The mayoral hopeful spent a little more than a year as chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, where former staffers who spoke with City Limits say she did not improve the dysfunctional agency in tangible ways.

Adi Talwar

Maya Wiley speaks with a passerby during a walking tour of Brooklyn in March.

A fundraising website for Maya Wiley’s mayoral campaign states that, “Maya isn’t a politician and doesn’t have a political machine behind her — she’s building a movement by and for the people of NYC. Will you join us?”

While it is true that Wiley has never held elected office, she’s held high-profile roles in city government that shine some light on her political instincts. Wiley’s role as legal counsel in the de Blasio administration, and her attempt to shield the mayor’s communications with advisors from scrutiny, are well known.

But less has been reported on her next job, where she served for a year as chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the largest police oversight body in the country. Wiley has repeatedly referenced the gig as a sign that she can hold the NYPD accountable.

Four former employees who served under Wiley at the CCRB, who spoke to City Limits on the condition of anonymity, say they were put off by some of her decisions there, including the creation of what they said was an unnecessary position as part of a behind-the-scenes power struggle at the agency. They were also jarred by her sudden departure from the CCRB with no transition time built into her resignation. Some former CCRB staff say they became disillusioned with Wiley, left with the impression that her brief term as chair was meant to burnish her résumé but that she was not invested in the long-term viability of the agency.

It raises questions about a consistent claim of the Wiley campaign: That her period at the CCRB is proof of her abilities as a reformer. But sources who spoke with City Limits, including former CCRB staffers, say her tenure there did little to overhaul the long-troubled institution.

“It’s an agency without a lot of power and authority; she certainly didn’t do anything to change that,” says Nick Encalada-Malinowski, civil rights campaign director with the group VOCAL-NY.

Wiley was not made available to speak for this article, and a detailed list of questions sent to her campaign was not answered.

A rushed tenure

The CCRB has existed in its current form as an all-civilian oversight body since 1993. The agency has been vigorously opposed by police unions since its inception, but it has an equally bad reputation with criminal justice reformers, who decry it as a toothless bureaucracy that gives the NYPD the cover of accountability.

“The CCRB has for years been a place where a lot of idealistic, well-meaning people go to become investigators, to work as lawyers, in the furtherance of holding police accountable — there are a lot of challenges that have historically prevented that from happening,” says Janos Marton, a former policy analyst at the CCRB who was formerly a candidate for Manhattan District Attorney. (Marton left the CCRB before Wiley’s tenure.)

The agency’s recommendations are non-binding, and board chairs play a role in persuading the NYPD chief to accept the CCRB’s proposed disciplines for officers. The chair also plays a role in corralling other board members to put cases to vote and getting consensus among the board for those votes.

Wiley was appointed by de Blasio to chair the CCRB in July of 2016, transitioning directly from her role as the mayor’s legal adviser. A source told the New York Times at the time that Wiley wanted out of the de Blasio administration because of her limited influence with the mayor. But former CCRB employees who worked under her say their impression was that she was still aligned with the mayor during her time as board chair, although none could point to specific examples in which Wiley had been influenced by de Blasio.  

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According to one of the former employees, Wiley’s appointment, months after her predecessor Richard Emery had resigned, felt rushed. “It was kind of clear that she was hurriedly sent there and she might not be there on a long term basis,” the former CCRB staffer said.

Former staffers say they were stunned at Wiley’s announced departure a little over a year later. Wiley’s stated reasoning was that she needed to devote more time to her work at the New School, where she is a professor of urban policy and management. But Wiley had already been working at the New School throughout her tenure at the CCRB. According to the former CCRB employees who spoke with City Limits, there was no foreknowledge among staff that she would be leaving nor was there time built in to transition to her interim replacement, Deborah Archer.

“One day she came in and said I’m too busy, I can’t do this job any more,” said one former CCRB staffer. “I don’t understand why she didn’t leave some transition time. She just came in and said, ‘I have too much pressure and today’s my last day.’”

“We felt kind of betrayed; for her to leave this agency, for all the upheavals that we’ve been through, for her to be there for such a short time and for her to leave so abruptly with no continuation,” said the former CCRB employee, a sentiment shared by several former staffers who spoke to City Limits.

“We discussed it among ourselves; it didn’t ring true. It wasn’t something new that came up all of a sudden,” the former staffer said. “I don’t know why she didn’t care enough about the agency to kind of have some transition time.”

Power struggle

When Wiley arrived at the CCRB, she found herself quickly embroiled in a leadership crisis unfolding at the agency. Emery, her predecessor as board chair, had resigned following a lawsuit claiming he’d used sexist language. The lawsuit was filed by Mina Malik, then executive director of the CCRB. Malik was later accused of running a vindictive and verbally abusive workplace, something that multiple former CCRB employees who spoke to City Limits agreed was the case.

