The night they were arrested on May 30th, 2020, Camila Gini and her then-boyfriend Andie Mali had hit the streets of Brooklyn in search of vegan food. They’d hopped into Mali’s gray Honda Civic after watching a movie at a relative’s house – one of the few people they spent time with in the early days of the pandemic – hoping to find a place to eat.
“It was in between lockdowns, so there weren’t that many places open,” Gini recalled.
But as they drove down Atlantic Avenue in downtown Brooklyn, she said they encountered a throng of protestors spilling out from the area around Barclays Center. George Floyd had been murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis nearly a week before. It was the fourth night of protests in New York City. The couple had been angered by online videos of protesters’ violent interactions with NYPD officers, and they agreed with the calls for police reform.
“So we parked our car and decided to walk a little bit with them,” Gini said. “It was completely random.”
Within hours, Gini, who is Latina, and Mali, who is Black, would be tackled to the ground by police, beaten with batons and arrested after attempting to observe how officers were handling another protestor, according to a complaint Gini later filed with New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), the watchdog agency charged with overseeing the largest police department in the country.
Gini’s was just one of thousands of allegations the agency received against NYPD officers as the protests unfolded from the end of May and continued through June 2020. Videos that went viral on social media showed police officers shoving seemingly peaceful demonstrators, trapping them in tightly confined spaces, pepper spraying people at close range, and hitting them with bicycles and truncheons.
“It was the highest-profile moment for police oversight in my lifetime,” said one CCRB investigator, who spoke to Gothamist but did not want to be named because they weren’t authorized to speak to the press.
And yet, some current and former employees say it may also be one of its greatest failures, and a sign that the agency is not equipped to hold police accountable. Investigating the protest complaints have proved to be a major challenge for the agency, and few thought the process would take as long as it has.
Now, 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, meaning the agency has mere days left to finalize cases of alleged misconduct and recommend disciplinary measures.
CCRB investigators have dubbed the deadline the “May 4th Apocalypse.”
The agency’s executive director, Jonathan Darche, said CCRB employees have been hard at work to meet the deadline. But interviews with current and former employees of the agency detail how the CCRB has struggled to fully investigate the flood of protest complaints – a third of which have been closed so far because the officers involved could not be identified.
That, some CCRB staffers said, is largely due to a lack of cooperation from the NYPD. But several employees also claim the watchdog agency did not follow its own protocols on how to investigate police misconduct at large-scale demonstrations, and that the CCRB’s leadership failed to speak out forcefully about what staffers saw as obstruction from the police department, largely they said, because mayoral control of the agency is an impediment to its independence.
The NYPD has denied the allegations of obstruction and say it was dealing with an unprecedented situation in responding to both the protests and the pandemic.
Obstacles in identifying NYPD officers
To understand how the CCRB investigated complaints arising from the 2020 protests, and what roadblocks they hit along the way, Gothamist interviewed nearly a dozen current and former employees with first-hand knowledge of how protest investigations were conducted. Almost none wanted to be named out of fear of retaliation from CCRB leadership, a sentiment expressed even by those who’d already left the agency.
All of those interviewed said the difficulties in investigating the protest cases became apparent almost as quickly as they streamed into the agency. Members of the public can file complaints against the NYPD by filling out a form online or calling the CCRB’s hotline and speaking with an investigator. The day after Gini’s arrest, the CCRB’s then-Chair Rev. Fred Davie said that the agency had received over 300 complaints in the preceding 48 hours.
One former investigator recalled having developed a routine during this period. As demonstrations took place in the streets, they would scroll through social media late at night, saving videos posted online that showed clashes with NYPD, knowing they’d likely prove to be valuable evidence when either they or one of their colleagues were assigned complaints from the incidents the next day.
