Gotham Gazette Wed, 30 Sep 2020 22:57:50 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Jury Still Out in Several Investigations of NYPD's Protest Policing bomb threat bk

NYPD officers; the department remains under multiple investigations (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

The New York City Department of Investigation (DOI) and Law Department have missed the August 31 benchmark set by Mayor Bill de Blasio to submit a final report in their joint investigation into the NYPD's response to summer protests that broke out in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

Officers' frequently violent engagement with demonstrators marching against police racism and brutality led to hundreds of allegations of police misconduct and excessive force, and numerous city and state investigations, none of which have made final determinations.

In the days after Floyd's killing on May 25, peaceful marchers were corralled, beaten with batons, and arrested by NYPD officers; pepper spray was commonly used, even on nonviolent crowds; officers drove their vehicles into protesters and used helicopters to whip-up debris around them; many officers covered their badge numbers; and many didn't wear masks, against city and state guidelines, in the midst of the first widespread public gatherings of the pandemic.

The demonstrations were accompanied by destruction on the part of some protesters and others who appeared to take advantage of the moment of chaos, with police cars smashed and burned and sprees of looting. Meanwhile, persistent questions were raised about the degree of systemic police aggression. De Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea frequently discussed violence perpetrated upon NYPD officers while also offering unproven allegations of the dangerous presence of "outside agitators" and plots to harm police. They largely dismissed clear evidence of repeated incidents of unprovoked use of force by police, though in a few instances both condemned specific officers’ actions.

After two days of unrest in New York City, Governor Andrew Cuomo asked Attorney General Letitia James to investigate the NYPD's response. The same day, de Blasio said the city would conduct its own "independent review" of police-civilian interactions and the next day, May 31, he announced Department of Investigation Commissioner Margaret Garnett and Corporation Counsel Jim Johnson would lead the investigation. The NYPD is conducting its own misconduct investigations through its Internal Affairs Bureau, as well as a broader analysis by the department's operations unit and top leadership, including Shea and Chief of Department Terence Monahan. Separately, complaints from the public have initiated hundreds of investigations by the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

"The whole idea of having an independent review is to look at all the video and determine discipline for anyone who needs it, actions that should be taken additionally towards those who incited violence amongst the protesters, and any changes we need in our approach to policing," de Blasio told reporters when he announced the investigation.

"The first results will come back in June and we'll take action immediately on the initial findings," the mayor said.

On June 20, he signed an executive order outlining the scope of the investigation, in which he directed the two entities to assess the NYPD's "planning and response to the protests" and make factual findings about the events. The order also directs the Corporation Counsel to conduct a separate review of "the factors that may have impacted the events at protests" during the period under review from the first demonstrations on May 28 to the date of the order. (Members of the Office of the Inspector General of the NYPD, which is housed within DOI, are part of the team conducting the investigation, according to a DOI spokesperson.)

The order calls for a status report and for the agencies to "make best efforts to produce a final report on August 31, 2020."

But protests continued for weeks and in a June 24 letter to the mayor and other elected officials Garnett said the timeline was too short to analyze a period over 20 days long. Other investigations, either by the NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau or by District Attorneys, also hampered the review, she wrote. "If there is to be individual accountability for officers involved in specific incidents, the disciplinary process and criminal investigations must be given precedence," Garnett wrote.

On September 1, DOI spokesperson Diane Struzzi told Gotham Gazette the investigation was still in progress.

"As we indicated in our June statement, the investigation is active and ongoing and DOI would endeavor to meet an August 31, 2020 deadline requested by the Mayor's Executive Order, but that the timing of the report, or series of reports, would be determined by the fact-finding process and the status of parallel proceedings," she wrote. "That has not changed."

"As we indicated in our June statement, until the completion of this investigation, DOI will not comment publicly on the investigation’s status, or provide updates to City or elected officials on our findings, unless unforeseen circumstances arise that warrant a further update," Struzzi added.

"This is vital work. We are committed to getting it right," wrote a Law Department spokesperson in an email.

The mayor's office did not provide a comment on the missed deadline.

De Blasio and Shea have also said there needs to be discipline for officers who committed specific transgressions during the protests.

"I want to see real action quickly on individual cases of discipline that need to be addressed," de Blasio said on May 31, the same day he announced the Law Department-DOI review. "I want to see real action on any officer who should not be in the police force, real action on any officer who needs to be transferred from one command to another because of performance and approach. These can all happen immediately and they will."

The NYPD did not respond to Gotham Gazette inquiries about its internal review of misconduct during the protests. At least two officers have been suspended without pay and one supervisor transferred to another precinct, according to Shea in June. One of the suspended officers has also been criminally charged with assault after he shoved a demonstrator into the curb in a particularly high-profile incident, which was caught on video and went viral on social media. His supervisor, who was present at the scene of the crime, was transferred for failing to take action. Another officer, who was caught on film pulling the mask off a protester to pepper spray them at close range while their hands were up, was suspended without pay.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board, a city entity with board members appointed largely by the mayor and tasked with investigating certain allegations of police misconduct, received over 750 complaints stemming from 250 separate incidents during the protests, a spokesperson said. According to initial figures provided by the CCRB, roughly one-third of those complaints are for inappropriate use of force, and one in five are claims that officers abused their authority.

“I strongly believe what New Yorkers saw during the protests in support of Black lives warrants fact-based, independent, civilian-led investigations into allegations of individual misconduct," wrote CCRB Chair Fred Davie in a statement to Gotham Gazette. "The CCRB is undertaking these investigations, and will be making disciplinary recommendations in the near future.”

The CCRB has the power to make recommendations for discipline when it substantiates misconduct claims, but the police commissioner retains ultimate decision-making powers about punishment.

The CCRB spokesperson told Gotham Gazette that information on final determinations, if there are any, are not available at this time.

In addition to the incident where a protester was violently shoved by an officer, district attorneys have launched several criminal investigations into other police actions.

At the state level, Attorney General James is performing a parallel investigation into NYPD behavior during the protests at the request of Governor Cuomo. The directive, issued on May 30, after two nights of demonstrations, called for the attorney general to issue a public report within 30 days.

That investigation is still ongoing, according to a spokesperson for James. In June, she held multiple day-long hearings to solicit testimony from New Yorkers who protested, some of whom testified to police brutality, as well as Shea. The police commissioner testified that officers exercised "extreme discretion" when dealing with protesters and that many of the aggressive tactics witnessed were in response to dangerous situations created by protesters. He said he had not heard of "kettling" -- a strategic maneuver in which lines of officers cordon and charge a barricaded crowd -- which was common throughout the first week of protests.

On July 8, James held a press conference announcing a preliminary report, in which she made a series of recommendations for police reform. But James prompted confusion and criticism for not making any material determinations about the behavior of police during the protests.

"I don't know if we were tasked with the ability to judge the police," James told reporters. "We were tasked with the responsibility of looking at the interactions between police and protesters during a certain period of time."

"While OAG’s investigation into NYPD’s response to the protests remains ongoing, it is clear that real, meaningful reform cannot wait," reads a statement accompanying the report. The recommendations range from major changes to NYPD structure to more frequently sounded calls.

At the top of the list is the creation of a commission to oversee the police department with the power to hire and fire the commissioner. The preliminary report also suggests the CCRB and Office of Inspector General of the NYPD (which is within DOI) both be strengthened and certain public-response duties be moved away from the NYPD. James also wanted to see codified use of force standards "with real legal consequences for violations" (per legislation passed by the City Council and signed by the mayor, the city published a "disciplinary matrix" on Monday, with a mandatory range of punishments for certain officer misconduct).

James’ final report will include an assessment of police use of force and kettling tactics, arrest practices (including the use of "extremely tight zip-tie" handcuffs), and the treatment of members of the press, legal observers, and essential workers, according to a statement from her office.

In terms of passing judgement on the NYPD's actions, James demurred.

"Well I do know that the testimony of Police Commissioner Shea was at odds with the vast majority of the protesters who came before us," she told reporters at a July press briefing. "And so what we are trying to do is continue to examine the testimony."

"Other protesters have come forward and submitted additional evidence,” she added, “and we are still in the process of examining all of the evidence before us.”

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Jury Still Out in Several Investigations of NYPD's Protest Policing Fri, 04 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Police and Protest: 1992 and Today promo cere

NYPD officers (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

On September 16, 1992, roughly 10,000 demonstrators filled City Hall Park in a protest over police accountability. Marching around the park with banners and signs, they expressed their anger at New York City Mayor David Dinkins. After less than an hour, the protesters broke through the barricades around the park, storming the steps of City Hall itself, while another group of protesters filled Murray Street to listen to speakers who urged on the crowd.

A short while later, approximately 2,000 protesters marched onto, and occupied, the Brooklyn Bridge. They stopped traffic in both directions and assaulted members of the press trying to cover the story. 

