYPD. Last December, Justin Volpe pleaded guilty to sodomizing Abner Louima. A second trial in the Louima case is drawing to a close in Brooklyn, while in Albany a jury debates the sentence for the officers charged with the murder of Amadou Diallo.
Whatever the fates of these individual officers may be, the larger question remains: How do you police the police? For decades, the NYPD relied on an internal review process run by police officials and investigators. Responding to public pressure, the City Council in 1993 established the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), the first police oversight agency in NYC to be independent of the NYPD.
In addition to reviewing police policies, the CCRB's main task is to respond to complaints. More than 100 investigators interview complainants, witnesses, and police officers; subpoena evidence from the police department; and submit reports to a thirteen-member board. These members (all appointed by the Mayor) are empowered to recommend punishment to the Commissioner, who makes final decisions in each case. The board itself cannot mete out any punishment.
You'd be hard pressed to find a more beleaguered city agency than the CCRB, or one with a more difficult mission. In its first five years, the review board received more than 25,000 complaints of police misconduct. To investigate these charges, CCRB staff must contend not only with the infamous "blue wall of silence," but also with opposition from the Commissioner's Office and City Hall.
Since the Diallo and Louima incidents, the Mayor and Commissioner Safir have publicly softened their stance, and an increased budget ($7.4 million in 1999, up more than $2 million from 1998) has allowed the CCRB to bolster its staff. But recent reports from the NYCLU highlight the agency's shortcomings: since 1996, only about 1 in 4 cases of misconduct substantiated by the CCRB resulted in punishment, and no record exists for exactly what punishment was handed down.
Across the country, civilian review boards have struggled to establish a strong watchdog presence. In New York's current political climate, that may simply be too much to ask.
BEHIND THE SCENES:
Gotham Gazette reporter Jerome Chou on the inner workings of the CCRB, and why as an oversight mechanism, it's doomed to mediocrity.
Is there police brutality in your neighborhood?
CCRB homepage - Contains bare bones information about the agency and instructions on filing a complaint form (including an online version), though little else. More useful are the extremely informative semiannual reports (since 1998) and transcripts from monthly board meetings.
Mayor Giuliani - At this September 1997 press conference, even as he announced additional funding and personnel for CCRB, the Mayor reiterated his support for internal review only.
"Five Years of Civilian Review: A Mandate Unfulfilled," New York Civil Liberties Union - Tracking the CCRB's performance from 1993-1998, this report calls for a CCRB legal unit to prosecute police officers and for the Police Commissioner to disclose exactly what punishment officers receive for misconduct.
"Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States of America," Human Rights Watch - Their 1998 report includes profiles on police oversight in NYC and around the country. Their findings? The grass isn't greener anywhere else.
41 Shots - This anti-police brutality advocacy site offers a helpful explanation of the CCRB, with a healthy dose of editorializing.