Issue of the Week

Going Through the Motions: Commissioner Safir and the CCRB

by Jerome Chou

When it comes to police brutality, one good thing you can say about New York is at least it's not L.A. In a scandal still unfolding, LAPD officers patrolling one of the city's largest immigrant communities have admitted to shooting innocent victims, beating suspects, and planting evidence - abuses that went unpunished for years. It's a nightmare scenario, but the basic question that now emerges is one that pertains to cities across the country: What's the best way to ensure effective, independent review of police conduct?

Local governments seem to have caught on to the common complaint "You can't trust the police to police themselves." More than thirty of the largest U.S. cities have now implemented some form of independent civilian review. Being "independent" of the police department, however, is often a quixotic task, as the NYC Civilian Complaint Review Board illustrates. To be a successful oversight agency, the CCRB depends on the police department's cooperation. At this point, they clearly don't have it.

Officially, Police Commissioner Howard Safir says the CCRB has improved its work and its relationship to the NYPD. But in his dealings with the board, Commissioner Safir has practiced a policy of what might be called scornful compliance: do only what you absolutely have to do, and make them crawl for it. According to an NYCLU report, of some 1500 substantiated complaints forwarded to the Commissioner since 1996, only 371 resulted in an officer being punished. Nearly half of the substantiated cases remained unresolved by the department, with no explanation by the Commissioner. Review board members have difficulty getting phone calls returned by the department or simple requests - some of them months old - answered.

Cynical observers might shrug at hearing that the Commissioner is less than helpful when it comes to punishing officers. More troubling is the quiet compliance of the civilian review's board members, led by Board chairman Frank Wohl. Mayor Giuliani appointed Wohl in September 1998, "a pivotal moment," according to the board's own reports, as the CCRB resolved to dedicate itself to "maximizing [its] overall impact." But if the agency's public hearings are any indication, the notion of "impact" has long since expired for its board members. At their last public hearing, earlier this month, most of the discussion was devoted to exchanging procedural, hair-splitting comments. Asked by an audience member about Commissioner Safir's failure to act on a significant number of cases substantiated by the board, Chairman Wohl said with an equal mix of resignation and impatience, "We don't have a legal right to do anything."

Even with the best efforts of its staff or individual board members, CCRB's problems are deeply embedded. Some criminal justice experts argue that after-the-fact, your-word-against-mine investigations simply don't address underlying policies within the police department. The NYPD's "stop-and-frisk" policy that allows police officers enormous leeway in searching people on the street does not change no matter how many complaints the CCRB settles. Only a tragedy on a scale of Amadou Diallo's death gave the Commissioner pause. "Smart police chiefs favor civilian review," says NYU Law Professor Paul Chevigny, author of a comparative study of police brutality throughout North America. "It helps community relations, and it doesn't make any damn difference."

Ideally, Chevigny says, an independent oversight agency would combine the functions of civilian review and auditing, or identifying patterns of poor management. Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer has recommended tying the CCRB's budget and staff size to the police department's. In San Francisco, the Office of Civilian Complaints must have one full-time investigator for every 150 sworn officers; following that ratio, Mayor Giuliani would have to add more than 150 investigators to the CCRB staff. The NYCLU has called for giving the CCRB the power to prosecute officers, a strategy implemented in Ontario that was quickly shot down by a powerful police union.

None of these measures, however, can substitute for a commanding officer committed to upholding civil rights and a clean police department. All rhetoric aside, those individuals are very hard to find.

Jerome Chou is a staff reporter for the Gotham Gazette.