In stark contrast to the George Floyd demonstrations, there were no mass arrests that September day. No officers in riot gear “kettled” the crowd before storming them. There was no outburst of furious baton-swinging. No shower of tear gas or rubber bullets. 

What was it that made this protest different? How do we explain the restraint, even the sympathy, with which the NYPD confronted the protesters?

The protesters were police officers.

The demonstration that took place that September was organized by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association after Mayor Dinkins proposed an all-civilian police misconduct review board. Citizen-activists had been demanding a civilian review board to exercise police oversight since the 1940s. Though pressure mounted after each incident of police brutality—from the 1943 shooting of Robert Bandy to the killing of James Powell in 1964—the PBA fought off complete civilian oversight. When Mayor Lindsay modified the existing police-controlled review board in 1966 so that civilian appointees would hold the power, the PBA launched a successful campaign to defeat the changes through fear-mongering and a ballot referendum.

With Dinkins’ proposal, members of the NYPD were confronted with the real possibility of the civilian oversight and accountability they had so long resisted. 

Police unions responded as they always had—by trying to kill the reform and maintain their power. The 10,000 off-duty police officers who demonstrated in lower Manhattan that September 1992 day was a show of force, a message that the city could have a review board or a police force, but not both. As the signs some officers were carrying that day threatened, there might be “No police!” if they did not get the “justice” they demanded.

Though Mayor Dinkins argued that the protest proved the need for civilian oversight, other prominent leaders seemed unconcerned. Despite demonstrators who were drinking and mounting cars, as well as uniformed officers who made little attempt to control the crowd, “law and order” advocates were largely silent. They did not decry the actions of protesters or proclaim that lawlessness was taking over the city. Indeed, mayoral candidate Rudolph Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor whose future administration would fiercely promote “zero tolerance” policing, took part in the protest himself. Philip Caruso, the PBA president, called for understanding the protesters’ actions. Though Caruso conceded “the emotional level did get a little out of control,” he pointed out that “sometimes if emotionalism is not evoked publicly, the responsible elements of the community do not listen.”

The police department’s contrasting responses to the 1992 PBA protest and the recent Black Lives Matter protests are revealing. Rhetoric to the contrary, the NYPD’s crackdown on protesters last month was not about maintaining public safety. It was—like the PBA protest of 1992—about power and control. Attacks on protesters were made in the same spirit with which police lashed out against a civilian review board in 1992. It was an assertion that citizens dare not question the police, nor demand changes. You either take policing as it is, or you might not get it at all. 

This sense of entitlement to absolute authority is part of the broader problem of police culture in New York City and the United States. It is a culture that resists public accountability and rejects  the legitimacy of external oversight. It is embodied in the “No Justice, No Police” signs that off-duty NYPD members carried that day in 1992, in the “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” chants heard from St. Louis police while citizens protested the not-guilty verdict in the 2011 police killing of Anthony Lamar Smith, and in bumper stickers emblazoned with the ultimatum “If you don’t like us, don’t call us.”

The 1992 anti-oversight protests were not an aberration, as the New York City PBA has continued to resist accountability and oversight. In 2013, in an attempt to end racially discriminatory stop-and-frisk policing, the New York City Council passed two accountability measures collectively known as the Community Safety Act. The PBA vehemently opposed the new laws, which were passed over vetoes by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and established an independent inspector general for the NYPD and made it possible for individual citizens to sue the department for discrimination. The union subsequently sued the City Council to overturn the laws while also suing to overturn a 2013 federal court decision that ruled the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices unconstitutional.

Throughout the last decade the PBA also repeatedly invoked Civil Rights Law 50-a to restrict public access to body camera footage and the outcomes of administrative trials. Though filing lawsuits and expansively interpreting legal codes may be tactically different from the 1992 City Hall protest, resisting oversight has remained the strategy.

In addition to taking legal action the PBA has continued to operate in the political arena to forestall oversight. In 2019 the PBA launched a “vote no” offensive against a series of ballot measures designed to strengthen the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Under the proposed changes police commissioners would be required to submit an explanation to the CCRB if the commissioner rejected the board’s disciplinary recommendations. As part of their campaign against the new accountability measures the PBA stoked fears over rising crime, claiming the new accountability measures “will make the city less safe.” In doing so, the union drew on a rhetorical pattern linking the potential for increased crime with increased oversight. Speaking to the New York Times in 1992 about the Dinkins administration’s reform efforts, PBA president Phillip Caruso predicted “crime is going to get worse, the streets will become less safe than they are.” Such rhetoric represents another tactic in the fight to delegitimize oversight and accountability.

There has been significant debate in the last few weeks over whether problems in policing reflect a few “bad apples” or a more deeply rooted, flawed system. The contrasting ways police have responded to protests and proposals over their authority shed light on the systemic problems. Dismantling a culture that demands unlimited authority and resists virtually all oversight is necessary if we are ever to move toward a more equitable system of justice in this country.

Kenneth M. Donovan is a PhD student at Stony Brook University and United States history teacher at Huntington High School.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Police and Protest: 1992 and Today Mon, 27 Jul 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Employee in Lower Manhattan Building Home to Several City Agencies Tests Positive for Coronavirus de blasio coronavirus

Mayor de Blasio delivers a coronavirus briefing (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

An employee at 100 Church Street in Lower Manhattan, where a number of city agency offices are located, tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week. Mayor Bill de Blasio has not disclosed the revelation publicly, even as city employees and members of the public continue to conduct business there.

The information that a building occupant tested positive for the novel coronavirus came to city agencies from both City Hall and the building's management company, SL Green Realty Corp., according to an email shared by the New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB), which is housed in the building, after a Gotham Gazette inquiry. According to a CFB spokesperson, notice of the positive case came on Monday evening.

In an email sent Tuesday morning, the CFB notified prospective candidates coming in for a scheduled training on compliance with the city's campaign finance laws that the agency had received the reports that a person in the building had tested positive.

"The person works in a different floor and elevator bank than our offices and will not return until they are symptom free for a minimum of 24 to 48 hours," the CFB email read, in part. "While we are proceeding with today’s training, out of an abundance of caution, we wanted to let you know this information in case you wish to modify your plans or postpone your attendance," it said.

A city employee told Gotham Gazette the notice from City Hall did not contain any guidance about whether agency staff should continue coming to the building at 100 Church to work.

Ten candidates still arrived at the CFB offices for the Tuesday training, according to the CFB spokesperson. The agency is now cancelling all in-person training sessions and moving to video conferencing.

100 Church Street is also home to the city's Law Department, Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), Office of Administrative Trials, Mayor's Council Against Poverty, and the city's Business Integrity Commission, to name a few. There are also a number of private corporate tenants.

The Mayor's Office did not respond to multiple requests for information about whether there have been other confirmed cases in the building and what immediate steps it is taking at the address. Employees at several agencies Gotham Gazette spoke with are still reporting to work in person. A midday visit to the building Thursday showed business apparently proceeding as usual, albeit with fewer people than usual passing through the lobby.

Several of those agencies housed at 100 Church Street are regularly visited by members of the public. Candidates receiving CFB training, civilians filing police misconduct complaints with the CCRB, and participants in public hearings held by the Business Integrity Commission all pass through its lobby, for example. Some agencies, like the CFB and CCRB, also send staff out into the field, either to conduct local trainings, investigations, or even monthly board meetings. The CCRB, which often holds its board meetings outside the building at sites across the five boroughs, postponed its March board meeting in the Bronx on Wednesday.

At a Thursday press conference at City Hall, de Blasio announced that the city was nearing 100 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus and declared a state of emergency. He said he expected the number of cases to continue to rise and announced a number of moves to mitigate spread, including that 10% of the city’s workforce would soon be encouraged to work from home, while another 20% would be moved to staggered shifts to reduce crowding on mass transit. The mayor did not mention specific agencies or buildings.

In an email statement from SL Green, Chief Operating Officer Edward V. Piccinich said of the COVID-19 case at 100 Church Street: "SL Green continues to take aggressive and proactive action across our portfolio to protect the health of our tenants, following guidance from City, State and Federal health officials. At the property level we have taken precautionary measures by increasing frequency of cleaning and disinfecting commonly touched surfaces."

"We are in constant communication with our tenants and their employees about these measures and to monitor any potential exposure," the statement read. "When a confirmed case is identified, we immediately conduct decontamination and promptly respond with commercial grade remediation of all tenant-accessible areas of the building. These actions are communicated quickly to all employees in the building to ensure a safe environment at all properties in our portfolio."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Employee in Lower Manhattan Building Home to Several City Agencies Tests Positive for Coronavirus Thu, 12 Mar 2020 04:00:00 +0000
NYPD Watchdog Set for Personnel Boost as Voter-Approved Mandate Begins grad cere msg

NYPD officers (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

The Civilian Complaint Review Board will be increasing its capacity to investigate police misconduct thanks to a City Charter amendment approved by voters last fall, agency officials explained on Wednesday.

