Lawmakers and civil liberties advocates are reiterating their calls to strengthen oversight of the NYPD as New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) reaches its statute of limitation today on all cases of alleged police misconduct arising from the racial-justice protests that swept through the city after the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
The CCRB – charged with overseeing the largest police department in the country – received large numbers of complaints against police officers during the demonstrations. An investigation by Gothamist found that staff members wanted the agency to be more outspoken about the difficulties that investigators faced in identifying officers, and that the agency did not follow its own protocols in investigating police misconduct during large protests.
As of March, roughly a third of the cases that had been fully investigated had been closed because the officers involved could not be identified.
Due to statewide emergency orders issued by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the CCRB’s normal statute of limitations of 18 months was extended for the protest complaints, and others made during the pandemic, to May 4th, 2022. As of today, all cases need to be voted on by CCRB board members.
CCRB staff have voiced concerns about a lack of cooperation from the NYPD. Several investigators, who spoke with Gothamist, but did not want to be named out of fear of retaliation, said officers often covered their shield numbers, that the police department did not keep detailed records on where it was sending officers during the protests, and that it was often slow to turn over evidence.
“The CCRBs handling of the flood of complaints that it received arising in the George Floyd protests is just emblematic of the struggles we've had with civilian oversight for 30 years. The police department makes it very difficult,” said Chris Dunn, legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who has conducted detailed analyses of CCRB data and practices. “The CCRB doesn't have enough resources, and the public ends up suffering because the investigations don't get completed in a timely fashion. Sometimes they don't get completed at all. And then the police department oftentimes will take no meaningful discipline.”
“Perhaps this will be a moment when we can revisit some of the basic principles of civilian oversight, starting with taking some power away from the police department, giving it more to the CCRB so we can have real oversight,” Dunn added.
Access to footage from officers' body-worn cameras also became an obstacle for oversight investigators, according to the agency’s data. Video has been shown to be a key tool in both substantiating and exonerating allegations against officers.
At one point after the 2020 protests, the agency had a backlog of over 1,100 pending requests for body-worn camera footage for which the NYPD had provided no response. Unlike other civilian oversight agencies in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, CCRB investigators must submit requests for the NYPD to search the body-cam database for footage.
Dunn said new rules need to be put in place – either through legislation or regulation – that provide the CCRB with direct access to video recorded by officers’ cameras. “We need to get to a point where the CCRB does not have someone from the NYPD between it and essential department information.”
Neither Mayor Eric Adams’ office, nor City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams answered direct questions about whether they would support legislation granting the CCRB direct access to the city’s body-worn camera database.
Instead, the mayor’s press secretary, Fabien Levy, said officers with the NYPD’s new Neighborhood Safety Teams will be equipped with the same body cameras as all other officers.
“Additionally, all members of the anti-gun unit wear modified uniforms that clearly identify them as NYPD,” Levy said. “The NYPD is among the most monitored and regulated government agencies in the nation, and the mayor will ensure they follow the law just as they enforce it.”
New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams said responsibility for the CCRB’s ability to provide police oversight lay with the mayor. “Any failure to provide the CCRB with access to information that is essential to its investigations is an issue that Mayor Adams’ administration must resolve, given its authority over both agencies,” she said in a written statement to Gothamist.
“When the CCRB cannot or does not complete its oversight investigations and officers are not held accountable for misconduct, it undermines public trust and safety,” Speaker Adams said. “The Council will do its part to conduct agency oversight, while seeking the necessary policy changes and funding to ensure CCRB’s mission to conduct NYPD oversight and accountability is fulfilled in an effective and sufficient manner.”
The NYPD said the protests posed a challenge in documenting officer movements and that it has worked closely with the CCRB in providing information to identify officers.
“Thousands of officers were deployed city-wide to handle unprecedented rioting, looting, fires, and other dangerous conditions during the late spring of 2020,” said an unidentified department spokesperson. “The vast majority of these events were mobile or happening simultaneously in multiple locations and officers were redeployed as needed while these events unfolded.”
Attorney Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition who, in the 1990s, advised on reforms that created much of the present structure of the CCRB, said CCRB leadership should be more vocal about what he saw as obstruction from the NYPD.
“There’s no outrage,” Meyers said. “This is a chronic problem with the NYPD and with the CCRB that supposedly is empowered to investigate complaints against police officers. It's a pattern and practice of police officers to shield their shields, to hide themselves.”
The CCRB declined to provide comment for this story.