By Ali Winston
March 6, 2019
For decades, New York has gone further than most states in keeping police misconduct records confidential, even as high-profile incidents like Eric Garner’s death on Staten Island at the hands of police officers prompted calls from civil-rights advocates for more transparency and accountability.
The Legal Aid Society took a step on Wednesday toward lifting the veil on allegations of police misconduct by releasing a detailed database that collates and analyzes about 2,300 lawsuits filed against New York City police officers since 2015.
Legal Aid’s decision to create a public database of lawsuits is part of a national push by civil rights groups and journalists to document and analyze police misconduct. The effort has gathered momentum in recent years after a series of fatal shootings by the police sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. It has also drawn criticism from police unions in New York and elsewhere, who argue many allegations against officers are false.
In California, police unions are in a protracted court battle with civil rights groups and media organizations over a law that makes public substantiated incidents of officer misconduct. And a journalism organization in Chicago has published a database of decades of misconduct complaints, which has led to several policy changes.
The New York City database, named CapStat, is searchable by an officer’s name, unit, precinct and type of allegation — or by the names of the people filing suit. The data includes court records, news articles and published decisions about officers that defense attorneys have obtained.
To date, the database includes 2,339 lawsuits filed from January 2015 through mid-2018 against 3,897 officers, as well as internal disciplinary records for about 1,800 officers accused of misconduct between 2011 and 2015.
The database includes a summary of the complaint and the outcome of each case, but the Legal Aid Society said it cannot vouch for the accuracy of all the allegations, since many suits are settled without the police admitting wrongdoing.
Still, Cynthia Conti-Cook, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society who is spearheading the database project, said one aim is to identify, track and analyze patterns of misconduct.
“Our interest is not just who is a bad officer,” Ms. Conti-Cook said. “The interest is in which commands are really cultivating the type of misconduct that systematically goes undisciplined, completely unchecked, unsupervised and allows officers to act without any accountability?”
Police union leaders said the database included false allegations and frivolous lawsuits that could be used to help defendants who are guilty to undermine the credibility of police witnesses at trial.
“The intent of this database is clearly to help guilty criminals beat the charges against them,” Patrick Lynch, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president, said in an email. “By publishing this database online, they will be doing even greater damage: Anyone with a grudge against cops will be free to peruse the false and frivolous allegations against specific officers and use them as inspiration for a campaign of harassment, intimidation or worse.”
New York law prohibits the release of results of internal police investigations, deeming them personnel records. Judicial findings about officers who commit perjury are difficult to collect since they are not centrally recorded or archived. As a result, civil suits against officers are one of the few public, though imperfect, measures that can be used to gauge police misconduct, public defenders said.
The Police Department said in an email that “not all lawsuits filed for money have legal merit.”
“The ones that do can be valuable tools we use to improve officer performance and enhance training or policy where necessary,” the department said.
The lawsuits in the CapStat database are public records taken from federal and state court websites. The database will include lawsuits that were dismissed or settled out of court. It will also incorporate four years of internal disciplinary records leaked to Buzzfeed News last year, even though those records are confidential under state law.
Joanna Schwartz, a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies misconduct suits, said the CapStat database could also be used by the police and city officials to identify problematic officers and units.
The current version of CapStat includes a tool that allows users to see where the officers who have been sued for misconduct work, and with whom. The site also lets people map precincts with high numbers of officers who have been sued. The commands with the highest volume of complaints include the plainclothes narcotics units in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Other specialized units, like the Police Deparment’s gang squads, are also sued for misconduct more frequently than most patrol officers, the data shows. There are 132 gang squad officers included in the database who have been sued a total of 130 times.
There have been a higher number of lawsuits in some districts than others, led by the 75th Precinct, which covers East New York and Cypress Hills in Brooklyn.
“An officer can go completely under our radar for 10 years in a different command and as soon as they go there, they end up getting sued,” said Julie Ciccolini, a database administrator at the Legal Aid Society, who supervised the design of CapStat.
Certain officers have been the target of many civil complaints as well.
Abdiel Anderson, a detective from Bronx Narcotics, has been the target of 44 lawsuits since 2015, the most of any officer, according to the database.
Sgt. David Grieco, a veteran anti-crime detective who worked in the 75th Precinct for years and was known as “Bullethead” on the street, has been sued at least 31 times, resulting in at least $410,752 in settlement payments, the data shows.
Detective Anderson and Sergeant Grieco did not return calls for comment.
“We hope that this is a tool for the city to identify patterns and address common patterns of misconduct that are pretty obvious if you digest the lawsuits that are coming in and being served on the city,” Ms. Cynthia Conti-Cook said.