Last week, more than 320,000 NYPD disciplinary records were made public for the first time, after the New York Civil Liberties Union published a database they obtained from the Civilian Complaint Review Board. The unprecedented disclosure was possible because state lawmakers repealed New York Civil Rights Law section 50-A in June, and a federal judge overruled a group of public sector unions who were fighting to keep the records secret.
Jennvine Wong, a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society's Cop Accountability Project, Special Litigation Unit, said the release gives the public "an opportunity to see whether or not, on a broad scale, if there are troubling trends with respect to particular officers or perhaps with precincts,"
"We have policy makers that weren't privy to this info either. That's a real failing," Wong said. "When they don't have a full picture, they aren't able to address the problems with policing in general."
Michael Thomas, a staff attorney in the criminal defense practice for The Bronx Defenders, called the release "huge," and predicted it would lead to major changes in how his cases will be tried, compared to the era in which 50-A shielded many records from discovery.
"A lot of our cases that end up going to trial are taken based off the word of police officers only, and when we prohibit any look into the history of a police officer, in a way we're giving them blanket credibility without questioning anything else," Thomas said. "To me, that's not right."
Lawrence Mottola, a criminal defense attorney who spent more than eight years in the Brooklyn DA's office as a prosecutor, said the information was "extremely crucial."
"The more we have, the better it is for everybody involved," Mottola said. "It's definitely going to change our jobs."
A previous release of CCRB records by ProPublica and later analyzed by Gothamist/WNYC, concerned active-duty officers who had at least one substantiated instance of misconduct. That data showed that roughly one in nine active NYPD officers has a substantiated record of misconduct.
The NYCLU's database essentially contains all of the misconduct reports collected by the CCRB, stretching back to before 1985. The index shows that the majority of officers investigated by the CCRB have only unsubstantiated complaints—meaning that the agency could not determine whether the officer engaged in the misconduct or not, due to a variety of reasons, including a lack of video evidence, a dearth of resources to conduct investigations, and a prevailing deference to the word of NYPD officers over their accusers (you can read more about why the majority of CCRB complaints go unsubstantiated here.)
Wong said that members of the public might use this database to look at officers with large numbers of unsubstantiated complaints and conclude, "Where there's smoke, there's fire."
"So they can go to their elected officials and say look, these may not have been substantiated by the CCRB, but there are an X number of complaints against this officer, and I'm concerned about why that is," Wong said.
The police disciplinary records released so far have been published piecemeal, through third parties, because of the lawsuit filed by the public sector unions that has prevented the city itself from issuing them. While a massive trove of CCRB records are now searchable, the NYPD has not released any of their own disciplinary records that are now supposed to be public, pending the outcome of the lawsuit. (The city's district attorneys have been slowly releasing lists of officers they deem not to be credible for over a year.)
The unions have maintained that the disclosure of disciplinary records violate their members' labor contracts with the city. "Meanwhile, law enforcement officers face a rising tide of threats and violence," the unions argue in their most recent court filing. "An entire NYPD unit is tasked with investigating threats against officers, which are likely to increase with the dissemination of records that identify officers by name."
Last week, federal judge Katherine Failla said she was not persuaded by these arguments, and declined to grant an injunction blocking the city from releasing the records, though she did block the release of the lowest
"The decision to repeal 50-A was not made haphazardly," Judge Failla said in her ruling.
The unions have appealed to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and the city's Law Department has answered. The Second Circuit is expected to hear arguments on September 15th.
The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.
After the repeal of 50-A, Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged that his administration would proactively release the NYPD's internal disciplinary records. The Mayor's Office hasn't responded to a question about whether the mayor would follow through on his promise.
"The NYPD is funded by the people," said Thomas, the Bronx Defenders attorney. "If we are putting our tax money into this, but can't actually have a full analysis of everything that organization is doing, it really hampers the ability to truly, truly make a determination as far as this is something we should be funding."
Read on for a top-line analysis of the CCRB data released by the NYCLU.
Of the 323,911 allegations in the database, 5,772 were both substantiated and recommended for charges, the CCRB’s most serious disciplinary determination. Of these, only 37 resulted in officers being fired from the force (and because multiple allegations could be made against a single officer, this meant only 11 officers were dismissed; one additional officer had a substantiated allegation and was recommended for instructions, but was later fired). Most substantiated allegations resulted in instruction, loss of vacation days, command discipline, or, in 742 cases, no penalty at all.
The 323,911 allegations contained in the database can be broken down into four different types—abuse of authority is the most common. The vast majority of complaints are not substantiated: Only 9.73% of the abuse of authority, for instance, to 4.88% of the force complaints.
Most of the 323,911 allegations in the database were unsubstantiated. According to the NYCLU: "The database contains information about 323,911 complaints about 81,550 different officers. Only 8,699 complaints led to an NYPD penalty. 19,833 officers were named in five or more complaints, however, only 12 officers were terminated or dismissed by the NYPD, according to the dataset. 20,826 of the complaints were substantiated by the CCRB."
Allegations against lower ranking officers are more common than higher ranking officers, because there are many more low ranking officers and because those officers come into contact with the public more often than higher ranking officers.
The allegations per precinct vary widely across the city, with economically disadvantaged areas having higher number of allegations, both unsubstantiated and substantiated. The 75th Precinct in Brownsville has the most allegations, followed by the 44th Precinct in the southwest Bronx, and the 46th Precinct in the western Bronx. Non-geographic commands, like the Warrant Squad and the Narcotics Squad also have high numbers of allegations.
Correction (8/28/20): we've updated a caption above to note 11 total officers were fired after receiving substantiated allegations that were recommended for charges- previously we'd found 9 due to a tabulation error.