With New York in an uproar over the death of Eric Garner after police put him in a chokehold, the new chairman of the group that handles public grievances about the NYPD floated the idea yesterday that his agency should stop listening to people who complain about police stops.
"I'm not sure stop-and-frisk is still appropriate for this agency," Richard Emery, the head of the Civilian Complaint Review Board said at his first board meeting. "So many other people are working on it."
NYCLU Associate Legal Director Chris Dunn—who last month accused the board, then in its sixth month without a chairman, of being "on life support"—strongly disagreed.
"There's no way this agency can walk away from stop-and-frisk," Dunn said. "There are more interactions around stop-and-frisk than any other interaction in the police department....I'm just telling you: When you as the incoming chair of the CCRB say something like 'We should get out of the business of stop-and-frisk,' that is sending the wrong signal."
This isn't the first time the CCRB has appeared to try to back away from stop-and-frisk issues. In May, Dunn confronted board members about a leaked memo that seemed to suggest that frisks conducted when cops issue a summons can't be subject to review by the board.
Garner died on July 17, the same day that de Blasio appointed Emery, who later revealed that the CCRB has received at least 1,128 complaints about chokeholds since 2009, and pledged to investigate further.
Yesterday, Emery called the NYPD's response to the issue "disappointing."
CCRB members at yesterday's meeting (Gothamist)
That wasn't enough for Michael Meyers, the executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, who said the board was characteristically failing to seize the moment to act decisively as a confrontational watchdog. "What was lacking today was a sense of urgency and a sense of impatience," Meyers told the board after Emery's opening comments.
Garner's death and the chokehold complaints have generated rare media interest in the CCRB—the room was packed with reporters and TV cameras—but that interest won't last, Meyers warned.
"When the cameras go away, then the urgency goes away," he said. "We go back to business as usual."
Meyers, who has been attending CCRB meetings since its foundation 20 years ago, also dismissed the suggestion that the board's failures were the result of underfunding and neglect.
"It's not a question of money, it's not a question of resources," Meyers said. "It's a lack of will, and a lack of courage. Because you've got to now talk back to the mayor. You've got to talk back to your appointers. You've got to tell them what's going on in this city with respect to the police department."
Of course, even when the board does recommend an officer receive discipline or be charged for misconduct, the NYPD frequently decides to ignore the recommendation. From 2009 to 2013, that happened 302 times—more than a fifth of all cases in which the CCRB recommended discipline [PDF]. Meyers told the board they can't tolerate being ignored like that.
"If the police commissioner will not act and discipline his police officers, then you ought to resign," Meyers said.
Emery hit back at Meyers. "Your approach to solving this problem is completely bankrupt," he said. "All it does is generate polarization and distance between the community and the police."
Instead of polarizing critiques of police excess, Emery said, New York's poorest residents need effective policing in their neighborhoods. "The only way that's going to happen is if [residents and police] draw closer together," Emery said. "This agency’s mission is to make that possible by enhancing an opportunity for both people who have complaints and cops to get justice"
This emphasis on cultivating congenial relations with the police worried the NYCLU's Dunn.
"I don't think it's the goal of the CCRB to create harmony with police officers," Dunn said. "It is the goal of the CCRB to investigate police misconduct, to pursue discipline where that is appropriate, and to make policy recommendations about patterns and practices that will avoid misconduct in the future."
He added, "It is not, in my view, the role of the CCRB to make police officers feel better about the community or to make the community feel better about police officers."
Turning away complaints about stop and frisk wasn't the only controversial idea Emery suggested. He also proposed making mediation the default means of resolving complaints to the review board, rather than investigations that can result in disciplinary consequences for police officers.
Emery said his suggestions were largely motivated by his desire to speed up the review board's process. It currently moves so slowly that many people who bring complaints to the board give up in frustration.
According to the board's numbers, fully 49% of cases it closed in the first half of this year ended in "truncated investigations" because the person who brought the complaint stopped cooperating or was no longer available. As of last month, 40 investigations were more than 16 months old.
So far this year, seven cases in which the board determined that there had been police misconduct resulted in no action because the statute of limitations had expired.
Police reform advocates have been complaining for years that the board's sluggish resolution of cases contributes to its reputation as a toothless watchdog.
Steering more complaints towards mediation is also a mistake, according to the NYCLU.
"What is valuable about this agency and what the choke-hold study will show is that when you investigate cases and find out about misconduct, then you have something to say not only about a police officer who should be disciplined, but about a policy that should be corrected," Dunn said.
"Mediation makes that impossible. If you mediate, there's no investigation. It goes into a black box, and it disappears."
Nick Pinto is a freelance writer living in New York. In June he wrote about the massive natural gas pipeline being built underneath the Rockaways.