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A Watchdog Accused Officers of Serious Misconduct. Few Were Punished.

A Watchdog Accused Officers of Serious Misconduct. Few Were Punished.

 An analysis by The New York Times found that the N.Y.P.D. has reduced or rejected recommendations for stiff discipline of officers in about 71 percent of 6,900 serious misconduct charges.

Credit...Kena Betancur/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

=One New York City police officer was accused of pepper-spraying a woman, then denying her medical treatment while she was handcuffed in a Bronx holding cell.

Another officer slammed a 51-year-old man who had been arguing with some restaurant workers onto the floor, knocking him unconscious, the man said. A third officer was accused of tackling a gay man during a pride parade and using a homophobic slur.

The city’s independent oversight agency that investigates police misconduct found enough evidence in all three cases to conclude that the officers should face the most severe discipline available, including suspension or dismissal from the force.

But in the end, senior police officials downgraded or outright rejected those charges, and the officers were given lesser punishments or none at all — the kind of routine outcome that has left the Police Department facing a crisis of trust in its ability to discipline its own.

“It’s a very raw thing,” recalled Zakariyya Amin, who said he was left deeply disillusioned by how the Police Department handled his case involving the incident in the restaurant. “I wake up, still seeing this guy throwing me around, pushing me around.”

This pattern of lenient punishment holds true for about 71 percent of the 6,900 misconduct charges over the last two decades in which the agency, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, recommended the highest level of discipline and a final outcome was recorded, according to an analysis of recently released data by The New York Times.

In case after case, the records show that the Police Department often used its power over the disciplinary process to nullify the review board’s determination that serious misconduct had occurred and that the stiffest punishment should be meted out.

The department regularly ignored the board’s recommendations, overruled them or downgraded the punishments, even when police officials confirmed that the officers had violated department regulations, The Times found. All the while, the city paid millions of dollars to resolve lawsuits from people filing complaints in some of those very same cases.

Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected on a platform that included reining in police misconduct, but these trends have gone largely unchanged during his stewardship of the department.

The analysis shows that since Mr. de Blasio took office in 2014, the department has overruled the board’s recommendation in more than half of the cases in which the board sought the most severe discipline.

In the first half of 2019, the police commissioner at the time, James P. O’Neill, imposed the penalty recommended by the review board in just three out of the 14 cases the panel prosecuted.

In one of the remaining cases, the Police Department decided to allow an officer to go unpunished after the review board concluded that he had used excessive force in punching a 14-year-old boy. In another case, the department chose not to take action against an officer found to have used a chokehold to lift a handcuffed man off his feet and slam him into a car.

The release of the Civilian Complaint Review Board records comes as police departments across the country are under mounting pressure to remove problematic officers from their forces after the death of George Floyd.

As protests swept the city and nation this summer, both Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot F. Shea urged the public to have confidence in the city’s ability to hold officers accountable. But the data offers further evidence of the challenges that outside oversight agencies face in going up against police forces.

Mr. Shea, who was appointed a year ago, has imposed the board’s recommended penalty in only two of the 28 cases in which charges were brought, records show.

After learning that The Times had inquired about how Mr. Shea has handled misconduct, the Police Department issued a news release last week promoting his record on discipline. It said that under Mr. Shea, the department had made several changes, including adopting disciplinary guidelines that standardize penalties.

Still, the handling of police misconduct cases continues to roil the city government: On Wednesday, four senior officials at the Civilian Complaint Review Board were laid off abruptly.

The agency described the move as a restructuring meant to expand its investigative muscle, but some employees said the layoffs amounted to retaliation against officials who criticized how the agency responds when the Police Department refuses to cooperate with its inquiries.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board was established in 1993 by Mayor David N. Dinkins and the City Council to address widespread complaints that police officers were operating with impunity, rarely facing consequences for harassment and brutality, particularly in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Residents who believed that they had been subjected to misconduct often felt they had no recourse, which led to a growing resentment of the police.

The Dinkins administration envisioned that the board would be independent of the Police Department, with its own investigators and subpoena power, and would give the public confidence that abusive officers would be held accountable.

But the data, released for the first time in the agency’s history, instead suggests that the board has become all but toothless. The public can file complaints, but the board, often referred to as the C.C.R.B., has little ability to ensure that officers deemed troublesome or worse will face serious consequences.

“What is the C.C.R.B. there for, if they’re recommending stuff and the N.Y.P.D.’s not listening?” said Jacob Alejandro, the gay man who said a lieutenant had knocked him to the ground during a Gay Pride parade, in 2014.

The Police Department declined to comment on the instances of misconduct described in this article, citing an ongoing lawsuit challenging the city’s authority to release additional records. The department would not make individual officers cited in the complaints available to be interviewed.

Since 2015, the review board has published statistics in its annual report showing that the Police Department chose not to follow its recommendations in most cases in which the board brought charges.

But with rare exceptions, the names of officers and other details remained secret until this year, when the State Legislature, responding to the nationwide protests against police brutality, repealed a law that had sealed police disciplinary records.

As a result, the review board released a database of civilian complaints that identifies officers and lists allegations against them, as well as the outcomes of cases.

The data is not comprehensive, especially for complaints filed before 2001. What’s more, information about people who filed complaints, as well as about pending cases, remains largely secret. The Times was able to determine details of cases through other means, including by reviewing lawsuits.

The data provide the most detailed portrait to date of allegations of serious police misconduct resulting in charges since 2001. Some of The Times’s findings include:

  • The Police Department followed the review board’s recommendations less than 20 percent of the time.

  • The review board brought charges against a total of 3,188 police officers. Some faced multiple charges in connection with one or more complaints.

  • 798 of the officers were eventually put back onto the street by the department after receiving additional instructions, training or warnings; 890 were not disciplined at all.

