Gotham Gazette

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Under the Hood at Agencies, Investigation Department Increases Policy Focus

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Department of Investigation ad (photo via DOI)

Formed in the 1870s, the city’s Department of Investigation (DOI) is a law enforcement agency tasked with keeping city government honest. Run well, DOI acts as a safeguard against fraud, abuse, and neglect in municipal government, an advocate for taxpayers, and an enforcer of ethics.

In 2013, then Mayor Michael Bloomberg described the agency as a "vigilant watchdog," and a "national leader in promoting transparency, efficiency, and accountability in government."

While DOI is often responsible for arresting bad actors in city government, its long-term impact is best seen in its investigative reports, policy recommendations, and follow through ensuring that agencies implement suggested reforms. As with many types of government reports, though, it is not always easily evident what type of oversight DOI provides to see that its recommendations are indeed implemented.

DOI has unlimited power to investigate any city agency, officer, elected employee, contractor, and those who receive city benefits: its jurisdiction spans 45 mayoral agencies and various other city entities, boards, and commissions. Through its subpoena power and by maintaining a working relationship with agencies under investigation, DOI has access to information and resources that can produce lasting reform.

Often, DOI investigations result in criminal prosecution. In the 2015 calendar year, DOI made 569 arrests from over 1,500 investigations, and received over 700 criminal prosecution referrals, nearly double the number from the prior year, as previously reported by Gotham Gazette. This data is from the tenure of DOI Commissioner Mark G. Peters, who was nominated to the position by Mayor Bill de Blasio and confirmed by the City Council early in 2014 despite some concerns about the fact that Peters had worked on de Blasio’s campaign.

Under Peters, DOI has focused less on arrests and more on investigations and reports to identify root causes of malfeasance or ineffectiveness and push comprehensive reform. "DOI, in the last two years, instead of being a reactive agency, which tended to react to complaints and react to tips coming in, has now become a proactive agency," Peters said at a March City Council budget hearing. The office’s capacity and budget have expanded under Peters.

The key feature of DOI reports are Policy and Procedure Recommendations (PPRs). PPRs identify relevant violations, neglect, and criminal activity, and propose solutions to the agency under investigation.

A typical PPR recommends the sharing of data analytics or internal reports to ensure that recommendations are being met. Some task agencies to provide employee training to close loopholes that led to the infractions at hand. A PPR usually prompts an official response from the agency under investigation, which details steps taken to address DOI recommendations, and any areas of disagreement.

Inspector generals, grouped by category (i.e. social services, uniform services) are responsible for monitoring PPRs; there are separate inspector generals for NYCHA, NYPD, the New York City Housing Development Corporation, and New York City Health + Hospitals. Commissioner Peters meets with his inspector generals for each agency every three weeks, according to comments made at a March hearing of the City Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations, which has oversight of DOI.

According to DOI, in fiscal year 2016, which ended June 30, it issued 693 PPRs with an implementation rate of 81%, up from the 74% implementation rate in fiscal year 2015. The number of PPRs was a 87% increase from the year before, DOI said.

"We have not, in the past, been as good at tracking compliance as I would like to be," Peters admitted at the same City Council hearing, noting that DOI was improving internal protocols.

IGs are responsible for monitoring DOI-issued timelines and delivering regular reports to the commissioner. Data collection plays an important role in this process, as does more regular tracking. According to Nicole Turso, the DOI press secretary, data that tracked progress had been updated only once a year, resulting in a lower implementation rate.

DOI has no legal authority to force agencies to accept the terms of PPRs, however, DOI typically has city government on their side. In some cases, the Mayor's insistence pressures agencies to adopt PPRs. In others, the agency in question will adopt recommendations to avoid public backlash. DOI also relies on the fact that compliance typically benefits both parties: there is a strong mutual interest in enacting reform. Still, agency pushback to DOI is not uncommon, especially during the initial investigatory phase.

"When you do the type of work that we do, there's always a certain amount of friction. But, having said that, we're all in it for the greater good,” said Turso, about city employees across agencies, in an interview with Gotham Gazette. “We're all out for integrity and good government. We parse through the difficulties that we have and make it work."

Turso pointed to the recent Rivington House investigation as a prominent exception to this rule.

