Are There Remedies for Police Misconduct?

The website for New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) lists several reasons why you should file a report of police misconduct. By doing so, you create a permanent record of that officer’s history and, by subjecting him to possible discipline, you might bring about a positive change in his behavior. Alerting police commanders to misconduct by their officers might also result in ending abusive police practices. Further, complainants can choose to mediate their cases and speak to the officer directly. The CCRB accepts complaints by telephone, by letter, in person, or by completion of an online form. When you file a police misconduct report, says the CCRB, you have the opportunity for a full and fair investigation of your complaint by impartial citizen investigators.

Established by the City Council in 1992, the CCRB was created as an independent civilian agency to investigate police misconduct allegations ranging from obscenity to excessive use of force. Unfortunately, it has fallen far short of its stated goals. Even in those cases substantiated by board investigators, many result in no disciplinary measures taken by the Police Department. Over the last few years, rates of disciplinary action have fallen, from 74 percent in 2004, to 58 percent in 2009. Further, 40 percent of cases filed with the CCRB are rejected.

A 2011 study by the Citizens Crime Commission found that New York is far less aggressive in monitoring its police departments than cities like Chicago, Los Angeles or Philadelphia. In those cities, independent police oversight agencies have the power to subpoena witnesses and compel their appearance. In New York, on any given day, half of all police officers scheduled for an interview with the CCRB fail to appear, along with many witnesses and other individuals named in the complaints. Furthermore, it can take weeks or even months for the NYPD to produce records requested by board investigators. According to one complainant who filed a report of unlawful stop and frisk, the CCRB actually substantiated part of his case. But, after a year of taking no disciplinary measures, the Police Department closed his case with no further action or explanation.

In order to strengthen public confidence in the police disciplinary process, the CCRB has initiated a new project known as the Administrative Prosecution Unit. Under the APU, a board attorney is empowered to prosecute certain cases of police misconduct. The program, however, employs only one lawyer, and that position is currently vacant due to a city agency hiring freeze.

In New York’s Southern District Federal Court, a new program channels police misconduct cases directly into mediation. Effective August 1, 2011, complaints of federal civil rights violations, such as police misconduct, false arrest, excessive force and malicious prosecution, will be automatically designated for mediation. The goal is to promote early settlement, reduce litigation costs and relieve pressure on the federal docket. Since mediation is non-binding, parties may still proceed with litigation if they fail to reach an early settlement.