When it comes to alleged abuses of police power, the official channel of recourse is to file a complaint with the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), the independent agency formed in 1992 to investigate misconduct. But as of Tuesday, representatives for the two officials involved in this weekend's controversial incident at the West Indian Day Parade said neither had considered filing a CCRB complaint. It simply hadn't crossed their minds.
Recounting at a press conference on Tuesday the events at Monday's parade, Councilman Jumaane Williams and Kirsten John Foy, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio's community affairs director, said they showed their City-issued identification, explained they had permission to skirt the barrier, and were promptly handcuffed. A video of the incident shows officers surrounding Foy and tackling him to the grass in front of the Brooklyn Library. The NYPD claimed that an officer had been punched in the face, a claim that Williams termed "bald-faced lies."
It's the sort of dispute that the CCRB was created to sort out. But the effectiveness of the review board has long been doubted. As City Limits reported in 2007, the CCRB has been hindered by underfunding, understaffing and a severely limited range of authority. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), over half of CCRB complaints are closed without an investigation and the police department often rejects the CCRB's findings and recommendations. Even confirmed misconduct is, the NYCLU says, often met with lenient measures. In 2006, for example, no disciplinary actions whatsoever were taken against almost 30 percent of NYPD officers named in substantiated CCRB complaints.
Yet, for a brief, hopeful moment last year, it seemed the CCRB had finally been granted more powers. In February 2010, the NYPD announced that CCRB attorneys would begin prosecuting some of the cases against officers that resulted from CCRB investigations. The first such case went to trial in May of this year. But last month, before the second case could even be prosecuted, news came that money for the program would run out by the end of 2011. Originally, City Hall designated about $300,000 for the initiative, most of which never made it to the CCRB due to New York's fiscal woes. Ultimately, only two CCRB staffers—a lawyer and an investigator—were hired, and the Bloomberg administration made no promises of renewing program's funding.
The likely cancellation of the CCRB prosecution initiative is reflective of a general decline in manpower at the CCRB in the past five years. In 2006, the CCRB had 182 full-time employees, which had been cut to 135 by 2010.
Williams and de Blasio have cast the incident at the parade as a reflection of the broader problems posed by the NYPD's aggressive stop-and-frisk (or stop-and-question) program.
"If we had been white elected officials, this would not have happened," Williams said Tuesday. "Stop-and-frisk has created a culture where this happens more and more," de Blasio added. The NYPD policy disproportionately targets people of color: Of the 601,055 New Yorkers stopped by police in 2010, 58.5 percent were black and 25 percent were Latino. The NYPD counters that those numbers are in line with crime victims' descriptions of their assailants, but critics say the massive number of stops and the relatively small number of resulting summonses or arrests mean that tens of thousands of innocent people of color are being stopped.
Since 2005, about one third of CCRB complaints have involved claims of stop-and-frisk police misconduct. In 2010, the CCRB received one complaint per 303 stop-and-frisk encounters (a lower rate than in earlier years), and 15 percent of complaints in the combined categories of "question," "stop," "search" and "frisk" were found to be substantiated. Overall, that year the CCRB completed 2,424 investigations of complaints, 11 percent of which were substantiated; the CCRB forwarded 260 such complaints to the NYPD. Of those cases that had been closed by the NYPD at the time of the CCRB's annual report, officers had been disciplined in 74 percent of substantiated cases. The vast majority of those disciplined received "instructions" rather than a specific punishment.
Given the numbers, it's understandable why Williams and Foy wouldn't immediately rush to file a CCRB complaint. On Wednesday Bloomberg termed the incident a "misunderstanding" and suggested Williams, Foy, and the police officers could "have a beer together and work it out." In a joint statement, the two called attention to the systemic issues at play: "While we appreciate the Mayor's gesture, this is bigger than the three of us over a beer. We would rather have a meeting with the Mayor and Commissioner Kelly, where young African American and Latino New Yorkers can talk openly and directly about their experiences with stop and frisk and other police interactions."
Unlike the 352,000 black New Yorkers stopped by police in 2010, as City officials, Williams and Foy have a platform from which to advocate policy change—something a CCRB complaint would be unlikely to accomplish.