This summer, in neighborhoods all across the city, we saw police officers, ostensibly charged with protecting the peace, using extreme force against peaceful protesters. While violence at the hands of law enforcement has been an undeniable reality for New Yorkers of color for decades, these images — on the heels of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery — sparked a citywide reckoning on police misconduct and the mechanisms by which we hold law enforcement accountable. To the surprise of almost no one, these mechanisms are in need of serious reform in New York City.
Each year, New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board is responsible for investigating thousands of complaints of misconduct by the NYPD related to excessive force, abuse of authority, discourtesy and offensive language. Though the CCRB is purportedly an independent agency, it does not have the authority to even conduct a thorough investigation. Officers skip interviews with CCRB investigators, body-worn camera footage is slow-walked or withheld, and access to additional case evidence is often denied.
Most critically, the CCRB cannot impose discipline on its own, making it all but toothless in recent years. That power lies with the police commissioner, who has full discretion to overturn CCRB disciplinary recommendations — which is exactly what has happened in more than 70% of serious infractions in the last two decades. Under this system, only one CCRB investigation has resulted in the termination of an officer between January 2014 and May 2020. And unless the CCRB is given greater disciplinary authority going forward, this system will continue to deny police accountability and thwart justice.
It’s time for a fundamentally new direction. We need real, independent oversight and real accountability. The city should end the police commissioner’s authority to treat CCRB investigations and recommendations as advisory — and instead grant the CCRB power to make final disciplinary decisions.