At one in a series of City Council hearings on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $95.3 billion preliminary budget, CCRB Chair Fred Davie and Executive Director Jonathan Darche said the city plans to add 17 additional staff members to the currently 206-person agency to meet a new formulaic mandate now written into the city’s central governing document. The new positions, which are yet to be determined, will be essential for the agency as it tackles an increasing docket of cases -- a result, the officials said, of its outreach efforts, the agency's prosecution of Daniel Pantaleo, which boosted its public profile, and a growing backlog of body camera footage requests.

The additional staff in the upcoming city budget, which is due by the July 1 start of next fiscal year upon agreement by the Mayor and City Council, will be on top of 24 new personnel already secured by the CCRB during budget negotiations last year.

"I think [the increased headcount] has been letting us stay as effective as we have been," Darche said, answering questions from members of the Council's committee on public safety. "Body-worn camera footage has really almost swept through the agency in the investigative process, which has caused our dockets to increase and case investigation times to increase, and without those new staff we would have suffered even worse."

The charter amendment, which takes effect for the upcoming 2021 fiscal year, links the police watchdog's headcount to the number of uniform police officers at a ratio of .65 percent. The police department has 36,201 uniform members in the preliminary budget.

The amendment was part of a package of proposals placed on the ballot by the 2019 Charter Revision Commission to reform a number of areas of city governance, including changes to the CCRB's jurisdiction and operations. CCRB officials have said the measure gives the agency a baseline in budget negotiations, which have historically been characterized by uncertainty.

"You have to negotiate the details of your budget every year, and those fluctuate up and down in some significant ways for the agency," Davie told Gotham Gazette in October, before the ballot proposals were approved by voters. "Knowing that [the headcount] is tied to a percentage of a portion of the NYPD’s budget means that you can sort of baseline what you’ll have and then you can negotiate around that baseline."

The CCRB is a police oversight agency tasked with investigating and, in serious cases, prosecuting certain kinds of alleged officer misconduct. The Charter gives it jurisdiction to pursue so-called "FADO" complaints: allegations of excessive force, abuse of authority, discourtesy, or offensive language. Other types of misconduct get referred to the NYPD's internal affairs bureau.

In fiscal year 2020 (July 2019 through June 2020), the CCRB had a $19.6 million budget. The mayor's new preliminary budget, increases the agency's bottom line by $1.1 million, or 6 percent, to $20.4 million, including the 17 additional staff.

The CCRB can only open a case if it receives a complaint from the public. More than half of the agency's staff are in its investigations unit, which is responsible for receiving complaints, collecting evidence, and substantiating claims. It also liaises with the police department, an increasingly central task as the CCRB has come to rely on evidence from body camera footage, which is controlled by the NYPD.

In fiscal year 2019, there were 5,236 complaints made against uniform police officers, a 20 percent increase over the previous fiscal year, according to the Mayor's Management Report. The report shows the average length of time to complete an investigation rose from 190 days in fiscal year 2018 to 249 days in fiscal 2019.

With the proliferation of police body cameras and the resulting footage, the CCRB has been able to substantiate complaints at a significantly higher rate. But as the agency has come to rely more on body cameras, it has also faced increasing delays in receiving requested video from the NYPD. A new memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the CCRB and NYPD is intended to speed up the evidence sharing process by giving CCRB staff more direct access to video early on and setting timetables for the NYPD.

At the same time that body cameras are transforming the CCRB's abilities, the voter-approved Charter amendments also expand its jurisdiction, which promises to further increase the caseload. The CCRB now has the authority to investigate and recommend discipline for false statements made by police officers during the course of its investigations (when they are the subject the investigation), a form of misconduct that previously would be referred to the police department to be handled internally.

Police unions and their allies strongly opposed the ballot measure containing the CCRB amendments, while police reform advocates supported it. It passed with roughly 75 percent of voters in favor in a low turnout, off-year election with few races on the ballot.

The new powers won't require additional staff training, according to Darche, but agency officials sought new personnel to handle the additional cases. "The CCRB has been studying false official statements and then referring them to the department for them to determine whether misconduct occurred for many years now, and our investigators are trained to make those determinations," he said.

Even with the Charter-mandated personnel ratio, the number of new staff is still up for negotiation as the city's budget season unfolds.

The 17 it looks like the CCRB is due for next fiscal year is based on a calculus by the Mayor's Office of Management and Budget, which includes consideration of the number of per diem employees that the agency doesn’t include in its official headcount.

"We're still in negotiation with them. I'm hopeful that maybe we can get one or two more bodies out of them," he said, on top of the projected 17.

The agency is still determining what the new positions will be. "Clearly we need more investigators to meet the increased demands of caseload on the staff that we have to investigate the cases we have," Darche said. As of February, the CCRB had 131 investigators, roughly two-thirds of its full-time staff.

"We've already taken steps with our training staff and with the investigations division to make sure that when those positions become available we're ready to bring them on board," Darche said.

"Do you still believe you need more staffing," asked Council Member Donovan Richards, a Queens Democrat and chair of the committee on public safety.

"Always," Davie replied.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

NYPD Watchdog Set for Personnel Boost as Voter-Approved Mandate Begins Thu, 05 Mar 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Initial Report Shows Benefits and Challenges of NYPD Body Camera Program for Police Watchdog NYPD body cameras

Mayor de Blasio checks out an NYPD body camera (photo: Rob Bennett/Mayor's Office)

A new report by the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board shows body-worn cameras have helped the police watchdog close hundreds of misconduct cases by substantially improving its ability to prove and disprove allegations. While CCRB officials believe the technology has become an indispensable tool, it has also presented new challenges for the agency as it seeks greater transparency from the NYPD.

The report, released Thursday, is the first of its kind on the New York City body camera program. It shows that the number of CCRB police misconduct cases that were closed with sufficient evidence, or “on the merits,” more than doubled from 37 percent to 76 percent when body-worn camera (BWC) footage was available. Now, with the number of requests skyrocketing, the CCRB is seeing more obstacles to obtaining relevant, unedited video and the rate of sharing footage  has slowed.

“BWC footage represents some of the most defining evidence in cases in which misconduct occurred and in cases in which the officer’s actions were within the boundaries of the law and the NYPD Patrol Guide,” wrote CCRB Chair Fred Davie in a letter accompanying the report.

From 2017 to 2019, the CCRB was able to prove an allegation was true and within its jurisdiction in 31 percent of completed investigations where BWC footage was available, compared with just 13 percent of investigations without BWC or other video. The board was able to exonerate complaints, meaning the allegation was found to be true but not a misconduct violation, in 30 percent of complaints with evidence from BWCs. Without BWCs, even with other forms of video evidence at hand, the exoneration rate is 20%.

“The NYPD has the largest deployment of body cameras in the nation with every officer outfitted and roughly 130,000 videos generated each week. These cameras shed light on our officers’ everyday encounters with New Yorkers and help to cultivate trust with the New Yorkers they are sworn to serve,” wrote NYPD spokesperson Devora Kaye in a statement responding to the new CCRB report.

The NYPD began piloting body-worn cameras in April 2017, with about 1,300 officers equipped by the end of that year. By August 2019, the end of the report’s study period, the NYPD had deployed 24,000 cameras to all patrol officers and certain special units. As the cameras proliferated, the number of BWC requests from the CCRB exploded: from 410 in the second quarter of 2018 to 1,134 during the same period in 2019, the report shows.

With the greater appetite for body camera footage and the promise of better evidence has come frustrations for the CCRB.

From May 2017 to June 2019, the CCRB reported receiving BWC video in only half of the roughly 4,000 cases it requested footage for. In the first half of 2019, the average length of time for the NYPD to respond to CCRB requests doubled. The CCRB also raised concerns about officers obstructing cameras or failing to record a complete interaction, as well as about the department’s training of officers to warn one another when their body cameras are recording.

The city’s ongoing body camera pilot was court-mandated in response to the NYPD’s racially-biased overuse of stop-and-frisk policing, which was found to be in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments in 2013. The cameras are intended to provide a “contemporaneous, objective record” of stops and frisks both to protect civilians from police misconduct and officers from false accusations, wrote the judge in Floyd v. City of New York.

However, as Gotham Gazette first reported, the CCRB faces significant delays in receiving requested footage, which is often edited or fully denied, while prosecutors collecting evidence for trial receive unredacted footage virtually automatically and within a matter of hours. That revelation and others helped spur advocates and city officials to seek reforms to the NYPD’s video-sharing practices, which culminated last November in a lauded agreement to grant the CCRB more direct access to BWC recordings.

“Implementing an initiative as robust as this is a complex and evolving process, and last November, the NYPD and CCRB executed an agreement that fostered our shared goals of transparency and accountability and streamlined the sharing of video,” Kaye wrote.

