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Policing the Police

The case of two civil rights lawyers who say they were victims of police abuse has attracted outrage among ministers and other black leaders who say that New Yorkers, particularly people of color, continue to suffer mistreatment at the hands of the police department.

Photo (c) Kevin Connors

The case occurred as several reports have highlighted problem with police conduct. In August, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the independent board charged with investigating police behavior, found that the police department is increasingly unlikely to prosecute officers on charges of misconduct. A month later, the New York Civil Liberties Union criticized the complaint board itself for being too lax and lenient on the police. And even according to the mayor's own statistics, complaints against the police continue to increase.

The Warren Case

Against this backdrop, the new Interfaith Commission on Police Accountability gathered on the steps of City Hall on September 13 to protest alleged abuse. "Too frequently, we listen to accounts of the young and the old regarding their mistreatment at the hands of some of the members of the New York City Police Department," a statement signed by 12 religious leaders said. "And while residents of our communities suffer indignities, personal injury and in some cases death, we see no meaningful efforts on the part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg or Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly to eliminate the problem."

The ministers expressed outraged over the arrests of Evelyn and Michael Warren. The Warrens, who appeared at the rally, are civil rights attorneys who are married to each other.

Michael Warren told the News that he saw officers hitting a handcuffed suspect in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, at around 6 p.m. in June 21. "It reminded me of lions chasing down a zebra," Michael Warren said. "We got out of our cars. ... We expressed our concerns and requested that it stop."

Michael Warren said he then returned to his car but Sgt. Steven Talvy came after him. According to Michael Warren he was punched by an officer and forcibly removed from the vehicle."

Michael Warren, who specializes in police brutality cases, was charged with obstructing government administration, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. Evelyn Warren faces disorderly conduct charges. "I got hit in the jaw, upside the head and on my lip a few times, and you can see that my pants are torn, but I'm fine. I'm great," Michael Warren told a crowd of 20 supporters the next day. Evelyn Warren was allegedly struck as well.

A police source told the News that officers were arresting a man on drug and theft charges when the Warrens stopped their car to criticize them. The source also said Evelyn Warren scratched an officer's face while she was being arrested.

The Warrens' cases will next be heard on October 23 in Brooklyn Criminal Court.

Demands for Change

Whatever happens in the Warren case, the ministers at the September 13 interfaith press conference want changes in the way the city deals with the police. When the 30 or so ministers and their supports were asked whether they themselves had been subjected to police abuse, virtually every hand went up, however reluctantly.

Police abuse is "not just against Michael Warren-and his wife who are exemplary citizens, but those not as high profile who get even worse abuse," said State Senator Bill Perkins of Harlem. He called the police department "out of control" and said that many in the black community feel "terrorized."

The interfaith group put forth four proposals that in one form or another have been kicking around for decades. They are seeking:


  • A "permanent independent special prosecutor," because, they say, it is "unrealistic" to expect district attorneys to prosecute police when they are so dependent on police for their own investigations.



  • "Accountability in the office of the police commissioner"


  • That the borough presidents, not the mayor, appoint the majority of the members of the Civilian Complaint Review Board


  • Creation of "a community connection" for the board in all boroughs and community boards, instead of just an office in downtown Manhattan.

    In another recommendation, City Councilmember Charles Barron of East New York called for passage of a bill mandating that police interrogations be videotaped or recorded. This, he said, would have the effect of "protecting the officers and those falsely accused." But the office of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn had no response to any of the proposals put forth at the press conference. While hearings were held in the spring on police-community relations, no substantive legislative agenda has come out of them.

    The Civilian Complaint Review Board

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    The city does have mechanisms intended to improve police-community relations, but critics charge they are not effective.

    The number of complaints has risen dramatically in the last several years. Civilian complaints against members of the department went up by almost 50 percent from fiscal year 2003 to 2007, with 7,662 complaints last year. The department attributed the increase to the creation of the city's 311 non-emergency hot line, which has made it easier to file a complaint.

    In its report "Mission Failure: Civilian Review of Policing in New York City, 1994 - 2006," the civil liberties union said: "Even as complaints of police misconduct have increased sharply over the past five years, the CCRB has been closing more than half of all complaints without an investigation." (For a commentary on theboard by its former executive director, see "The Failure of Civlian Oversight".

    Overall, the board has substantiated only about 5 percent of the complaints -- well below national averages. Andrew Case, a spokesman for the board, maintained that many of the complaints were not pursued because the person filing the charge did not follow through as required. Many complainants,he said, fail to appear at the board's office and make the required formal statements.

    Case agreed with the comment on the police department's failure to cooperate with the board, but disputed the NYCLU's computation of its substantiation rate.

    "True to form, the NYCLU has distorted or ignored the facts to reach its predetermined conclusions," Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Paul Browne said in a statement. "The NYCLU cherry-picks data and information, much of it outdated, to distort findings."

    To remedy the situation, the NYCLU offered several proposals for reform. These include establishing an office to conduct audits of the complaint board, providing more resources to the board and setting up complaint board units in each borough.

    Even in those cases where the Civilian Complaint Review Board does find wrongdoing, the police department frequently rejected the board's findings and recommendations. "When discipline is imposed," the report states, "it is often strikingly lenient in light of the severity of the misconduct documented by the CCRB."

    The NYCLU could get support for this contention from the complaint board itself. From March 1 to June 30, the police department declined to seek internal departmental trials against 31 officers, most of whom were charged with stopping people in the street without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, according to figures from the board reported in the New York Times. In comparison, over the previous four years, the department reportedly declined to pursue only 49 officers.

    The police department has faulted the board for the decline in prosecutions, saying it does not apply "appropriate legal standards." But some at the board disagree. They reportedly believe the department is simply too easy on its people.

    "Misconduct is part of a continuum of behavior and the police commissioner is entitled to draw the line wherever he wants to draw it, meaning he can impose discipline where he sees fit," board chair Franklin Stone told the Times. "But he cannot tell us that the standard we are applying is inappropriate or suddenly, after 14 years, that it has become inappropriate."

    A Troubled Past

    The city's attempts to deal with civilian complaints of police abuse have a troubled history, recounted on the complaint board's own web site. And the New York Civil Liberties Union has a history of advocating to make it stronger.

    When Mayor John Lindsay put four people from outside the department on a review board in the late 1960s, police union president John Cassese said, "I'm sick and tired of giving in to minority groups with their whims and their gripes and shouting."

    The Patrolmen's Benevolent Association proposed a referendum to bar civilians from the board, and it passed overwhelmingly. The City Council restored civilian participation in 1986 and in 1993, and under Mayor David Dinkins, the board became the all-civilian body we have today.

    But that move spurred controversy. In September 1992, 10,000 police rallied outside City Hall to protest the Dinkins administration's policy on several issues, including the mayor's support for City Council legislation creating a truly civilian board and his opposition to issuing 9mm guns to police. Journalist Wayne Barrett has recounted future Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's participation in this race-tinged rally. "He screamed 'bullshit' twice in a condemnation of Dinkins' actions." When Giuliani beat Dinkins in 1993, he quickly moved to slash the complaint board's budget.

    The issue of civilian review of the police has remained largely absent from the front pages since. The arrests of Evelyn and Michael Warren, working their way through the courts and being protested in the streets, may not be high profile enough to force all sides to sit down together and hammer out some new reforms. But the incident has clearly touched a long-frayed nerve, especially among black New Yorkers. "We need things to change," said Rev. Charles Curtis, pastor of the Mount Olivet Baptist Church in Harlem at the press conference. "We pray that something will be said to cause change."


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