At the time, Winsome Thelwell was the CCRB’s co-chief of investigations. She’d joined the agency in 1995 as an entry-level investigator after a short stint in the city’s Law Department “negotiating slip and fall accidents” as she said, which left her wanting to do something more fulfilling. She’d risen up the ranks at the CCRB over two-and-half decades, reporting to a variety of executive directors and board chairs, and was terminated in late 2020. The agency called her firing a “restructuring.” She said it was retaliation for speaking out about how the CCRB’s leadership was handling protest cases.
“You’re going to have to be careful how you word things so that it’s not dismissed because [people might think], ‘Oh, they were fired, they’re disgruntled,” Thelwell told Gothamist.
From the start, Thelwell said, investigators assigned to protest cases reported having trouble identifying members of the NYPD. Many officers could be seen in protest footage covering their shield numbers with black mourning bands, which are typically used to honor fallen officers. Other investigators described videos in which police officers refused to identify themselves when protestors asked for their names and badge numbers. In some instances, CCRB staff said they could see officers committing acts of misconduct in bystander video, but they weren’t sure who the officer or victim was.
Multiple staff members said the inability to identify officers was one of the biggest impediments to investigating cases quickly and efficiently, and that the problem only intensified the closer the agency looked.
In several cases, CCRB investigators said they learned that the ID numbers on officers’ helmets and other protective gear did not match their shield numbers in the NYPD’s records. For example, the number on the helmet of a white male officer captured in a protest video might match the shield number of a Black female officer in a database search. Investigators suspected officers were either being randomly assigned protective gear or intentionally using other officers’ equipment, rendering the ID numbers useless in many cases.
We have more unidentified officers than I would like.
Investigators also discovered that the NYPD was not keeping close track of where officers were being sent across the city. Protests were often policed by a mix of officers from precincts throughout the five boroughs, many of whom were deployed via “mobile field forces” that the NYPD staged in vans throughout the city to increase response times to wherever a protest might spring up.
According to a report on the NYPD’s handling of the demonstrations by the NYC Department of Investigation, which serves as an independent watchdog over city government as a whole, the police department had added 30 additional mobile field forces to its ranks within the first two days of the protests, each containing more than 40 officers and supervisors.
The result, CCRB staff said, was that many of the officers the agency later interviewed claimed that, once they’d fanned out into a demonstration, they didn't know the other officers they were working alongside and therefore couldn’t identify them in videos – creating what one agency employee described as a “documentary nightmare” on the part of the police department.
In protest cases and other major events, CCRB investigators are instructed to obtain what’s known as a “detail roster” – basically a list of officers assigned to a given post. The CCRB’s “Investigation Manual” calls it “perhaps the most important document for identifying officers.”
But as investigators began to send the NYPD requests for detail rosters related to their 2020 protest cases, what they found, they said, was that very little documentation existed, and that much of what did exist was handwritten and barely legible.
“We learned from the investigators that the detail rosters weren’t telling them the information that we were expecting,” said Thelwell, who oversaw investigators at the time. “We were used to using those to identify officers who were sent to certain locations.”
The man in charge of officers during the protests, former Chief of Department Terence Monahan, admits that the NYPD was caught off guard by the scale of the protests. He said that may have come at the cost of paperwork the department should have been keeping.
“It was fluid. You're talking about cops that were working sometimes 20 hours straight,” Monahan said. “You started to mobilize cops and as soon as you got them there, you were trying to stick them out into rosters, put them into place. So there may have been some issues with doing it.”
Several high-level staff members at the CCRB suspected these and other obstacles were an intentional strategy on the part of the NYPD to avoid accountability. On June 24th, 2020, Thelwell wrote an email to Darche, the CCRB’s executive director, with the subject line “Our Current Situation” urging him to use the public outrage over George Floyd’s murder as an opportunity to be more vocal with public officials about what she saw as a lack of NYPD cooperation.
“We oversee the NYPD, and should not be their apologists, especially when there is enough evidence that they are stymieing the work of the CCRB,” Thelwell wrote in the email.