  • Fewer than one in five officers received punishments, ranging in severity from one lost vacation day to 12 months of “dismissal probation,” which allows officers found to have committed offenses they could be fired for, like using a chokehold, to keep their jobs as long as they stay out of trouble.

  • Just seven officers facing charges were fired, and only after being convicted of a crime in state or federal court or after lying to police internal affairs investigators. They include Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who did not tell investigators the truth about his use of a banned chokehold that sent Eric Garner into a death spiral on a Staten Island sidewalk in 2014.

  • Some officers had multiple findings against them and continued to rise in the department. The city has paid out more than half a billion dollars just since 2016 to resolve lawsuits over these allegations and many like them.

The board is considered to be so weak that some lawyers said they discouraged their clients from filing a complaint. The lack of a finding or punishment against the police officers involved could be used to undercut a lawsuit.

Mr. Amin, who said he was body-slammed by a police officer in 2012, received just that advice from his lawyer.

“He said that, ‘All you’re going to be doing is wasting your time,’” Mr. Amin recalled. He proceeded anyway.

Mr. Amin, then 51, said he had been trying to buy a meal for a homeless man at a Coney Island restaurant when he got into an argument with workers, who refused to serve the other man.

According to the complaint, police officers arrived and accused Mr. Amin of disorderly conduct, twisted his arm behind his back, threw him to the ground and briefly knocked him unconscious.

The review board identified the officer as Andrew Schmitt and, based on its investigation, recommended that the department charge him with using excessive force.

But an administrative judge in the Police Department found Officer Schmitt not guilty of the charge after a departmental trial. The city later settled a lawsuit with Mr. Amin for $150,001.

Priscilla Colon was 50 when she watched police officers arrest a friend of hers on a street corner in the Bronx in 2009. According to her lawsuit, she was handcuffed after asking why her friend was being detained.

Later, in a holding cell at a Bronx precinct, Officer Kevin Carney pepper-sprayed Ms. Colon and told her to “fellate” him, according to court documents.

The C.C.R.B. recommended Officer Carney be brought up on charges of excessive force for his use of pepper spray and abuse of authority for refusing to seek medical attention for Ms. Colon.

He was not disciplined on the force charge. For abuse of authority, the records indicate he was given command discipline, meaning his punishment was decided by his commanding officer.

It is not clear what sanction he received, but at the time, the penalty for command discipline ranged from a verbal warning to 10 lost vacation days. The city later settled a lawsuit and paid Ms. Colon $50,000.

In some cases, the records appear to show the police upholding the review board’s findings. But in reality, the penalty imposed by the commissioner was still less than the one that the review board requested.

For instance, the review board wanted Officer James Frascatore to forfeit 10 vacation days for tackling James Blake, a prominent retired professional tennis player, in a case of mistaken identity that received significant attention in 2015.

The officer was found guilty at an administrative trial of using unnecessary physical force, but Police Commissioner O’Neill cut the penalty to five days.

In 2017, a Bronx sergeant used a Taser stun gun on a pregnant 17-year-old girl who refused to allow officers responding to a call about an argument to enter her family’s apartment, according to video and court papers.

The department’s policy says the devices should not be used on “obviously pregnant women,” but a witness recorded the officer using it on the girl, Dailene Rosario, who screamed she was pregnant as several officers attempted to restrain her.

The sergeant, Robert Durst, pleaded guilty to charges brought by the review board and agreed to forfeit 25 vacation days. But Mr. O’Neill docked him just 15. The city later paid $250,000 to settle Ms. Rosario’s lawsuit.

Scott Rynecki, who represented the teenager, said the evidence could not have been clearer — and yet, the officer received a penalty that was hardly enough to deter brutal misconduct, a pattern he has seen with other clients.

“You’re not exactly sending them a message not to do this again by hitting them with such minimal penalties,” he said.

Assistant Chief Pontillo, who helps to develop disciplinary policies, said one reason the two agencies seldom agreed was that the review board’s investigations were uneven.

When the Police Department declined to follow the panel’s recommendations, he said, it was often because the review board had overcharged an officer, failed to produce enough evidence or did not take into account all the circumstances.

He said the department was more likely to follow the board’s recommendations when it recommended lesser discipline, partly because harsher discipline could hinder police officers’ careers.

“The mere fact of having a substantiated civilian complaint, that can be more significant than any penalty actually imposed,” Chief Pontillo said.

Andrew C. Quinn, a lawyer who defends police sergeants in misconduct and criminal cases, said he had not been impressed with the review board’s evidence gathering.

“It’s a feel-good agency to say, ‘Hey, look, we’ve got some oversight of the department, a bunch of politically appointed board members and a bunch of inexperienced and incompetent investigators,’” he said.

Mr. Davie, the board chairman, acknowledged that the board could improve the quality of some of its investigations but said the Police Department could also do a better job at punishing officers.

The department’s system has long been haphazard and too dependent on the whim of senior police officials, he said. For those reasons, the department recently proposed a disciplinary matrix to standardize penalties.

“The system was nowhere close to what it needed to be, and it still needs a lot of work,” he said.

The release of the records has renewed a long-running debate about whether the police commissioner should have sole authority over officer discipline and whether the review board should be able to overrule him.

Chief Pontillo said the commissioner’s authority is crucial for maintaining control of the force, but Mr. Davie said the entire trial process should be scrutinized.

Civil rights lawyers, elected officials and community activists agreed, saying the department’s willingness to depart from the review board’s findings has weakened civilian oversight.

“The N.Y.P.D. has been looking the other way and condoning police abuse routinely and stunningly for decades,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which filed a public records request to get the data and make it public. “But I think nobody had any idea how massive and pervasive the failures of accountability were.”

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