The CCRB is an oversight agency largely appointed by the mayor, which is separate from the police department and charged with investigating and, in serious cases, prosecuting certain categories of alleged police misconduct. It has jurisdiction over four types of complaints, known as FADO: use of force, abuse of authority, discourtesy, and offensive language. When it discovers potential misconduct outside of FADO, the agency refers the issue to the police department’s internal affairs bureau. The CCRB can only open a case when a civilian makes a complaint.

The new report shows over the first seven months of 2019, the police department’s average response time to CCRB footage requests doubled from an average of 20 business days to 42 business days (for instances when no footage was recovered, the CCRB was informed its request was denied after an average of 37 days).

Over time, the NYPD has increasingly turned to editing or redacting footage before handing it over to CCRB investigators, citing state laws intended to protect personal privacy. In the first year since the body camera pilot began, redacted videos accounted for between zero and 17 percent of all footage provided to the CCRB. A year later, between April and July 2019, roughly two-thirds of all body camera footage received by the CCRB had been redacted by the NYPD’s Legal Bureau, according to the report.

Of all cases where the NYPD shared body camera footage with the CCRB, 43 percent have had footage redacted.

The NYPD says it must review, edit, or redact all requested video before turning it over to CCRB investigators because of state privacy laws, which contribute to the delays. The NYPD frequently cites statutes that protect the identity of minors, of people whose arrests have been sealed, and people receiving medical treatment, among others. The report recommends granting the CCRB access to sealed arrests, which can often result from unconstitutional stops -- the exact type of misconduct body cameras were originally meant to capture.

Officials from both the NYPD and CCRB believe the memorandum of understanding signed last November will improve response times and satisfy the practical concerns of police and investigators. The MOU will allow CCRB representatives to view unedited footage in a secured room before redactions are made, giving investigators the opportunity to better understand what evidence is relevant to their cases and easing the burden on police to review footage.

“It is our hope that this new system will streamline CCRB’s access to BWC footage, which is pivotal to our work,” Davie wrote. CCRB officials say the secured room should be operational by June.

As the agency comes to rely more on evidence from body cameras, it also has a growing need for digital storage space. The CCRB estimates that beginning in fiscal year 2021 the size of stored body camera audio and video will grow at a rate of 50 percent annually. It estimates storage costs will rise to $144,000 per year by fiscal year 2024.

The report also points to a number of potential and official misuses of body cameras that in some cases are widespread. Among them officers failing to record a full civilian interaction -- either turning their cameras on late or off early -- or obstructing the lens, especially with winter clothing. Particularly in use-of-force incidents and during police chases, body cameras can become dislodged or fall off, which often results in footage becoming interrupted or shut off, the report says.

According to the report, the NYPD Patrol Guide does not prohibit intentionally obstructing camera footage and the CCRB “identified instances where officers have used signals to prevent or halt the recording of police misconduct.”

The CCRB report singles out police practices around recording entry into civilian homes and places of work. It recommends officers be trained to activate their cameras prior to arriving at a residence in order to capture the entire interaction. The CCRB notes 10 percent of abuse of authority allegations are related to home entry.

The report also recommends the NYPD pursue technology compatible with its current cameras that automatically activates nearby body cameras when a police firearm or taser goes off. Other software would place a geo-tag on body camera footage, providing investigators more information about where an incident occured.

Another issue of particular concern to CCRB investigators is officers warning others when their cameras are recording, using code phrases like, “I went Hollywood,” “green,” or “we’re live,” or gestures like shoulder-brushing. The CCRB report cites a letter from the NYPD’s Legal Bureau, which states officers are trained to warn each other to “ensure that sensitive law enforcement conversation are not inadvertently captured on BWC video.”

The report also notes the NYPD Patrol Guide requires officers to inform members of the public when they are recording an interaction, which police representatives maintain is appropriate to address privacy concerns, ensure compliance with body camera policies, and to help deescalate volatile interactions.

The department “conducts robust auditing of body camera video – from the command level up through the bureau and oversight level – to address policy compliance, quality of the video and the quality of the police service. Follow-up action can include everything from instruction to formal discipline,” Kaye wrote.

While considered serious by the CCRB, the agency identified only 53 instances of misconduct related to the use of BWCs out of the 2,033 instances where it received footage. (The CCRB cannot investigate that type of misconduct, because it falls outside of FADO; it must be reported to NYPD internal affairs.)

The report recommends amending the Patrol Guide to explicitly prohibit officers from obstructing cameras or warning fellow officers that they are rolling “in an effort to obfuscate or facilitate police misconduct.” Doing so, however, could raise concerns among privacy watchdogs who want greater disclosure around the use of surveillance technology.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Initial Report Shows Benefits and Challenges of NYPD Body Camera Program for Police Watchdog Wed, 26 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
NYPD's New Agreement with Police Oversight Board Promises Better Access to Body Camera Footage de Blasio NYPD leaders

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

A new evidence-sharing agreement between the NYPD and its civilian watchdog agency around the department’s handling of police body-worn camera footage has the potential to significantly change the way misconduct investigations are carried out. But despite the NYPD’s recent commitment to greater transparency and cooperation, to be successful the agreement will require an element of trust in an interagency relationship marked by obfuscation and obstruction.

Under the new agreement, the Civilian Complaint Review Board will have more direct access to body camera video, which officials say will dramatically improve its ability to pursue police officer misconduct allegations. But the agreement also hints at the ongoing imbalance among the police department, the CCRB, and the public in terms of who controls footage captured by a system meant to make officers more accountable and policing more transparent.

In November, after months of negotiation, the NYPD and CCRB announced a memorandum of understanding establishing an intricate process that will allow officials from both agencies to view requested body camera video together without redaction, before it is subject to editing by the police department. The announcement closely followed a City Council oversight hearing and a series of articles by Gotham Gazette on the body camera program, including several on the CCRB’s struggle to obtain necessary footage.

“It is a real compromise and it’s going to let the CCRB do its job and provide effective, independent oversight of the NYPD,” said CCRB Executive Director Jonathan Darche in an interview with Gotham Gazette.

The CCRB is an oversight agency appointed by the mayor in partnership with the City Council and police commissioner to investigate civilian complaints related to excessive force and abuses of police authority, among other defined types of officer misconduct. The proliferation of body cameras across the police force gave advocates, reformers, and others hope that more misconduct claims could be verified or definitively dismissed.

In March, Mayor Bill de Blasio and then-Police Commissioner James O’Neill announced the full implementation of 20,000 officer-worn cameras to rank-and-file cops, and another 3,000-4,000 were handed out to specialized divisions later in the year.

Around the same time, the backlog of CCRB video inquiries skyrocketed and the number of the agency’s cases with pending requests roughly doubled. While CCRB investigators are relying more on evidence from the cameras to help substantiate claims, they are also having a harder time obtaining the footage. When they do, the footage is often censored or cut by the police department. In dozens of substantiated instances, the NYPD has falsely denied to the CCRB that it has body camera footage the Board has requested.

The new agreement calls on the city to create a “secure room” within CCRB headquarters that will function as an NYPD facility with access to the department’s BWC database. When CCRB investigators request footage, a representative will be present in the secure room while police officials search their system. That representative will be allowed to pass on notes about the raw video to CCRB investigators who can then request specific sections of tape. Once a narrowly described section of video is requested and subjected to NYPD editing, it can be shared outside the secure room.

“From neighborhood policing to body cameras for all patrol officers, this Administration has led a paradigm shift in the way our city is policed. We applaud the Police Department and Civilian Complaint Review Board for cutting red tape and working together to promote transparency and accountability,” wrote Olivia Lapeyrolerie, a spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio, in an email.

The change is likely a big step forward for the police watchdog. Under the current system, the NYPD acts as the sole owner of body camera footage with complete discretion to censor and redact footage and the ability to delay releasing it to the CCRB from the outset. Officials say the new approach allows the CCRB to monitor the video transfer process from as close to the beginning as possible (once an inquiry is made). It also helps deter “false negatives” in which the NYPD denies the existence of footage in its possession, an ongoing concern and repeat problem for the CCRB.

In the most serious cases of excessive police force, the NYPD may still “lockdown” footage if it is part of an internal inquiry by the department’s Force Investigation Division. Footage under lockdown will be searchable by a CCRB rep but not shared with CCRB investigators until after the NYPD division’s investigation is concluded.

To the extent that it outlines the parameters for interagency body camera video sharing, the agreement is an acknowledgement of the NYPD’s de facto ownership of body camera technology and the evidence it records. It still leaves the NYPD with ultimate access to the secure room and the footage database, unlike in other jurisdictions where the oversight body has direct access to video without having to go through the police department.

"While the latest MOU between the NYPD and CCRB may provide quicker access to some footage for the CCRB, it cements the NYPD's unilateral control of footage, including the ability to redact and restrict footage as it sees fit,” wrote Kesi Foster, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, an advocacy coalition, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

“The MOU makes no explicit allowances for survivors of police violence or their families to view footage and allows the NYPD to block CCRB access to footage in serious cases where excessive force is used - which are the exact cases that the public and CCRB should have immediate and unfettered access to footage,” Foster wrote.