(Malik, in an email to City Limits, disputes this, saying, “I was not vindictive.” Malik attributes those claims to “employees accustomed to making up their own rules, having their own fiefdoms, and supporting ineffectiveness” who did not welcome “new hires, colleague’s promotions, best policies and practices.”)

Wiley immediately opened her office for one-on-one meetings with staff members who were unhappy with Malik, according to one former employee of the agency. But some take issue with how Wiley handled the situation: According to four former CCRB employees, Wiley created a new position within the agency, “Senior Adviser and Secretary to the Board,” that had overlapping responsibilities with Malik’s, and appointed a former associate in the role.

Some who spoke to City Limits were concerned the new position didn’t serve a need in the CCRB and sowed confusion, adding a layer of redundant bureaucracy. “Having another person parallel reporting directly to the board, it just created some conflict,” said one former CCRB staffer. The former staffer went so far as to speculate that Wiley’s presence in the CCRB was a result of de Blasio’s distrust of Malik. “The way I understand, her role for being there was to get Mina Malik out of that position,” said the former employee.

Additionally, staff were upset that Wiley had presented the new position as open to all CCRB staff, but eventually hired someone from outside the agency who had worked under Wiley when she was a legal counsel to the mayor.

“She was bringing this person who she already knew into this position,” said a former CCRB staffer. “She led people in the agency to believe they could apply for the position. Once the posting was closed, this person missed the deadline. She reopened the closed posting and the only person she let in was this lady that she already worked with,” the former staffer said.

Former staffers believe the new role was meant to limit Malik’s power and keep tabs on her, and they say this is the reason Malik eventually departed the agency in November of 2016. In an email to City Limits, Malik disputed that as the reason for her departure, saying that she left becase she was “offered the rare opportunity to work with distinguished faculty at Harvard Law School which I could not pass up.” (Malik is currently a lecturer on law at the school.)

“My progressive vision for the CCRB was to make it effective and independent, free from outside influences such as City Hall and the Police Commissioner,” Malik wrote in a statement to City Limits. “When Mayor de Blasio appointed his friend and confidante, Maya Wiley, as CCRB Chair, Maya created the Senior Advisor & Secretary to the Board position and filled it with another City Hall operative close to the Mayor.”

Wiley’s chosen replacement for Malik after she left was Jonathan Darche, who would go on to be a controversial executive director in his own right. Darche had been disciplined at the CCRB in 2013 for making racially insensitive comments about Black and Latino co-workers, a history that came to light in 2017 when his disciplinary record at the agency was leaked. But Wiley stood by Darche’s appointment, saying that he “took responsibility, was held accountable, and has demonstrated his commitment to our policies and staff.”

More than three years later, Darche was named in a lawsuit filed by former CCRB staffers who say they were fired in retaliation after pushing upper management to more aggressively pursue NYPD body camera footage. Darche is also accused in the lawsuit of threatening to call 911 on a Black staff member during an argument.

The accusations of racially insensitive behavior described in the lawsuit led some to question why Wiley had appointed Darche and defended him. “It doesn’t seem that she had taken the time to really invest in finding an appropriate executive director to put there,” says a former CCRB staffer.

Wiley’s CCRB legacy

People who spoke to City Limits overall were neutral on the effectiveness of Wiley’s tenure, saying that she did not improve the dysfunctional agency in tangible ways. 

One former CCRB staffer believed that Wiley was less effective than the former Chair Emery, who had used his relationship with then-NYPD head Bill Bratton — Emery was once Bratton’s lawyer — to influence NYPD’s disciplinary decisions. Emery also got into trouble for being combative with NYPD union bosses, something Wiley wanted to avoid, the former staffer says. (Wiley has recently been less shy about criticizing NYPD unions as a mayoral candidate, including an interview on Hot 97’s Ebro in the Morning, in which she called Sergeants Benevolent Association head Ed Mullins racist.)

“Under Emery the CCRB was a lot more outspoken. He was definitely the person trying to make the CCRB more notable and more respected,” the former staffer said. “One of the criticisms of Maya’s tenure was that the CCRB went back into its hole.”

Wiley has pointed to her accomplishments at the agency, saying she increased outreach as well as “mediations” — sit-down conversations between people who filed complaints with the CCRB and NYPD officers. 

While the CCRB has touted its mediation initiative as an amicable way to resolve complaints, activists have argued that it is a way for officers to evade discipline. “Having conversations with people who are directly impacted about what they want, mediation doesn’t rise to the top of the list,” says Anthonine Pierre, deputy director at Brooklyn Movement Center. “What people are looking for every day are more of the type of reforms that curb police violence.”

