(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)
Less than a week after arguments ended in the high-profile NYPD administrative trial of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the administration of Mayor de Blasio waged an effort to block a significant reform aimed at preventing and punishing lying by police officers during investigations of misconduct.
One commissioner on the 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission says members were contacted by a representative of the mayor in advance of a vote earlier this month on whether to move to the November election ballot a slate of proposals to modify the city charter, while the police department carried out a parallel campaign to sway commissioners, who are supposed to be independent of the elected officials who appoint them.
A spokesperson for de Blasio did not deny the effort, telling Gotham Gazette that the administration talks through all the issues with charter commissioners, including sharing concerns from city agencies.
The 15 commissioners on the 2019 commission, tasked with reviewing the city’s central governing laws and presenting proposed changes to voters, were appointed by the mayor, City Council, comptroller, public advocate, and borough presidents. After months of hearings and meetings, the commission recently met twice to vote on which proposals to advance to the ballot, selecting 20 in total.
One of the 20 proved especially controversial. It was the only one that was voted down during the first of the two recent meetings, but was then passed upon reevaluation at the second. It deals with strengthening the power of the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) to prosecute discipline charges when police officers lie during the course of investigations.
According to four charter revision commissioners Gotham Gazette spoke with, in the conversations ahead of the first meeting on June 12, administration and police representatives urged the commissioners to vote down the measure, “proposal 7,” which accountability advocates believe would significantly curtail officers’ ability to avoid scrutiny and discipline.
In public, however, the administration has maintained silence on the proposal to rein in police lying -- a practice that has been exposed in significant new detail in recent months by reporting by Gothamist and elsewhere -- and a spokesperson for the mayor told Gotham Gazette it is still in the process of official review.
The events shine a light on the mayor’s oft-criticized level of commitment to transparency and accountability with regard to police misconduct and efforts to reform the politically powerful police department.
Commissioner Sal Albanese, who twice voted against the charter proposal, told Gotham Gazette he was contacted by a representative of the de Blasio administration who told him the current apparatus to deal with false official statements is working well.
“The de Blasio administration made a very compelling case that the present system works. If an officer is accused or makes a false statement that they handle it, and if it’s serious it goes to the prosecutors. That was their position and it makes sense,” Albanese said, referring to the NYPD’s process of handling allegations of police lying internally. Albanese, a former City Council member and mayoral candidate, was appointed to the commission by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, himself a former NYPD officer and captain.
Probed further about contact from the de Blasio administration, Albanese said, “That’s their position. That’s the call I got from them, yeah.”
But in an email to Gotham Gazette Friday, Will Baskin-Gerwitz, a spokesperson for the mayor, wrote: “Mayor de Blasio has heard the informed opinions of CCRB and NYPD about the proposal, and he continues to review it in advance of the revision commission’s final vote in July.”
Albanese and six other commissioners, including all four appointed by de Blasio and the commissioner appointed by Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, originally voted against proposal 7 on June 12 at the first meeting where the commission took up potential charter amendments. The measure was the only one of the 18 considered by the 15-member body that was not passed that night.
Asked to comment on the mayoral appointees’ voting pattern at the June 12 vote, Commissioner Sateesh Nori, an appointee of former Public Advocate Letitia James, told Gotham Gazette, “I don’t know what happened exactly in their minds, and whether they voted individually or as a collective group, whether they represented anybody.”
“But they’re all respectable, straightforward people and I think hopefully they’ll change their minds, or enough of them will,” he said, referring to the possibility of revisiting the vote.
“I think that’s the only life and death issue that we’re dealing with here,” Nori said. “It’s deeply disappointing.”
In an unusual display of political metanoia, after speaking with representatives of the CCRB and hearing from police reformers including the mothers of men killed by police, charter revision commissioners moved to revisit proposal 7 at the June 18 hearing, and voted it ahead toward the ballot in November.
One mayoral appointee, Commissioner Carl Weisbrod, changed his vote to support the controversial measure. The other three affirmed commitments to police transparency and honesty but did not support codifying the measure to bring police lying under independent scrutiny.
The purpose of the June votes was to advance proposals from the commission staff to the commission’s final report, which members need to approve at the end of July before amendments can be placed on the ballot in November.
‘The only life and death issue’
False statements made by the police in the course of misconduct investigations are well-documented and have figured into some of the most serious cases of police brutality and corruption, including the trial of Daniel Pantaleo in the 2014 death of Eric Garner.
A number of versight entities have been created to address police misconduct, corruption, and mismanagement, each with a relatively narrow mandate to pursue aspects of departmental impropriety. Several of the reforms being weighed by the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, including the one that has apparently attracted the opposition of the administration, have to do with giving more teeth to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which is appointed by the mayor from a pool designated by the mayor, City Council, and police commissioner.
The CCRB is the principal entity charged with investigating civilian allegations of police misconduct when they fall into one of four categories, known as FADO: use of force, abuse of authority, discourtesy, and offensive language.
Currently, false testimony by the police to investigators falls outside the FADO categories, and as such cannot be the subject of investigations and disciplinary recommendations by the CCRB, which is an independent agency with the power to prosecute cases in administrative settings. Instead they must be referred to the police department to be dealt with internally, where allegations of lying are often downgraded or dismissed without repercussion.
