The New York Police Department should take steps to increase transparency and accountability in its officer disciplinary process, but it faces a serious obstacle in a state law that keeps personnel records secret, a panel of criminal justice professionals said on Friday.
Two former U.S. attorneys and a former federal judge said they found the disciplinary process generally works well but recommended the NYPD adopt a series of improvements.
“We found a complex disciplinary system, which is imperfect, but which generally seems to deliver fair disciplinary outcomes,” said Mary Jo White, one of the former U.S. attorneys.
The most frequent complaint the panel heard was the lack of transparency, she said.
Police Commissioner James O’Neill enlisted the trio last June in an effort to make sure discipline practices are fair and effective. He said Friday that the department accepts all of the recommendations, and he appointed his top deputy to implement some within 60 days.
But the largest union, the Police Benevolent Association, slammed the panel on Friday, saying it was “bowing to the demands of anti-police, pro-criminal advocates.”
The union, which has been fighting transparency efforts, said the recommendations lacked enhanced accountability for supervisors and did nothing to prevent meritless or fabricated complaints from “derailing cops’ careers.”
The panel, in a report on its findings, suggested that the department divulge annual disciplinary statistics and enlist a liaison to help police misconduct victims get access to case information.
It said the department should strengthen its enforcement and penalties for officers who make false statements and for officers who commit domestic violence, and that it should adopt a matrix of punishments akin to the sentencing guidelines used in criminal cases.
It also said the department should back changes to a state law, known as 50-A, that currently prevents the release of information on the outcomes of specific disciplinary cases.
Department trials are open to the public, but the department has retreated in recent years from disclosing punishment details, citing 50-A. Officers’ disciplinary records aren’t public under the law and courts have ruled that the results of disciplinary cases can’t be revealed either.
O’Neill said Friday that he agreed the law needed to be changed, telling reporters: “We need to put out names, charges, documents and outcomes.”
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the report “should serve as a wake-up call” to Mayor Bill De Blasio’s administration “that the NYPD cannot continue to run a secret disciplinary system that prevents the public from learning important information about the people sworn to protect them.”
“Meaningful accountability requires real transparency and real consequences,” she said.
Critics say the current disciplinary process should be handled by an outside agency, but the panel said it found the NYPD is “doing an effective job” that largely goes unseen because of the secrecy law.
“This is an example where changing a law can make a huge difference,” said Barbara Jones, the former judge. “The results are there. The processes are there, but nobody can see them.”
The Legal Aid Society, a public defender organization, said it had been looking for stronger recommendations that would “bring wholesale change” and that the public wouldn’t truly be able to hold police officers accountable until the secrecy law is repealed.
Police misconduct is also hitting city taxpayers in the wallet, the organization said.
A study released Thursday showed the NYPD paid out $57.2 million to settle misconduct-related lawsuits last year and that in the last five years, the department has been sued for misconduct 10,656 times and has paid $361.5 million in settlements.
The panelists, who also included former U.S. Attorney Robert Capers, said they spent seven months reviewing cases from 2016 and 2017 and had the department’s full cooperation.
They said they spoke with former police commissioners and victims of police misconduct and looked at how other departments handled discipline. They said they were also aided in their review by police watchdog groups and others involved in the system.
As commissioner, O’Neill has the final say on department discipline. The panel said it found he takes his duty seriously and conscientiously and that should remain the case.
However, they recommended that O’Neill start providing detailed explanations when he modifies a disciplinary settlement or a trial judge’s decision.