In March of 2016, the de Blasio administration was found to have signed off on a series of decisions that led to the conversion of a Lower East Side nursing home into a new apartment building of market-rate condominiums. A DOI investigation into the process had already begun, as de Blasio officials had recognized mistakes made and notified the agency.

DOI investigations include virtually unfettered access to government documents. But in July, the Daily News reported that the mayor’s team withheld a memo revealing prior knowledge of the sale that appeared to compromise some of the accounting of how key decisions were made in removing deed restrictions from the Rivington House property and its subsequent sale. When DOI issued its initial report on the matter, it cited restrictions to its access to de Blasio administration documents and computers.

After DOI threatened litigation against the Law Department, according to DOI only then did the Law Department produce documents previously classified as irrelevant.

The Daily News reported that this refusal to cooperate was nearly unprecedented, citing that no DOI commissioner had been forced to threaten litigation under the Dinkins, Giuliani, and Bloomberg administrations.

Outside of the Rivington case, which was a very public embarrassment for the de Blasio administration, DOI reports mostly strong communication and efficiency in their collaborations with city agencies.

DOI investigations vary in nature, and three 2015 cases show the scope of the agency’s oversight: the first involves fraud within the Human Resources Administration (HRA); the second, negligence by the Department of Homeless Services (DHS); and the third, lack of accountability at the New York Police Department (NYPD) around the use of chokeholds prior the death of Eric Garner.

While DOI provided insights into the three case studies selected by Gotham Gazette for this article, it did not respond when asked for a variety of details about how DOI representatives ensure compliance with PPRs on a daily basis, or track them. 

Human Resources Administration Fraud
In December 2015, the Human Resources Administration alerted DOI of internal fraud, leading to the arrest of one current and one former HRA employee on charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. The culprits exploited a vulnerable computerized case management system and used benefit issuance procedures to steer $2.4 million to themselves and associates using Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards.

In order to investigate and prosecute these cases, DOI joined forces with HRA, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, the FBI, the New York State Office of the Inspector General, and the Richmond County District Attorney’s Office.

In October, DOI Commissioner Peters announced the sentencing of one former HRA employee to 23 months in federal prison for her role in schemes totaling approximately $1.8 million, including the purchase of $120,000 worth of Red Bull, later pawned off to small retail locations.

Following its investigations, DOI issued a series of recommendations to HRA. These included the design and implementation of a secured, electronic, fraud report system. DOI also recommended an increased supervisory review of cases and frequency of training, and the design and implementation of a comprehensive EBT fraud identification training program.

In its report, DOI commended HRA for taking immediate action to implement recommendations, including an agreement to enhance controls to monitor program vulnerabilities. Most importantly, HRA would continue sharing data analytics with DOI and continue collaboration to develop new strategies.

As of November, DOI reports that each reform timeline has been met.

HRA spokesperson Lourdes Centeno emphasized the two agencies’ strong relationship to Gotham Gazette. "HRA has a long-standing partnership with the Department of Investigations,” Centeno said, “and we value their assistance in adjusting instances of potential staff misconduct interagency."

Department of Homeless Services Shelter Conditions
In March 2015, DOI announced that a year-long investigation of 25 DHS-operated shelters revealed serious health and safety violations, a lack of social service programs, and inadequate or missing certificates of occupancy. The shelters provided housing for approximately 2,000 homeless New Yorkers.

In the report, Peters explained that the investigation was requested by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who came into office with about 51,000 people sleeping in city shelters (the number has since grown to about 60,000).

DOI reached its conclusions by reviewing records, interviewing shelter residents, and collaborating with inspectors from the Department of Buildings, Fire Department, and Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Upon DOI review, 621 building, housing, and fire safety violations were issued, including accounts of vermin infestations, blocked or obstructed entrances and exits, and nonworking smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

DOI also discovered that DHS had not, for years, used the city's contracting process to secure providers, and was not enforcing existing contracts, eroding an important check that holds providers accountable for failing to meet health and safety standards.

Providers include faith-based non-profits like Volunteers of America, as well as organizations like the Women’s Prison Association, which serve groups like families affected by maternal incarceration, and others, including private landlords.

“Dangerous living conditions, rat-and-roach infested residences. And fire violations are the stark reality facing too many homeless families and children in the City’s shelters,” Peters noted in the DOI report.