Wiley’s signature accomplishment at the CCRB was forcing the board to vote on the Daniel Pantaleo case three years after the former police officer killed Eric Garner on Staten Island. The board voted to substantiate allegations against Pantaleo, who was later fired by the NYPD commissioner. Former staffers give Wiley credit for this accomplishment — which she has frequently touted during her mayoral run — but note that her predecessor Emery also helped push along the case while he was still head of the agency. The vote would represent Wiley’s last act at the CCRB: she announced her immediate departure on Aug. 31, 2017, a little over a year after being appointed and a week before the vote occurred.

During her tenure, Wiley also continued a CCRB practice that some in the agency found to undermine the agency’s claim to independence: all reports were forwarded to both City Hall and the NYPD for approval, usually allowing both entities to weigh in with suggested edits. 

After a report was viewed by board members, “the NYPD and City Hall look at it, and get their comments in,” according to a former CCRB employee who spoke to City Limits. “That’s why CCRB reports are so late. it takes months for City Hall and NYPD to get back on their edits.”

Some find the practice, which predated Wiley’s tenure but continued under her, contrary to the agency’s mission. “The entity that you’re overseeing gets to review or strike down or edit a report you’re making about them, that just seems counterintuitive for an oversight agency,” said one of the former CCRB employees.

The practice led to controversy in late 2016 when a report on the NYPD’s use of tasers was softened following NYPD and City Hall input. The edited report was released during Wiley’s tenure at the agency, although former staffers were not sure how involved she was in the report being rewritten.

Reached for comment, a spokesperson for the CCRB said, “It has been long-standing CCRB policy to provide courtesy copies of our semi-annual, annual, administrative prosecution unit, and policy reports to relevant stakeholders in the City’s public safety apparatus, both to ensure they are accurate work products and to collect feedback that is often reflected in footnotes and other CCRB reporting.”

CCRB and policing vision

Because of the poor reputation of the CCRB, some criminal justice reformers question Wiley’s decision to use her time at the agency to burnish her reputation as a reformer.

“Even taking that job, going to the CCRB with the idea that it’s a place you could produce positive reforms…it’s not the place that’s going to happen,” says Encalada-Malinowski.

“Any association is a negative,” says Bob Gangi, a long-time police accountability activist who founded the Police Reform Organizing Project. “It has virtually no teeth. It’s almost fair to say that it’s become part of the problem.”

Others believe Wiley’s extensive experience in civil rights organizations, while admirable, might still leave some younger, more leftist activists wanting. “What we have is a candidate who is really embedded in civil rights work and she’s someone I’ve looked up to, whose career I’ve looked up to,” says Pierre. But, she added, “what counted for Black progress and what was inspiring to me in the nineties and the aughts as a young organizer is not necessarily what’s needed in 2021 when the whole fabric of our society is falling apart around race and class.”

“Moving forward I think we want to continue to work with her in as much as what she’s offering is right for this particular political moment,” Pierre added.

Some reformers felt Wiley’s positions on policing early on in the mayoral campaign were too vague, although she has sharpened her policies as the race heats up, releasing an 11-page policy plan for reforming policing. She has made positive nods to the movement to defund the NYPD, saying she would cut $1 billion from the department’s budget, appoint a civilian to serve as commissioner and divert police away from mental health calls, with a focus on community investments as part of her public safety strategy. Wiley’s platform also calls for expanding the CCRB’s budget to “empower” the oversight agency, although she wants to put disciplinary decisions in the hands of a new civilian oversight body.

In recent weeks, Wiley has tried to establish herself as the only electable progressive in the race, a view apparently shared by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who endorsed Wiley on Saturday. She hired a senior adviser who formerly worked for Dianne Morales’ campaign, the candidate considered to be the furthest left on policing issues. Wiley also released a television ad blasting the NYPD for officers’ behavior in last summer’s protests and pledging to transform the department.

In a forum on policing held by non-profit Color of Change on April 22 and hosted by Pierre, Wiley and other candidates were asked how they would handle police discipline and if they would keep it in the hands of the NYPD. Wiley said that discipline should be a matter of “civilian oversight,” though she did not specifically say that the CCRB should handle it. “It’s going to be swift and fair, but it’s also going to be neutral and not managed within the police department,” Wiley said.

The candidate then pointed to her success in getting the CCRB to vote on the Pantaleo case, saying she had experience “fighting to hold on to civilian prosecution of that case.” When asked by Pierre about Wiley’s own role within the mayor’s office — when discipline for Eric Garner’s death had been brushed off for years — Wiley said the responsibility lay with the federal government, who slow-walked the civil rights case against Pantaleo, as well as with de Blasio for not pushing the NYPD to fire the officer.

“That was a decision the Mayor had the power to push, and the decision-making to make, to push the police commissioner on and the internal processes,” Wiley said. “That’s what I would have done as mayor.”