Since the complete rollout of body-worn cameras, the NYPD has reserved the right to edit footage before release to the CCRB and the broader public (including the news media), saying state and federal privacy laws require it to do so (an NYPD policy memo issued in October, explicitly states this for release to the public, but not to the CCRB). The result has been a growing backlog of unfulfilled body camera footage requests to the CCRB that hamper its investigations, which need to be completed within an 18-month statute of limitations.

As of the end of October, the CCRB reported 574 cases (27 percent of all its investigations) in which body camera footage requests had not been fulfilled by the NYPD. Over half of those requests have been pending for more than 30 days.

The backlog and the NYPD’s ability to edit footage before turning it over to the CCRB have created a system where investigators are limited in what evidence they have access to, even when they are aware material footage exists. By contrast, the NYPD shares video of an arrest with prosecutors completely and almost immediately, suggesting that the new technology is being used more to prosecute civilians than investigate police misconduct.

The November agreement is a step away from that status quo. It creates certain checks on the NYPD’s ability to withhold or delay footage and improves trust in the body-worn cameras program as a police oversight system.

“There are a few takeaways from the agreement. The first is it’s going to significantly reduce the backlog once it’s fully implemented. The second is that it assures the CCRB that we are receiving all the relevant video in a case,” said Darche.

“It also takes the NYPD’s security concerns into account, and it assures civilians and members of the NYPD that their privacy rights won’t be violated,” he added.

The NYPD has maintained that, for releasing video to either the CCRB or the public, it must edit footage to ensure legally protected subject matter isn’t publicly disseminated. Police representatives have said the identities of minors and victims or survivors of sex crimes must be censored and any depiction of medical treatment redacted, pursuant to statutory privacy protections. Reviewing and editing footage is what causes the delays in transmitting evidence to the CCRB, officials say.

“One of the areas in dispute was the NYPD felt those statutes applied. We did not feel that those applied. The NYPD felt that blurring the faces of people allowed them to then release the video to us and that was a compromise we were willing to accept,” Darche said, referring to part of the agreement that deals with footage being shared outside the secure room.

The new agreement puts much more onus on the CCRB to request only the relevant footage as a way to reduce the burden on the NYPD to process the video. CCRB investigators will be required to “diligently conduct as many investigatory steps as reasonable” to determine whether potential video is relevant to their investigation before making a footage request, rather than submitting blanket requests for all potentially relevant footage.

“Under this agreement, CCRB investigators will obtain relevant records such as an arrest or summons associated with complaints prior to making a body-worn camera footage request, in order to make the search and viewing processes more efficient,” wrote Ethan Teicher, the CCRB press secretary, in an email to Gotham Gazette.

The additional costs to staff new positions in the secure room and to meet the additional investigatory requirements are yet to be determined, but officials think it will ultimately improve the process and lead to better, more coherent video searches.

Examining the raw footage “will be a shared responsibility between the NYPD and the CCRB, and it is the CCRB’s hope that involving Agency staff in the initial review of body-worn camera footage will provide additional, case-based knowledge that will make the process more efficient,” Teicher wrote.

“The CCRB will need to work with OMB [the Office of Management and Budget] and DCAS [Department of Citywide Administrative Services] for additional funding for the secure space. Initially, we expect both the NYPD and the CCRB to each have four staff members in the room, while the other terminals will be used by investigators tasked with reviewing the footage,” he added. The agency currently has roughly 100 investigators, according to a CCRB spokesperson in October.

In addition to a backlog of video request, the CCRB has reported a large number of false negatives in responses to requests for body camera video. In a July memo to CCRB board members, staff cited 147 cases where the police department said requested footage did not exist only to find out later that it did. In some cases the denied footage was leaked to the press, and in others officers under investigation reported reviewing footage that was previously said not to exist. As of July, the NYPD had acknowledged accidental false negatives in 19 cases, according to the memo.

“[T]he CCRB cannot accurately track the number of cases in which it received ‘false negatives’...because the Agency does not know what video the NYPD possess,” the memo stated.

The CCRB believes the new agreement changes that dynamic. “Having a presence in the secure room when a search is conducted should reduce the chance of generating a false negative,” Darche told Gotham Gazette.

While the agreement makes a commitment to involve the CCRB in the initial search for requested footage, it still establishes a lopsided relationship with the NYPD.

A footage search must be conducted by a member of the NYPD in the presence of a CCRB representative. Yet nothing under the agreement prevents the NYPD from accessing the secure room outside of established business hours, and allows the department to audit CCRB electronic access to the system. On the other hand, the CCRB will only have access to the room during agreed-upon hours and does not have the ability to audit the NYPD’s use of the room.

“As the secure room will be an NYPD facility, the Department will have access to it outside of business hours. However, the CCRB does not expect NYPD personnel will use the facility to work on CCRB-related matters without CCRB present,” Teicher wrote.

“The CCRB will not at this time be able to audit the logins at the secure facility,” he added. “If an issue is ever raised, the CCRB will make every effort to work with the Department to resolve it.”

The agreement does not go into effect until the secure room is built, after which other protocols will be established. The text of the agreement does not specify a timeline for that.

“We will continue to work with OMB and DCAS to secure the necessary funding for the facility, and hope to have it set up in the first half of 2020,” wrote a CCRB spokesperson in an email.

In an email to Gotham Gazette, Chris Dunn, legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), wrote of the new MOU, “we are concerned about how long it will take to get the new system up and running and about how much time this agreement gives the NYPD to turn over videos. A police department as sophisticated as the NYPD should be able to deliver videos in a matter of hours, not weeks.”

The agreement was hashed out under the administration of former Police Commissioner James O’Neill over weeks or months in the lead up to its announcement in November, which was first reported by the Daily News. It will have to be implemented under his successor, Dermot Shea, who was sworn in at the beginning of December after serving as Chief of Detectives, among other roles at the NYPD.

“I am confident this agreement between the CCRB and the NYPD will be preserved under incoming Police Commissioner Dermot Shea. This compromise is a step toward significantly reducing the body-worn camera backlog, ensuring police accountability, and allowing the CCRB to carry out its essential public safety mission on behalf of all New Yorkers,” CCRB Chair Fred Davie wrote in an email.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

NYPD's New Agreement with Police Oversight Board Promises Better Access to Body Camera Footage Wed, 04 Dec 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Turnout, Ballot Questions, & Dropoff: How New York City Voted in 2019 voting new york city

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

A year after the 2018 election cycle, when insurgent candidates and heightened political participation helped drive a wave of New Yorkers to the polls, voter turnout in the city this fall continued the trend. While still low as a percentage of registered voters, the 15 percent turnout was far higher than previous off-year elections.

While many attribute the recent increases in voter participation to a Trump effect, the particulars of this year’s city ballot, including key items not present in the corresponding cycle four years ago, may also have had an effect: a citywide Public Advocate election and five ballot questions offering New Yorkers the chance to approve or reject changes to city elections and governance.

Yet while the series of proposed city charter amendments may have motivated some voters to the polls, new analysis shows the questions did not generate as much interest as the public advocate candidates at the top (and front) of the ballot.

New maps created by Steven Romalewski, director of the Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center, using voter turnout data from the New York City Board of Elections show that, while turnout was relatively high across the board, there was significant drop-off from the top and front of the ballot -- where candidate races are listed -- to the ballot proposals on the back.

Romalewski’s analysis also shows the places where turnout was highest (Upper West Side, Brooklyn Heights, and Park Slope) and lowest (parts of the southern Bronx and southern Brooklyn) and illustrates where voters seemed especially motivated to vote on the charter changes.

Of the nearly 4.8 million active registered voters in New York City, 15 percent went to the polls over the two weeks they were open this fall, according to still-unofficial city turnout data and the most recent state voter registration numbers released at the beginning of November. By comparison, in the 2015 general election turnout was just 6 percent, according to the New York City Campaign Finance Board, though there was no citywide race or charter amendments on the ballot that year.

The increased turnout follows an election last year where turnout was uncommonly high at 39.1 percent, according to the Campaign Finance Board. It also coincides with a number of long-sought voting reforms passed by the State Legislature after Democrats took control of both chambers following the so-called “blue wave” elections of 2018. Among them was early voting, a change advocates argued would improve access to the ballot box, which went into effect this fall. For the first time, city voters had the opportunity to vote early at 61 assigned poll sites over the course of nine days leading up to Election Day, November 5, when thousands of traditional poll sites opened citywide.

The highest profile race this fall was for public advocate, the only citywide elected office on the ballot, where Democratic incumbent Jumaane Williams beat Republican City Council Member Joe Borelli and Libertarian nominee Devin Balkind to keep the seat he had won earlier this year in a nonpartisan special election.