Giselle Routhier, policy director at Coalition for the Homeless, said no one should underestimate the importance of building maintenance in providing shelter for homeless people and the role of shelter in helping people return to stable housing. "Poor conditions are problematic for very obvious reasons. There are health and safety issues—families are concerned whether roofs are caving in, versus actually being able to focus on getting the kids to school and getting out of shelter," Routhier said in an interview. "One of the best ways to make sure that you have a system that is capable of being operated with the proper oversight of conditions is to not always be concerned about having enough capacity," she said. "When capacity gets tight, everything else kind of false to the wayside."

The de Blasio administration has consistently struggled with several elements of combatting homelessness, in part due to the city's affordable housing crisis that leads to shelters busting at the seams. There are challenges with not only the conditions at shelters, but with helping to keep people in their homes through rental assistance and working with those ready to leave shelters on using vouchers to help pay for rent in stable housing. The administration has also seen significant community pushback to its efforts to open new shelters.

The essence of the DOI report, echoed in a damning December 2015 audit from city Comptroller Scott Stringer, was the deplorable shelter conditions. The two reports prompted significant city action, including the creation of a new shelter repair squad. The Department of Homeless Services’ Shelter Repair Squad has worked to aggressively address building violations, with significant progress, though many shelter issues remain.

“Being homeless is tough enough – no one in shelters, particularly children, should have to endure poor or unsafe living conditions,” said Mayor de Blasio in a May 2015 announcement of the shelter repair squad launch.

DHS pledged to bring in new shelter capacity through the city's procurement process. Lauren Gray, senior communications advisor at DHS, told Gotham Gazette that the agency has announced a commitment to increase the number of shelters city-wide as the administration transitions to a "borough approach" to help homeless individuals and families stay closer to their communities, jobs, and support networks. A more local approach is something de Blasio has recently promised as he has seen pushback to shelter siting plans in several neighborhoods.

DOI was especially critical of cluster sites, privately-owned residential buildings that the city has paid up to $3,500 a month to maintain the notoriously inadequate shelters. In January, 2016, de Blasio announced a three-year plan to phase out cluster sites completely, in coordination with DHS.

As 2016 nears an end, Gray reports that approximately half of the more than 1,700 cluster units have already been brought under contract. She also said that, as of mid-October, the shelter repair squad has helped see to “a 75% reduction in cluster unit violations since January 2016." 

As of November, DOI reports that each reform timeline has been met by DHS relative to the PPR from the March 2015 DOI investigation. 

NYPD Chokeholds & Accountability
On July 17, 2014, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo placed Eric Garner in a chokehold, a maneuver forbidden by section 203-11 of the NYPD patrol guide, leading to Garner’s death. The confrontation, caught on video, spurred public fury, fueling the national debate about excessive force by police officers, quality-of-life policing, and relations between law enforcement and communities of color.

On December 3, 2014, a Staten Island grand jury declined to issue an indictment of Pantaleo, or other officers on the scene.

In January 2015, the DOI Office of Inspector General for the NYPD (OIG-NYPD) published its first-ever report, an investigation into the NYPD's management of improper use of force violations.

OIG-NYPD aimed to shed light on how frequently officers were using chokeholds, why they were doing so, and what discipline was imposed on those who violated the prohibition. In order to review comparable use of force violations, OIG-NYPD conducted reviews of ten chokehold cases substantiated by The Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) between 2009 at 2014. The CCRB is the civilian panel that reviews allegations against police officers in New York City.

Use of force complaints are investigated by CCRB. Cases, if substantiated, would move, with recommendations, to the NYPD, which determines discipline. In DOI-reviewed incidents, CCRB recommended the most severe level of discipline in nine out of ten cases with a substantiated chokehold.

Next, NYPD's Department Advocate's Office (DAO), responsible for prosecuting substantiated use of force cases, downgraded seven of CCRB's recommendations, proposing the least punitive disciplinary measure in four, and no discipline in another.

Ray Kelly, police commissioner from 1992-1994 and 2002 through 2013, was tasked with making a final determination. Kelly sided with DAO and rejected six CCRB recommendations, opting each time for less severe penalties or no discipline at all. The commissioner provided no explanation for his decisions.

