Gotham Gazette

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The Failure of Civilian Oversight

I had the honor of serving as the first executive director of New York City's Civilian Complaint Review Board, the city's official oversight agency for the police department, when it was set up in 1993. I have also served as director of the Advocate's Office of the New York City Police Department and as the executive director of the Philadelphia official police oversight agency.

In my experience of over two decades in the field of police-community relations, I have found that, for a civilian oversight agency to work effectively, it must be strongly and overtly independent. It must also have not only the passive cooperation of the police commissioner and mayor but their active commitment and involvement. The agency's leader and staff also must listen and learn from their critics, be they the police, the community, advocates or other stakeholders.

Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case today in New York City. New Yorkers want and need a police department that understands and accepts it is accountable to the public it serves. The Civilian Complaint Review Board must vigorously enforce that accountability. If the board cannot do that, maybe it should be dismantled.

A report recently released by the New York Civil Liberties Union, Mission Failure: Civilian Review of Policing in New York City, 1994 -- 2006, concludes that by these standards the board has failed. (See related story.) The report cites the Civilian Complaint Review Board for many specific failures ranging from failing "to establish an effective investigative operation" to "showing extreme deference to the police department."

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A quick reading of the CCRB's Status Report for 2006 reveals just how extensively its mission and operations have been either co-opted or suppressed by the police department. This annual status report by the board to the public almost always puts the police department in the best possible light while directing attention away from potentially serious issues like bias or racial profiling. However as complaints continue to rise -- 2006 saw a record 7,669 complaints, including a record number of 25,452 allegations filed -- the track record of the CCRB and Police Department become even more conspicuous and troublesome.

More than half of all complaints made to the board are dismissed without an investigation. The board substantiates only 5 percent of complaints, a figure well below the national average. Even in those cases where an officer is found to have acted properly, the penalty is light. In three quarters of the cases in 2006, the officer received the lightest penalty --- a marked increase from 2000 when less than 25 percent were punished that way. On the other hand, far fewer officers now face the stiffer penalties of suspensions or lost vacation days.

This is very disturbing. But what are even more outrageous are the defensive and dismissive responses to the report by the police department and board itself.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has made a real effort to show by his words and actions that he is serious about improving police-community relations as well as policing, especially with regard to communities of color. But he does himself and the city a major disservice by dismissing the record 89 percent increase in the number of complaints filed by the public with the CCRB since 2000 as merely a by-product of the city's 311 call-in system. The CCRB itself, in its 2006 Status Report: July to December, clearly states that the 311 system is not the sole cause of the increase. Similarly, the police commissioner contradicts his efforts and insults our intelligence by rejecting the NYCLU's report out-of-hand as nothing more than a left-wing, radical effort to smear the police.

In response to the report, the chairwoman of the Civilian Complaint Review Board told reporters that the agency has performed its mission "extraordinarily well." While not as strident as the police response, such defensive efforts by the board's less strident to deflect the Civil Liberties Union criticism are also a disservice to the Civilian Complaint Review Board and the city.

Hector W. Soto, Esq. is a senior fellow with the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP). He is currently working on a study of police-community relations in major American cities. He also teaches at the John Jay College on Criminal Justice.


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