A newly released report from the city agency that investigates complaints of police misconduct criticizes the NYPD for failing to properly track where officers were deployed during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. It also says the department did not request enough support from emergency medical professionals, and did not equip officers with riot gear that made it easy for them to be identified.
The police watchdog agency, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, published the nearly 600-page document Monday. It details its review of hundreds of complaints against officers who responded to the protests in 2020 after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd.
The agency received a barrage of officer complaints following city-wide demonstrations between May and November of that year. Investigators weren’t able to conduct a full review of many of those complaints. Of the cases the agency did review fully, it found that at least 146 members of service who responded to the protests violated department rules. Officers broke NYPD policy in about 40% of the cases it was able to fully investigate, the report says.
In more than a quarter of full investigations, the agency couldn’t identify the officer at the center of the complaint, making it impossible to recommend discipline. Overall, the police department, which has the final say on discipline, has only imposed discipline against 42 officers so far. Dozens of cases are still pending.
Among the incidents detailed: On Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, two police cruisers drove through a crowd of protesters. In Lower Manhattan, officers allegedly hit people with batons so hard that they caused bone fractures. Police spewed pepper spray indiscriminately into a crowd outside the Barclays Center. They surrounded demonstrators in Mott Haven, arrested them and allegedly zip tied some protesters’ hands so tightly that they went numb. One sergeant pushed a photojournalist to the ground, causing scrapes to his arms, legs and cheeks and $800 in damage to his camera.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the NYPD noted that the number of officers who faced a substantiated complaint represents less than 1% of the of 22,000 members of service who responded to the protests. "This confirms that the NYPD response to the protests during the summer of 2020 was largely professional, commendable, and responsive to the unique circumstances that were present at the time," the statement said. In a letter to CCRB leadership, NYPD Acting Deputy Commissioner of Legal Matters Carrie Talanksy accused the CCRB of basing its findings on "limited information" and failed to acknowledge that officers were working in "hostile and adversarial conditions." She noted that more than 400 officers were injured and about 250 were hospitalized. She said the oversight agency "artificially inflates the data presented to the NYPD’s detriment," and said the department has already taken action in some of the cases outlined in the report and has implemented recommendations from the Department of Investigation.
The watchdog agency had planned to share its findings in mid-2022, but the publication date was repeatedly delayed as the agency struggled to keep up with an unprecedented number of complaints against officers who were often unnamed.
A cascade of external roadblocks and internal failures stalled investigations into those complaints. Officers declined to participate in virtual interviews at the height of the pandemic, requests for body camera footage turned up irrelevant videos and illegible personnel rosters made it nearly impossible to identify the swath of officers who were deployed outside of their normal precincts during the days of protests across the city. Many officers covered their shield numbers to hide their identities from protesters who might later file a complaint.
A Gothamist investigation found that many CCRB employees had been sounding the alarms for months, urging the agency to speak up earlier about the challenges it was facing. Staff told Gothamist that the agency also failed to team up investigators in a way that would have made it easier for them to share evidence and collaborate.
A staffing shortage in the CCRB unit that handles the most serious cases has also created a backlog for administrative trials against officers who have been charged with policy violations. More than 60 of those cases are unresolved.
Other groups have already documented widespread issues with the NYPD’s response to the 2020 demonstrations. A Department of Investigation report found police used “excessive tactics” and a Human Rights Watch report called the police response to a protest in Mott Haven “intentional, planned, and unjustified.”
The CCRB report zeroes in on individual allegations against officers, the outcomes of the agency’s investigations and the punishments that officers did — or didn’t — face.
“Protests against police brutality bred more instances of police misconduct,” CCRB Chair Arva Rice wrote in the report. “If this misconduct goes unaddressed, it will never be reformed.”
The report highlights some of the agency’s most common findings against officers, including that many officers violated NYPD guidelines when they struck civilians with batons, improperly used pepper spray against peaceful protesters and used excessive physical force to push and shove people. Multiple officers also failed to provide medical care to people with injuries, didn’t turn on their body cameras during some interactions that should have been recorded, or placed bands on their shields to hide their numbers and refused to tell people their names.
Here are some other key takeaways:
- The CCRB received more than 750 complaints, 321 of which fell within the CCRB’s jurisdiction. (The CCRB is only allowed to investigate a few types of misconduct: force, abuse of authority, discourtesy and offensive language. The agency also launched a new unit to investigate claims of racial profiling and bias-based policing last year.)
- The agency was able to fully investigate 226 of those complaints.
- The CCRB determined that officers had violated policy in 88 complaints.
- Investigators were unable to determine the suspected officer’s identity in 59 complaints.
- The agency was unable to determine if misconduct had occurred in 50 complaints.
- Officers were found to have followed NYPD guidelines in just 18 of the 321 complaints.
- The agency found that the alleged misconduct did not occur in 11 cases
- The CCRB substantiated 269 allegations of misconduct against 146 members of service (Sometimes complaints include multiple different allegations of wrongdoing. The agency also notes that it counted officers more than once in this tally if they had multiple complaints with substantiated misconduct.)
- The substantiated allegations include: 140 claims of excessive force, 72 claims of abuse of authority, 24 claims of untruthful statements, 24 claims of discourtesy and 9 claims of offensive language.
- The NYPD has finalized 78 cases and has imposed discipline in 42 of them.
Main obstacles during investigations:
- Officers took “pervasive and purposeful actions” to hide their identities, including putting bands over their shields and refusing to provide their names and shield numbers to civilians.
- The NYPD provided delayed and inconsistent responses to requests for body camera and other video footage.
- Officers refused to be interviewed virtually for several months when COVID restrictions prevented the CCRB from holding in-person interviews.
- Remote work and other COVID restrictions caused work delays.
The CCRB outlined more than a dozen recommendations for the police department, to improve its response to protests and make it easier for the agency to investigate complaints in the future. The NYPD is not required to follow them.
Those recommendations include:
- All officers should go through updated training on crowd control tactics.
- Officers’ names and shield numbers should be clearly visible during protests.
- Police should not take action against people who are complying with orders.
- The department should do a better job of tracking vehicle assignments, supervisor assignments and which officers respond to their fellow officers’ calls for help during protests.
- Body cameras should be turned on whenever officers are interacting with civilians, including when officers are in distress and call for help.
- The CCRB should have direct access to body camera footage.
- The NYPD should set up medical treatment areas staffed with EMTs who can quickly treat injured people who are arrested, before they are taken to be processed.
- Officers should provide a voucher whenever they seize property so that it can be returned to the owner.
The CCRB’s long-anticipated report brings some sense of resolution for the scores of New Yorkers who were pepper sprayed, pushed, beaten with batons and cursed at during the 2020 protests. But, nearly three years later, about 60 of the most severe allegations are still pending. Multiple civil lawsuits filed against the police department are also ongoing, including one filed by Attorney General Letitia James.
The City Council is considering a bill that would ban the NYPD’s infamous Strategic Response Group from responding to nonviolent protests. The Department of Investigation found that the unit provoked protesters, instead of de-escalating tense encounters. The Council’s public safety committee was supposed to hold an oversight hearing to question the unit about its budget and tactics in December, but that hearing has been postponed twice and is now rescheduled for March.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the location where two police cruisers drove through a crowd of protesters. It happened on Flatbush Ave. in Brooklyn. This story has also been updated to include a response from the NYPD.