In a written response to questions submitted by Gothamist, an NYPD spokesperson objected to the notion that the police department was uncooperative and that officers had deliberately tried to obscure their identities. They said officers are permitted to wear mourning bands and were directed to do so by the NYPD in honor of officers who’d died of COVID-19. The department did not respond to a question about why it did not keep more detailed records of where officers were being sent, though it did say “officers were redeployed as needed while these events unfolded.”
As for officers wearing the wrong helmets, the department spokesperson said police were faced with a barrage of objects being hurled at them during the protests. “Bricks, batteries, bottles full of known and unknown substances,” the NYPD spokesperson wrote. “Thankfully, situations that require the use of helmets for officer safety are few and far between for the large majority of officers. For this reason, officers typically do not have them at the ready, which led to officers sharing helmets.”
According to internal emails, Nicole Napolitano had been keeping a list of impediments standing in the way of the agency’s protest investigations. She was then the CCRB’s director of policy and advocacy. Thelwell said Napolitano would keep in regular touch with investigative teams in order to identify and track bigger systemic issues that the agency was facing. By September 2020, Napolitano shared her list with other senior level staff and proposed plans for a policy report – to be released publicly – on how the protest cases were proceeding.
“It would be great to get an update on where we stand with these investigations in terms of how many it looks like we won’t be able to fully investigate,” Napolitano wrote in the email, which was obtained by Gothamist through a former employee of the agency.
Instead, Thelwell said they ran up against what she described as a general unwillingness within the agency to push back against the NYPD.
“We were saying, ‘Please make it public that the NYPD is not cooperating with giving us these documents for the investigations, and it's hampering the investigations,’” Thelwell said. “We didn't get a straight answer of why we weren't saying anything publicly. We just didn't understand it.”
A spokesperson for the CCRB, Clio Calvo-Platero, told Gothamist that, although the agency did not go public with the difficulties it faced in identifying officers, Darche did mention it in a monthly board meeting that summer, and she said CCRB leadership began sharing information with the city’s Department of Investigation and the state attorney general’s office, both of which were preparing reports into NYPD conduct during the protests.
A preliminary report by the attorney general’s office released in July 2020 mentioned the issue of officers covering their shield numbers with mourning bands.
In an interview with Gothamist, Darche also said the agency wanted to begin closing protest-related investigations before it issued a policy report on them.
“We had to balance making the public aware of the difficulties we were having investigating cases with being impartial during investigations and not coming to a premature conclusion,” Darche said.
The CCRB said it finally plans to release a policy report on the protest cases next month. But in Thelwell’s view, the agency acted too late.
“We wanted to go public to help with the investigations, not after the investigations when we can do nothing,” she said. “We wanted the police department to comply.”
Thelwell, Napolitano and two other senior ranking staff members were fired in November 2020, roughly five months after the racial-justice protests began. All four claim they were terminated for flagging problems with investigations and how the CCRB operates, and that the agency violated their First Amendment rights. They’re now suing the city, the agency and Darche for financial compensation and to be reinstated in their jobs.
Lack of coordination in investigating cases
Not long after Camila Gini and Andie Mali parked their car near Barclays Center, Gini said they encountered a group of police officers surrounding a man who was screaming “I can’t breathe” near the corner of DeKalb and Flatbush Avenues in Brooklyn.
According to a lawsuit later filed in federal court, when the couple tried to lay eyes on what the officers were doing, several of them began to push Mali and strike him with their batons. When Gini stepped in between them to say they were leaving, the complaint alleges that both she and Mali were beaten, forced to the ground and handcuffed.
“An officer held me face down on the sidewalk with his baton on my neck,” Gini told Gothamist. “And from that position, I could see that the other officers had gone to Andie and he was being hit and dragged down to the floor as well.”
Gini, who describes herself as “white passing, Hispanic,” said that, because Mali is Black, she’d often worried about his safety when they were out in public. She said they’d been pulled over multiple times and that, in her view, she noticed he was treated differently by police.