Williams won handily with nearly 78 percent of the vote in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans close to seven to one. In addition to Williams’ race, as well as a City Council contest to fill the seat he vacated and a handful of judicial races, the ballot contained the five referenda encompassing 19 charter amendments put forward by the 2019 Charter Revision Commission.

Voters overwhelmingly approved all five questions, with the 19 proposals dealing with elections and governance, by between 71 and 77 percent.

In five maps provided to Gotham Gazette, Romalewski breaks down turnout data and ballot referenda voting by Assembly district using unofficial election night results in which roughly nine out of ten ballot scanners were counted. Official results are expected to be certified soon.

In the areas with the highest turnout, like the Upper West Side, Brooklyn Heights, and Park Slope, nearly 24 percent of registered voters cast ballots for public advocate, according to the analysis. The neighborhoods with the lowest turnout, like the West Bronx, Mott Haven, Parkchester, and Bensonhurst saw just 10 percent or less of registered voters go to the polls (see map below).

pubadv roma map

The Upper West Side and Brooklyn Heights saw close to the same high turnout on proposal 5 as they did for public advocate -- 22.4 percent (see map below). But much larger regions had turnout rates of 10 percent or less: all but three Bronx Assembly districts fall into this category, as well as Corona, East Elmhurst, and Flushing, Queens.

prop5 roma map

A vast majority of Assembly districts saw drop-off of between 1,000 and 2,889 votes from the top of the ballot to the back of it. The districts that saw the smallest drop-off -- under 1,000 votes -- were in parts of Lower Manhattan, the Upper East Side, Williamsburg and parts of the borough’s southern tier. The worst drop-off was in Upper Manhattan, the South Bronx, Eastern Queens, and parts of Central Brooklyn.

patoprop5 roma map

Despite what then-Public Advocate Letitia James described in July 2018 as “a rare opportunity to fundamentally change the future of our City” when the charter commission was empanelled through her legislation with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, a number of factors may have contributed to the drop-off on ballot proposals by the time the votes were cast.

Among them are the miniscule, 7.5-point font the ballot questions were printed in and the large amount of detail contained in each one. Another might be the limited public education conducted by government agencies in the run-up to the early voting period, or the fact that many of the city’s most prominent officials did not express positions on the proposals. There’s also the fact that the commission did not propose particularly sweeping changes to how city government functions, though ranked-choice voting, part of the first ballot question, is a major change.

All but one Assembly district in Queens, where there was a notable district attorney race, saw drop-off of more than 1,500 votes between the public advocate race and the fifth ballot proposal -- meaning many Queens voters were not taking stock of their entire ballot.

One district -- Assembly District 59 in Brooklyn -- had a drop-off of roughly a thousand more voters than any other district in Romalewski’s maps. That drop-off could actually be smaller because data for that district was available from only 78 percent of ballot scanners, compared to between 85 and 99 percent of scanners in most of the other districts, he explained in an email. When they are all counted the gap may shrink.

Another, and perhaps more notable, outlier is Assembly District 48 -- spanning Borough Park and Midwood, Brooklyn -- where there was actually a greater number of ballots marked for or against Question 1 than public advocate by 76 votes, according to one map (see below). Given its inclusion of ranked-choice voting, Question 1 was perhaps the most consequential and controversial of the ballot measures, especially among certain officials and groups. According to the unofficial election night results, voters in District 48 rejected Proposal 1 by a margin of 4,058 to 1,545, and the other four proposals by similar margins.

patoprop1 roma map

Ranked-choice voting, which for party primary and special elections will let voters list up to five candidates by preference rather than selecting a single top choice, received significant attention in the weeks leading up to Election Day, with groups campaigning for and against the proposal. The biggest proponents of the new method were a coalition of good government groups, voting rights advocates, and elected officials, which spent close to $1 million on advertising for it.

But five days ahead of Election Day, a group of city and state elected officials representing Orthodox Jewish communities in the Midwood area of Brooklyn began appearing in digital, print, and radio ads urging voters to reject all five ballot proposals, according to data from the Campaign Finance Board. The images of Assembly Member Simcha Eichenstein, who represents District 48, along with State Senator Simcha Felder and City Council Members Kalman Yeger and Chaim Deutsch graced the English- and Hebrew-language ads, often accompanied by text reading: “If approved, these proposals will waste money, make our streets more dangerous and give our community less say in our city government. Help protect our voice.”

A total of $22,150 was spent on the ads over five days, according to campaign finance filings. They were paid for by the Police Benevolent Association Independent Expenditure Committee, which was also pouring money into a parallel campaign to defeat a proposal, in Question 2, that would enhance civilian oversight of the NYPD. The PBA spent a total of $139,626 on its “Vote No on Question 2” campaign, which includes the $22,150 geared toward Orthodox Jewish voters.

Two days before Election Day, the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus also spent $5,000 on leaflets opposing ranked-choice voting, even though some of its members were proponents of a yes vote on Question 1.

One map shows that not only was there relatively high turnout for public advocate -- between 15,000 and 24,200 votes -- in the western half of lower Manhattan, as many as 99 percent of those voters also voted for or against proposal 5 on the back. The same map shows a number of districts where turnout was as low as 4,145 and down-ballot drop-off was between 25 and 33 percent. Those districts fall mostly in northeast Queens and the South Bronx (see map below).

prop5percentpubadv roma map

But in Assembly District 48, the opposite was true: voters there cast ballots for public advocate in relatively small numbers (between 4,145 and 7,500) but those that did were highly motivated to vote on the ballot proposals as well. As many as 99 percent of them voted on proposal 5 at the end of the ballot, Romalewski pointed out in an email.

While all five ballot questions passed citywide and in almost every borough, Staten Island voters rejected three of them, including the ranked-choice voting and police oversight proposals (Questions 1 and 2, respectively), as well as one related to the city budget (Question 4). The widest vote margin of the rejected proposals on Staten Island, where voters tend to be more conservative than the rest of the city and where many police officers live, was on the police-related reforms.

There, in addition to the PBA campaign against the police oversight amendments, several local elected officials joined PBA President Pat Lynch and other law enforcement union leaders days before Election Day to rally in opposition to the proposal. Borelli, who received nearly twice as many votes on Staten Island as Williams in the public advocate race, was among them.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note: this article has been updated.

Turnout, Ballot Questions, & Dropoff: How New York City Voted in 2019 Thu, 21 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Facing Criticism, NYPD Reps Tell City Council Body Camera Program 'A Work in Progress' finance comm hearing

(photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

The NYPD’s body-worn camera policies are a “work in progress,” a police official said at a hearing of the New York City Council’s public safety committee on Monday, seeking to allay concerns expressed by Council members about the program that now includes more than 20,000 uniformed officers. At the hearing, Council members had questions and criticisms about transparency and accountability taking a back seat to surveillance and police authority, particularly with regard to the NYPD’s control over body camera footage.

The NYPD rolled out cameras to every uniformed patrol officer by March of this year and more recently completed equipping 4,000 specialized team officers with cameras as well. It’s a major potential step towards transparency and accountability for a department that has not had a reputation for either. But the implementation of the program has been accompanied by a slew of questions about the footage collected and when, and in what manner, it is released to the public, press, prosecutors, and external watchdogs.

The department only published its “operations order” on public release of footage last month, and that too without a public announcement (Gotham Gazette first reported the order’s existence after repeatedly checking in with the NYPD until a link was provided). The order shows how much sway over the footage the NYPD is retaining, providing several sources of criticism for Council members and other stakeholders.

The policy also makes no reference to releasing footage to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates police misconduct and abuse of power complaints. CCRB requests for footage are often delayed, some for months at a time. Meanwhile, the department turns unedited footage of all arrests over to district attorney offices almost immediately.

“Basic transparency requires someone other than the NYPD to be the gatekeeper of this footage when a member of the public makes a complaint,” said Council Member Donovan Richards, chair of the public safety committee, in his opening statement. “When an oversight agency is dependent on the discretion of the very agency it is overseeing, what you end up with is the wolf guarding the henhouse. We need to do better.”

Richards, a Queens Democrat, is also troubled by the amount of discretion built into the policy on public release, which allows the police commissioner to decide within 30 days to release footage of “critical incidents” when an individual may be killed or severely injured by a police officer, or other incidents of intense public interest.

“The policy reads as a series of vague considerations, not a standard for the commissioner to follow,” he said. “The result is that many people are rightly concerned that the department can decide to release footage only when it looks good for them, and that body worn cameras are in fact being used as another surveillance tool, rather than for the purpose they were intended: for accountability, transparency, and to encourage civil interactions between officers and members of the public.”

Richards’ worries were echoed by several Council members as they peppered NYPD Assistant Deputy Commissioner of Legal Matters Oleg Chernyavsky and Assistant Chief Matthew Pontillo to clarify and improve the department’s body-worn camera policies.

“It's a work in progress,” Chernyavsky said. “We're always learning. I mean, the idea here is to be transparent, and to give the public this vital information with as little delay as possible. If there's ways to do it better, we're certainly open to that.”