In sum, DOI found that CCRB's input was barely heard, if at all. By the time cases reached the police commissioner's desk, CCRB disciplinary recommendations had been watered down substantially, if not completely.

Peters summarized this point in the DOI report, citing “the extent to which the NYPD has disregarded disciplinary recommendations from the Civilian Complaint Review Board and thus minimized the role of the central body tasked with investigating individual cases of police misconduct.” 

"There is no indication from the records reviewed that NYPD seriously contemplated CCRB's disciplinary recommendations or that CCRB's input added any value to the disciplinary process," another section of the DOI report reads.

OIG-NYPD found that CCRB and NYPD measured accountability by different standards: CCRB, "an investigative agency," substantiated cases specifically on "credible evidence:" video footage, third-party witnesses and officer records indicated harmful contact. DAO, a “prosecutorial unit," defined chokeholds through “contextual” evaluations: circumstantial evidence, personnel history, and the viability of future prosecution.

As a result, OIG-NYPD found that the two groups were operating with different guidelines, and, likely, agendas.

OIG-NYPD evaluated NYPD's training for officer communication and de-escalation tactics. In several cases reviewed, OIG-NYPD found that NYPD officers had used chokeholds as a first act of physical force in response to "verbal resistance," making little attempt to resolve the encounter through nonviolent means.

In the NYPD response to OIG-NYPD recommendations, Deputy Commissioner Lawrence Byrne touted the new “Remand" process requiring NYPD to issue formal written requests for penalty reconsiderations, upon disagreement with CCRB. A 2016 OIG-NYPD assessment labeled this reform "partially implemented," citing that NYPD had yet to adopt a more transparent disciplinary process alongside CCRB.

In the same response, Byrne announced that the NYPD had instituted a three-day refresher tactical training program to promote nonviolent resolution, designed to reach 20,000 officers out on patrol, and, “eventually,” all 35,000 uniformed service members.

Citizens Union, a government reform group, recently released an agenda for improved police accountability and included in it a more transparent process around the NYPD commissioner’s reaction to CCRB recommendations. Citizens Union also argues that CCRB should be the “primary finder of fact in cases it investigates, except in cases of clear error."

Byrne emphasizes NYPD autonomy. “We agree with your observation that no definitive conclusions can or should be drawn from such a limited universe of cases, nor do we believe it is useful to revisit the factual circumstances,” Byrne wrote to DOI. “While we are fully committed to increasing the collaboration between the NYPD and the CCRB, as you note in your report, the Police Commissioner continues to retain the final authority and complete discretion to make all judgments about internal discipline,” he also said.

DOI successfully pressured the commissioner into providing public rationale for his decisions. In a 2015 annual report, OIG-NYPD said that the commissioner had agreed to write explanations to CCRB for any decisions that "deviate downward" from original recommendations. The recommendation was deemed “implemented.”

While NYPD has met certain DOI timelines, there are also ongoing related concerns.

On the day following the release of the inaugural 2015 OIG-NYPD report, Mayor de Blasio vowed to veto legislation that would make the use of chokeholds by officers a misdemeanor offense. However, according to a Daily News report, a new set of June patrol guidelines stipulate specific circumstances that a banned chokehold can be excused if the Use of Force Review board determines that the officer’s actions were "reasonable and justified.” The Daily News reported that City Hall claims the new guidelines are clarifying determinations of excessive force, and there is no change to the chokehold ban.

City Council Member Rory Lancman, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Courts and Legal Services and sponsors the chokehold misdemeanor bill, thinks otherwise. In an interview, Lancman admonished de Blasio for liberalizing the previously absolute chokehold ban.

“The mayor has made it clear that he is not going to push the police department to reform how it holds officers accountable to use chokeholds, and if anything the mayor allowed the NYPD to loosen the restriction on chokeholds, so I think it sends a signal to police officers that the chokehold ban is not really a ban,” Lancman said. “Even if a conclusion is reached that you use a chokehold improperly, the consequences are minimal.”

The mayor’s office has pushed back on such characterizations, citing de Blasio’s effort to enforce new trainings for all NYPD officers, reduce the use of stop-and-frisk, and institute neighborhood policing.

by Benjamin Jurney for Gotham Gazette

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