“Him being put on the floor and attacked like that was hard to watch,” Gini said. “I was upset, overcome with emotions, and didn’t do the one thing you’re supposed to do when you’re in that situation.”
That one thing, she said, was to look at the shield number of the officer who was arresting her.
Gini said she didn’t think to do so until after she’d been loaded onto an MTA bus that was holding other protesters. By the time they arrived at the 88th Precinct hours later, she said she’d passed through the hands of so many officers – a practice her lawyer believes was also deliberately meant to make it difficult to identify officers – she couldn’t remember the names she’d heard along the way.
Tracking the 2020 protests was just as confusing for CCRB investigators. Demonstrations lasted hours. Protesters and officers alike had roamed throughout the city, making it difficult to place people in specific locations at specific points in time.
From the beginning, the police watchdog agency began to receive sizable clusters of complaints from specific protest sites, according to several current and former CCRB staff, including the area around Barclays Center where Gini was arrested, parts of the city surrounding Union Square in Manhattan, and Mott Haven in the Bronx, among others.
The agency’s Investigation Manual classifies demonstrations as “Special Events,” particularly when they involve “media coverage and video footage.” And it instructs the agency to assign all cases related to one special event to a single squad of investigators based on “the geographic location of the incidents” so that documents and other evidence can be shared, complaints against officers can be mapped, and case investigations can be coordinated.
On paper, it’s police oversight’s equivalent of a police detective connecting the dots on a cork board covered with photos of suspects. But according to interviews with multiple CCRB investigators, aside from some smaller groups of cases assigned to single investigators, the agency did not follow its own protocols for investigating case clusters from the 2020 protests.
Instead, staff said, investigative squads “caught cases” as they entered the agency’s queue, depending on which teams were up for rotation. As a result, groups of complaints that shared connective threads and locations were scattered across the agency at a time when investigators and other employees were working remotely due to the pandemic, making collaboration even more difficult.
Investigators described working in silos, initially unsure what cases others within the agency were assigned to and whether the video evidence they’d gathered would be useful in identifying officers in other cases. Some expressed frustration that the agency was duplicating its efforts, with multiple investigators watching hour after hour of the same video footage in order to collect evidence.
“There was a lot of wasted time and wasted information,” said one staff member. “It should have been like a whole squad got one protest and every complaint that resulted from that protest stayed on the squad so that members of the squad could be communicating and sharing documents and information and video with each other. But as it happens, the cases were getting assigned all over the agency to different squad members, and so people were working on concurrent things without even really realizing it.”
According to CCRB employees who spoke with Gothamist, some investigators made their frustrations known to their managers, but they said their requests for greater coordination at an official level were largely ignored.
In its place, multiple staff members at the agency said investigators began to share information and collaborate on cases on their own, establishing shared drives for video footage and exchanging visual descriptions of the people they were trying to identify – both officers and protestors – all while working from the isolation of their homes.
Only after they’d begun organizing themselves, investigators said, did their managers instruct them to create chat groups on Microsoft Teams with colleagues on other squads who were looking into similar cases from the same protests. The agency created an interactive map that investigators could use to pin the locations of their cases and add information, and investigators said they had access to each other's files. But they said the responsibility of communicating with other investigators was left up to them, and that some did not always add their case to the map.
“There was no more than a very weak effort on behalf of the agency to sort of put minds together in a way that would lead to more successful outcomes for protest cases,” said one staff member.
The CCRB maintains that the section of the agency’s Investigation Manual on protests was not written to handle events on the scale of the 2020 demonstrations.
“We were having massive protests all over the city simultaneously resulting in police officers taking action against civilians around the city simultaneously,” Darche said.
Calvo-Platero, the agency’s spokesperson, said some complaints initially contained little information about where and when an incident occurred – making it difficult to place them with specific squads – and that Darche met regularly with squad leaders to check on the progress of investigations.