A report in the New York Times last year found that of the 81 tracked cases of false statements referred to the police department by the CCRB since 2010 only two were affirmed by the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau. A “Blue Ribbon” panel appointed by NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill to recommend reforms to the department’s internal disciplinary system, in its final report in January, discussed a pervasive culture of “lax” or nonexistent responses to officers who lie to investigators about their and their colleagues’ actions.
In an email to Gotham Gazette, Sergeant Jessica McRorie, a spokesperson for the NYPD, said the department has “accepted all of the recommendations of the independent Blue Ribbon Panel on discipline.” McRorie made a distinction between “intentional or willfully false statements” -- which would immediately result in an investigation and potential disciplinary action -- and “unintentional inconsistent statements which are generally the result of insufficient preparation for testimony, in which case enhanced one-on-one training may be appropriate.”
The distinction did not resonate with some of the charter revision commissioners.
“I have to say that the argument that we should be giving the benefit of the doubt to police officers who cannot remember what they did in a situation of likely police misconduct and even violence,” in contrast with the treatment of people of color by police nationwide, “was infuriating to me,” Commissioner Alison Hirsh told Gotham Gazette. Hirsh, the political director at the powerful building services workers union, 32BJ SEIU, was appointed to the commission by Comptroller Scott Stringer.
To enhance the CCRB’s ability to check the powers of the police, many stakeholders have pushed for the expansion of FADO to include other types of misconduct like lying to investigators. The charter revision commission, which has the power to examine the entire City Charter and put amendments directly to voters via referendum, has attracted advocates eager to see reform to the NYPD, a less-than-transparent city department backed by influential political forces with a great deal of sway at City Hall.
Several of the commissioners, who saw the June 12 commission vote as an opportunity to advance police reforms, were surprised at proposal 7’s lone failure that night.
“Some of us left that meeting last week with our jaws dropped. Like, what happened, how did that happen?” Nori said. “We thought it was a close vote but we didn’t think it would be unsuccessful, and that was a huge shock.”
Several other commissioners who spoke with Gotham Gazette expressed the same sense of bewilderment.
That night, seven commissioners voted against proposal 7, including all four de Blasio appointees, as well as the commissioners appointed by borough presidents from the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. The commissioners chosen by the public advocate, comptroller, and Manhattan borough president, and two of the commissioners appointed by the City Council voted in favor. The remaining two City Council appointees abstained from voting, and the Queens Borough President’s appointee was absent because of a family emergency.
Four other proposals relating to the CCRB were voted ahead on June 12. If passed by voters in November, they will give other entities besides the mayor the authority to appoint members to the board; give the CCRB executive director subpoena power; guarantee a minimum budget for the agency; and require the police commissioner to provide an explanation when deviating from a CCRB disciplinary recommendation.
Charter revision commissions have historically been empaneled by mayors, as was the one that put proposals on the ballot last November. The current commission, however, was created through the City Council on the initiative of Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and then-Public Advocate Letitia James.
Its members were appointed by a mix of elected officials, with none appointing a majority: The mayor and City Council each chose four commissioners; the remaining seven were appointed by each borough president, the public advocate, and the city comptroller.
“It's important that no single official appoints a majority. Some previous charter reviews haven't been independent, instead dominated by appointees answering directly to mayors,” wrote Brewer and James in an op-ed announcing their plan.
Following the June 12 failure of proposal 7, a counter effort was waged among some of the commissioners sympathetic to the arguments of police reformers to revisit the “no” vote.
“The police have a tremendous amount of power in this city and they waged an effective campaign to influence people and change their minds,” Nori told Gotham Gazette before the second meeting, referring to commissioners.
“I hope we can try to change that today,” he said.
On June 18, when the commission met for a second time to discuss and vote on which proposals to send toward the ballot, Nori raised the issue again and asked if any of the opposing commissioners would reconsider their vote.
Weisbrod was the only commissioner appointed by the mayor to change his vote to support proposal 7 but, thanks to the affirmative votes of commissioners who had abstained or were absent at the first meeting, the proposal passed eight to six (with one abstention) at the second meeting.
One of four de Blasio appointees, Weisbrod, flipped his vote to support the enhanced oversight measure after thanking Nori and Hirsh for helping him “see the light on it for what it is,” after the previous meeting.
“I think we have an obligation to support the truth,” he said at the meeting.
The other mayoral appointees seemed to walk a fine line when they chose to explain their opposition in the face of reconsideration.
Commissioner Lisette Camilo, a de Blasio appointee and the head of the city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services, said, “I really agree with the spirit of the reasons to put this motion forward and I supported the reconsideration. I will vote no. I do not believe that passing this will largely change anything. This is more of a symbolic action.”
Commissioner Paula Gavin, another mayoral appointee and former Chief Service Officer under the mayor, said, “I do believe in truth and honesty but I’m going to keep my vote as no because it has to do with structure.”
Commissioner Lindsay Greene, a de Blasio appointee and senior advisor in the mayor’s office, said, in the absence of more fundamental changes to the powers of the CCRB, “I don’t think this does enough, so it feels more form over substance. But I generally support any efforts we are trying to pursue, generally, for more police accountability. My vote is no.”
But the measure passed, and police reform and accountability activists celebrated.
“The false statements ballot item is important because it is the ONLY item on this November’s ballot that has any meaningful significance for police accountability,” wrote the Communities United for Police Reform coalition in a statement.