Pontillo said body camera policies have been routinely adjusted since the first pilot program in 2015, and they continue to change. “We anticipate in the near future, we will revise the policy again. We’ll probably add a couple of more categories of events that police officers get involved in, like responding to disputes,” he said. “Department policies are always under review. No policy is ever written with the idea that it will exist in perpetuity, but rather, it's an evolution and this whole thing has been an evolution since early 2014 when we began the research.”

Chernyavsky detailed the department’s efforts to balance transparency with privacy as it faces a deluge of requests for footage. Since the launch of body cameras, the department has collected about 8 million videos, he said. On average, each video is about 8 minutes long and 130,000 new videos are uploaded to the department’s cloud video storage each week. These are then accessible to prosecutors automatically.

For the CCRB’s disciplinary investigations, however, the department edits and redacts videos as it deems necessary under state laws. This year, the CCRB has made about 3,700 requests, which generated almost 14,500 responsive videos, Chernyavsky said, up from 2,080 requests in 2018, which led to 6,134 responsive videos. Another 870 request for footage were made this year under the Freedom of Information Law, with roughly 3,000 videos provided in response.

He also emphasized the department’s internal quality control and random auditing process, and said the most recent 28-day audit showed 92% compliance by officers with guidelines in the NYPD Patrol Guide, which include when to turn the cameras on and off.

Another topic of discussion at the hearing was a bill proposed by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams that would place detailed reporting requirements for the NYPD’s body-camera program. Though Chernyavsky said the department was open to collaborating with the City Council to create some form of reporting mechanism, he said Williams’ bill as written was far too onerous.

“The bill would require us to report on data which could not be captured without a trained analyst watching and listening to every recording in its entirety, then conducting an investigation to gather additional data points,” he said in his testimony, noting that the department would need to hire and train about 800 new analysts and investigators to meet that need.

Richards pointed out, as Gotham Gazette has reported, that the CCRB experiences delays in receiving footage, which can be heavily edited, and sometimes has its requests denied outright. “Why do you have to be the gatekeeper? Can't you just give access to the CCRB so they can look for the footage they need to investigate their cases?” he asked.

But Chernyavsky argued that the CCRB does not have the same authority as district attorneys and so is subject to certain restrictions that stem from state laws on privacy. He did say the department is trying to reduce delays as far as possible. “We've been working collaboratively with [the CCRB] to streamline the process even further, and to reduce the turnaround times even more, and we're anticipating that will be able to do that, especially in the near future to hopefully almost eliminate any kind of delay and turnaround time,” he said.

That explanation wasn’t adequate for Council Member Rory Lancman, another Queens Democrat and a longtime critic of certain NYPD practices, who questioned why the operations order on public release did not include a time-bound mechanism for releasing footage to the CCRB. “It's very disturbing to me that this order lacks a clear mechanism for getting BWC footage to the CCRB in a timely manner,” he said.

He also pointed out, as did Council Member Brad Lander after him, that the operation order merely says the commissioner will decide within 30 days whether to release footage of a critical incident to the public. It does not seem to mandate the release, Lancman said. He also questioned whether the policy’s stated guidelines on releasing representative samples of footage would allow the NYPD to create a narrative of incidents that would protect its officers rather than reveal the truth.

Pontillo and Chernyavsky, however, sought to reassure him. “This procedure creates a presumption of release,” Pontillo said. Chernyavsky said representative samples are part of a common sense policy. “What we are striving to do is to give this type of sample, where possible to attach a more comprehensive video to it, when you have a situation where there is just so much video footage that it's not feasible to turn it around that quickly,” he said. “You may have a situation where we're putting out something of great public interest rather than simply being silent for an extended amount of time.”

Several Council members also pushed the police officials to commit to ensuring that body camera footage is released immediately or is at least allowed to be reviewed by the family members of individuals killed in police-involved shootings. They cited two recent examples: the fatal police shooting of Kawaski Trawick in the Bronx in April and the September incident where officers shot one of their own, Brian Mulkeen, and a civilian, Antonio Williams, in a hail of bullets. In both cases, neither Trawick’s nor Williams’ families have been allowed access to footage from officers on the scene. “I do think just families should have access sooner than everybody else,” Public Advocate Williams said. “That seems to make sense to me.”

But the operations order notes that families of those involved would be notified and shown footage only before it is publicly released, as has been the department’s practice. Families do not receive immediate access when they demand it. 

Civil rights and police reform advocates who spoke at the hearing in support of Williams’ bill expressed additional criticisms of the overall body-camera program. 

Jacqueline Caruana, senior trial attorney at the criminal defense practice at Brooklyn Defender Services, said the program is currently being used to the NYPD’s advantage rather than for transparency. “Any legislation that establishes reporting requirements for body-worn camera usage will likely be ineffectual if it does not also impose a consequence for failure to follow them, and if the department itself remains generally unwilling to penalize offices for misconduct,” she said.

Michael Sisitzky of the New York Civil Liberties Union said the NYPD’s total control over cameras and footage undermines the goals of the program. “If it becomes apparent that these cameras are primarily focused on surveillance and tool for prosecution, New York City must be open to reconsidering whether the substantial sums currently spent on this NYPD program could be better invested in our communities,” he said in written testimony.

Lenora Easter, team leader of the early defense team at the criminal defense practice of The Bronx Defenders, urged the Council to close a loophole that allows officers discretion to not turn on their cameras in exigent circumstances. She also pushed for increasing the “buffering period” on officer cameras – the two types of cameras currently used will save 30 seconds and 1 minute of footage prior to a camera being turned on. That extra buffer provides added context to an incident but recorded without audio.

Laura Hecht-Felella, legal fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, said Williams’ bill should be passed alongside the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act, a bill introduced by Council Member Vanessa Gibson to mandate the NYPD disclose information about the surveillance tools it uses. The NYPD has vehemently opposed that bill over the course of two Council sessions.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Facing Criticism, NYPD Reps Tell City Council Body Camera Program 'A Work in Progress' Mon, 18 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
City Council to Examine Rollout of NYPD Body Camera Program cm cornegy richards press conference

(photo: John McCarten/City Council)

The NYPD’s body-worn camera program is meant to provide transparency and accountability about policing activity in the city, particularly in cases of high-profile incidents of police officers’ use of force against civilians. But more than seven months after body cameras were rolled out to every uniformed patrol officer, there are many questions about how the cameras are used and about the policies that determine the release of the footage to the public and independent watchdogs.

At a hearing on Monday, the New York City Council will examine the rollout of the program and ask some of those key questions, along with discussion of proposed legislation to require the NYPD to regularly publish data on the implementation of the body-worn camera program.  

The Council’s Committee on Public Safety, chaired by Council Member Donovan Richards, is expected to delve into two main issues: the long delays in the release of body camera footage to the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), an independent agency that monitors and investigates allegations of abuse of power and misconduct by police officers; and the NYPD’s recently-published policy on releasing footage to members of the public and the news media.

[Read: NYPD Publishes Long-Sought Body Camera Footage Policy]

Footage from body-worn cameras is crucial evidence in investigations by outside authorities into complaints against NYPD officers. Gotham Gazette recently reported that since March, when body-worn cameras were fully rolled out to 20,000 patrol officers, between 29 and 37% of the CCRB’s open investigations had pending requests for body camera footage, per monthly data from the Board. The delay for releasing footage also varies. The NYPD responded to 43% of requests within 30 days; 35% of requests were fulfilled within 30 and 60 days; in 13% of requests, there was no response for more than 90 days.

Even when footage is provided, it can be edited or censored. The NYPD says the delays can be attributed to the need to edit footage to ensure compliance with state privacy protection laws, but the CCRB has pointed out several other reasons that the department has cited to refuse to provide footage, while also pointing out that there have been many cases where the NYPD says body camera footage doesn’t exist, but it is later discovered that it does. [Read: New NYPD Body Camera Footage Policy Raises Questions About Editing]

Meanwhile, prosecutors in district attorney offices across the city automatically receive unedited body camera footage from the department when it is uploaded after an arrest. [Read: Vast Difference in NYPD Provision of Body Camera Footage to District Attorneys Versus Police Watchdog]

“One of the things that I want to explore the most is the issue around CCRB and obviously prosecutors gaining access to the footage much faster,” said Richards, a Queens Democrat, in a phone interview.

“The Civilian Complaint Review Board plays a very important role, just as we saw in the [Eric] Garner case,” Richards added, citing the CCRB’s investigation into then-NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was recently terminated from the force, five years after he used a banned chokehold during an attempted arrest that led to Garner’s death on Staten Island. “And being that they are the agency that has oversight over the NYPD, they shouldn't have to wait 30 days. They should be able to have a system in place that gives them access right away,” he said.

