Four former employees of the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) are suing the agency and the City of New York, claiming they were dismissed from their jobs for flagging concerns with investigations and with what they saw as an inability among senior leadership to assert independence from the NYPD.  

The former employees, who have more than 50 years of experience working at the CCRB among them, claim their First Amendment rights were violated when their jobs were terminated in November — at a time when the public demanded even more scrutiny of police actions.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board investigates complaints of police misconduct made by members of the public. Its purview encompasses only certain categories of police behavior, such as use of force or abuse of authority. The lawsuit specifically names Jonathan Darche, the executive director of the CCRB since 2017, as being retaliatory in nature and at times abusive toward employees for raising concerns or for criticizing leadership. He was previously investigated for making inappropriate and sometimes racist remarks to staff members in 2013 while working as a supervising prosecutor at the CCRB. According to the Associated Press, some of the allegations against Darche were substantiated and he forfeited four vacation days and received management training. 

Among the concerns raised about CCRB investigations, the plaintiffs specifically pointed to the lack of direct access to body-worn camera footage. In 2019, Darche himself publicly complained about the backlog and with the CCRB’s reliance on the NYPD for turning over videos of police encounters. But chief investigators wrote to senior staff last year that the situation had become “untenable,” with the backlog significantly slowing down investigations, and urged CCRB leaders to more aggressively pursue gaining direct access to the footage. One of the chief investigators, Dane Buchanan, was let go in November and is a plaintiff in the suit. 

Another plaintiff, Winsome Thelwell, a Black woman with 25 years of experience at the agency, wrote an email to Darche in June 2020 laying out concerns that the CCRB was prioritizing misconduct claims that made the news at the expense of other cases, according to the lawsuit.

“As a Black person, a person who has fairly investigated police misconduct for over 20 years and as a manager who listens to my heartbroken staff, I find all of this outrageous and offensive,” Thelwell’s email read. She went on to say that Darche had only shown anger toward her and acted punitively, such as leaving her out of meetings.   

Around the same time, Nicole Napolitano, who served as the director of policy at the agency, prepared a memo outlining what she saw as a disturbing trend: that, in some cases, justice for complainants seemed to depend on which Board members were assigned to review the investigation, rather than on the merits of the complaints. (A panel of three Board members decides whether an investigator’s recommendations can move forward.) According to the lawsuit, Napolitano was reprimanded by a superior for putting the concerns in writing. She was let go from the agency, and is one of the four plaintiffs on the lawsuit.

“We look to the CCRB in order for it to monitor and ensure that police are acting ethically and acting in accordance with the law,” said Hope Pordy, a partner with the law firm Spivak Lipton, which is representing the plaintiffs. “Well, the CCRB needs to make sure that it’s doing the same thing within its own workforce.”

Fred Davie, who was appointed chair of the CCRB by Mayor de Blasio in 2018, said the four employees were let go last year for financial reasons. CCRB officials said that the agency underwent a “restructuring” late last year in order to hire 20 more investigators to help meet an increase in misconduct complaints. 

“The CCRB was created to protect the rights of all New Yorkers—particularly those in our vulnerable or marginalized communities—and to investigate police misconduct when it occurs,” Davie said in a statement. “I and agency leadership have been clear in our commitment to this mission, open about what our challenges are, and honest with our recommendations for what the Agency needs to better serve the people of New York City. The difficult but necessary restructuring the CCRB went through last year was motivated by a need for change during this difficult financial time for the City. Any suggestion otherwise is false.”