February 1, 2019
The New York City Police Department’s disciplinary process is plagued by “a fundamental and pervasive lack of transparency” that damages public trust, according to a report released Friday from a panel of experts that includes two former US attorneys.
“The public confidence in the department to hold its own accountable depends on its openness and candor,” said Mary Jo White, the former US attorney for the Southern District of New York and former chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission who served on the panel at a press conference.
Commissioned in June 2018 in the wake of a series of stories by BuzzFeed News about how the department let officers who lied and used excessive force remain on the job, the report also found that the NYPD’s disciplinary system was largely effective in that it generally holds officers accountable for misconduct and imposes appropriate discipline. But the report called for changes in a state law that limits public access to police misconduct records so that the NYPD can give the public a fuller picture of how it is handling misconduct, noting that many other states and police departments already do this.
From its review of a limited set of cases from 2016 and 2017, the panel also recommended the department adopt a framework of expected penalties for various types of misconduct, strengthen safeguards to ensure the system is not corrupted by favoritism, and more aggressively investigate officers accused of lying.
NYPD rules say that, barring exceptional circumstances, officers who lie about a “material matter” must lose their jobs. But drawing on internal NYPD documents, BuzzFeed News found that between 2011 and 2015, of more than 100 employees who were accused of lying on official reports, under oath, or during an internal affairs investigation, only a handful were fired, while others were docked anywhere from a few days to a month of vacation time. One officer, for example, lost 30 vacation days when he was found to have given false testimony to a grand jury.
In addition to White, the two other panelists were Robert Capers, the former US attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and Barbara S. Jones, a former federal judge.
At a press conference Friday afternoon, police Commissioner James O’Neill pledged to embrace the proposed reforms. “I and the entire leadership of the NYPD accept and fully embrace all the recommendations in the report.” He said he would be advocating for changes to the state law in Albany, was looking to identify an outside organization to regularly audit the disciplinary system, and had appointed a team of high-ranking officials from across the department to implement the report’s other recommendations.
In the next 30 to 60 days, the department will also begin publishing a calendar with information about the officers facing disciplinary proceedings for misconduct. He also said he would work to better explain his rationale when he overrules staff recommendations on disciplinary decisions.
Some police reform advocates worried that the report did not go far enough.
“At first glance, this report does not include the strong recommendations that we had hoped for in order to bring wholesale change to the Department’s disciplinary procedures,” said Cynthia Conti-Cook, a staff attorney for Legal Aid Society, the largest public defender organization in New York City. “We clearly cannot count on the Department to police itself.”
The New York Civil Liberties Union, however, said it agreed with many of the panel’s recommendations.
“This report should serve as a wake-up call to the De Blasio 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,” said Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “Meaningful accountability requires real transparency and real consequences.”