The NYPD’s policy on public release has been criticized by a number of stakeholders and experts, first for including a 30-day timeline for footage of “critical incidents” and also for an explicit acknowledgement that the NYPD will exercise discretion in editing and omitting certain footage. The department’s recently (and quietly) released “operations order” around release of footage also makes no mention at all of the CCRB.

Richards said the 30-day policy is inadequate.

“One of the things we do also want to ensure is that the NYPD is not just doctoring certain parts of the video that they want the public to see,” he added. “We need to make sure that it's a full transparent process and that the public, who funds the NYPD, has the right to know what these interactions look like between the department and everyday people...which creates a higher standard, which then leads to more accountability and ensuring that there’s checks and balances.”

Besides the oversight aspect of Monday’s hearing, the Council will also discuss a bill proposed by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams that requires the NYPD to publish quarterly public reports on the use of body-worn cameras and an annual report on every incident that requires activation of a body camera.

The quarterly reports would include data on the number of officers with body-worn cameras, and the percentage of officers, disaggregated by borough and precinct; the percentage of total law enforcement activities where body-worn camera footage was recorded, disaggregated by category of law enforcement activity; the percentage of total use-of-force incidents where footage was recorded, disaggregated by use-of-force category; and the percentage of total police-civilian encounters that lead to investigations by the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau where footage was recorded; disaggregated by category of alleged misconduct.

The annual report would be far more detailed, requiring data on every incident recorded on body-worn cameras in the previous year including the date, time, and location of the incident; the law enforcement activity that triggered the recording; whether officers on scene were equipped with cameras; whether footage was recorded and the reason if it was not; whether the camera failed to clearly record audio; whether the footage was visually compromised or obstructed in any way; whether an officer told an individual they were being recorded; whether an officer switched off their camera before the incident was concluded; whether someone requested the footage under the state’s Freedom of Information Law; whether a use-of-force incident occurred during the recording, and the category; whether a recording was used for an internal investigation by the department or for an external probe by the CCRB; and the race, gender and age of the individual subject to law enforcement activity that led to the recording.

[Read: New NYPD Body Camera Footage Policy Raises Questions About Editing]

[Read: Vast Difference in NYPD Provision of Body Camera Footage to District Attorneys Versus Police Watchdog]

[Read: Oversight Board Stymied by NYPD Denial of Body Camera Footage Requests]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City Council to Examine Rollout of NYPD Body Camera Program Sun, 17 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
Oversight Board Stymied by NYPD Denial of Body Camera Footage Requests police comm confer

(photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office)

Amid the ongoing conversation about the way the NYPD handles footage recorded by officer-worn body cameras, more details have surfaced about the reasons the department gives for delaying or denying requests made by misconduct investigators for key pieces of video.

Gotham Gazette recently reported that while prosecutors in district attorney offices get full body-worn camera footage directly from the arresting officer following an arrest, police watchdogs often experience significant delays in obtaining video from the NYPD, if the footage is handed over at all.

Over the course of many months running, roughly a third of Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) investigations have outstanding body camera footage requests. More than half of all footage requests made by the CCRB are pending for more than 30 days (some even longer), which CCRB officials say has contributed to a growing backlog that threatens to derail ongoing investigations.

The CCRB is a civilian agency with Board members appointed by the mayor -- some recommended by the police commissioner or City Council -- and jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute allegations of officer misconduct when the claims involve excessive force or abuse of authority, among others.

The police department’s body-worn camera program hit full implementation across the entire force earlier this year, but the NYPD just last month issued its first “operations order” that indicates how camera footage is reviewed and disseminated to the public or prosecutors. The CCRB is not mentioned in the official policy.

NYPD officials have said, for requests made by the public or the CCRB, the department must edit the footage in order to comply with privacy provisions within the state’s public disclosure laws. Tracking down the relevant footage from any police body cameras on the scene of an incident, and ensuring it is edited to prevent depicting legally protected information, can contribute to the delays, department officials say.

Yet in a July memo to the CCRB, recently obtained by Gotham Gazette, CCRB Director of Quality Assurance and Improvement Olas Carayannis describes additional reasons the NYPD has given to outright deny body camera footage requests. The conditions discussed in the memo may also illuminate causes for the consistent delays in releasing footage to the CCRB, which the NYPD says it is working on and the mayor’s office told Gotham Gazette it will review. There is a City Council oversight hearing on the body camera program set for Monday.

Earlier this fall, NYPD spokesperson Al Baker told Gotham Gazette body camera video could be edited to shield the identities of victims and survivors of sex crimes, which he says the state’s civil rights statute protect. He also said footage can be redacted or omitted to remove images of confidential medical treatment, protected under federal law, or “other prisoners in a cell whose arrest may be sealed.” At a CCRB board meeting in September, Board Chair Fred Davie said there are also cases where the NYPD has withheld footage because it captures the face of a minor.

“With all NYPD patrol officers now outfitted with body-worn cameras, the NYPD collaborates closely with the CCRB to provide footage as expeditiously as possible,” Baker wrote in an email to Gotham Gazette in November. In March, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner James O’Neill announced the completed rollout of 20,000 body cameras to rank-and-file officers.

“That practice is constantly being fine-tuned to offer even faster turnarounds considering that a single request from the CCRB, about a single policing encounter, can mean that lengthy videos from dozens of officers must be carefully reviewed and possibly redacted,” Baker said.

The memo from Carayannis goes further, laying out other reasons the NYPD has given to CCRB investigators, some of which outline grounds for completely denying footage requests in addition to pointing to causes for delays.

Between February 2018 and July 2019, the NYPD has reserved the right to withhold body camera recordings when there is an ongoing investigation by the Internal Affairs Bureau or another body, Carayannis noted. During that time period 41 cases were denied on that basis, six of which “were being investigated by the Force Investigations Division, which often investigates high-profile media cases involving force allegations that are also the CCRB’s jurisdiction,” the memo reads.

“Waiting for the Force Investigations Division to complete its investigation limits the CCRB’s ability to independently investigate these complaints,” Carayannis wrote. CCRB investigations must be completed within an 18-month statute of limitations.

The memo also states that in March 2018, the NYPD began refusing to provide the CCRB footage of incidents when they involved an arrest that was later sealed (a fact WNYC reported in July). “The NYPD considers the entire incident sealed in these instances, and thus all videos related to that arrest become unavailable to the CCRB,” the memo states.

It says, “The NYPD currently has a blanket policy of denying all BWC [body worn camera] requests that are in any way related to a sealed case,” pursuant to the state’s Criminal Procedure Law. In the memo Carayannis reports 81 CCRB requests that had been altogether denied because they were associated with a sealed arrest between March 2018 and July 2019.

Complaints can be made against officers for conduct that takes place during an arrest later sealed, and body camera footage could be essential in those investigations. Sealing records is meant to protect the reputation of an individual who may have had criminal charges dropped or ones that were very minor to begin with.

In April, the New York Supreme Court determined it was illegal for the police department to “us[e] any documents” connected with a sealed arrest, according to the memo. But Carayannis’s memo raises concerns that NYPD “members of service” (police officers) may continue to view body camera footage related to a sealed arrest, despite the ruling.

Carayannis wrote, “the CCRB is aware of multiple instances where the CCRB was denied access to video footage pursuant to [the Criminal Procedure Law], yet the [officer] was able to view the video prior to his/her CCRB interview.”

Video request denials because of a sealed arrest can compound the effect of other obstacles the CCRB says it faces in receiving and analyzing evidence from BWCs. “The backlog in BWC requests will cause the number of BWC videos unavailable to the CCRB to increase drastically, because the likelihood that an arrest is sealed rises with the length of time since an arrest,” the memo stated.

Another reason given by the NYPD to the CCRB for denying certain video requests is the presence of a minor in the sought-after recording. Baker has noted that the depiction of juveniles is a consideration in processing footage requests, writing in a November email, “Our policy for release is guided by State law and ensures that sensitive information involving juveniles or sex crime victims, among other things, is protected.”

Carayannis’ memo expands upon that description, explicitly citing it as a reason given, not only for potential delays in delivering footage, but for wholly refusing requests. Between March 2018 and July 2019, 82 video requests made by the CCRB were denied because of the presence of minors under the age of 18, which the police department said was required under the state’s Family Court Act, according to the memo.

“If you’re really interested in protecting young New Yorkers, if you’re really interested in improving relationships between the NYPD and those young people...then the best way to do that is by ensuring that we hold members of the police department in this city accountable,” CCRB Chair Davie said at the September board meeting.

“Ensuring the city’s police oversight agency has the tools it needs to investigate this misconduct is the best way to protect” young people captured in body camera video, he added.

Despite repeated attempts, NYPD representatives did not provide comment specifically for this story, particularly with regard to questions about denying video footage records requests because of ongoing IAB investigations, sealed arrests, or the presence of a minor.

[READ: New NYPD Body Camera Footage Policy Raises Questions About Editing]

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Oversight Board Stymied by NYPD Denial of Body Camera Footage Requests Sat, 16 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000