“One of the things I'm proudest of is the work investigators did talking to one another,” Darche told Gothamist. “That could only have happened because the investigators are doing good work.”
Rush to complete investigations
By late June 2020 – before the wave of protests in the city had fully subsided – CCRB leadership had already begun to apply pressure on investigators to close protest complaints at what several employees described as an unprecedented pace.
During a remote all-staff meeting on June 24th, 2020, Darche instructed staff members that all protest cases that had occurred prior to June 15th had to be closed by the end of August, according to contemporaneous notes made by one staff member and others who’d attended the meeting.
“I want to see these cases move,” the meeting minutes show Darche had said, which was confirmed by others who were present. “Delays in the protest cases – unless there is a good reason for it – will not be tolerated.”
Darche is a former Queens Assistant District Attorney who joined the CCRB nearly a decade ago. Multiple staff members said he had a reputation for losing his temper in all-staff meetings and in question-and-answer sessions with employees. In the past, he’d been responsible for clearing a towering backlog of civilian complaints at the agency. Darche would not comment on his conduct during staff meetings.
If Darche was looking for a “good reason” why the protest cases couldn’t be fast tracked, Thelwell said he already had one right in front of him. NYPD officers and their unions were refusing to take part in remote questioning by the CCRB at that point in the pandemic. Thelwell said police objected to appearing on video, and were insisting on sitting for in-person interviews at the agency’s offices.
“They wanted the investigators to go to the CCRB because, ‘If [police officers] can be on the streets working, the investigators can go to the office to interview them,’” Thelwell said.
Agency interviews with officers are a key component of closing out CCRB investigations and they’d essentially ground to a halt during the surge of protest cases.
Thelwell said staff members were not happy about Darche’s August deadline. Many said it wasn’t feasible, and she and other employees said they suspected CCRB leadership was under pressure from Mayor de Blasio’s office to impose the unusually short two-month deadline in order to give the public an impression that the administration was serious about investigating widespread allegations of police misconduct, which was dominating news cycles.
“Proper investigations are unlikely to be done in that time,” Thelwell said. “In effect, they were telling us to just submit shoddy investigations.”
Calvo-Platero said the deadline was imposed in order to motivate investigators to move their cases forward, but that the agency had not come under pressure from the de Blasio administration.
As the summer wore on, Darche and other members of the CCRB’s leadership came up with a plan. In mid-July 2020, Chris Duerr, then the agency’s other co-chief of investigations, sent an email to the CCRB’s investigation staff, cc’ing Darche, Thelwell, and the agency’s general counsel, Matthew Kadushin.
“Investigators, as you are all aware,” the email read, “officers have been refusing to participate in CCRB interviews on the advice of their respective unions, which has impeded our investigations. After consultation with the executive director and the general counsel’s office, it has been determined that this particular act of impeding an investigation is within the CCRB’s jurisdiction.”
In other words, not showing up for interviews with the police oversight agency to discuss allegations of misconduct was an act of misconduct itself. If an officer wouldn’t cooperate, the CCRB decided it would hit them with a new allegation for obstructing an investigation when they failed to show up. Staff members said the idea was to put pressure on the unions via their members, who wouldn’t want a series of substantiated allegations on their records.
Police unions soon signaled they were willing to make a deal, according to the staff member’s contemporaneous meeting notes. But to the surprise of Thelwell and several other employees who confirmed her account, Darche was largely negotiating with the unions on his own, eschewing what they said was the usual process of including other high ranking staff and subject-matter experts in the agency.
“Unbeknownst to us, he went alone to the police department and came back with an agreement that was unfavorable,” Thelwell said.
Darche said he’d started to speak with the unions and the police department one-on-one out of necessity. “We had a pandemic that had caused the agency to go remote,” he said. “There’s no usual.”
The deal he struck was one of a number of tentative agreements reached that summer over police interviews. Thelwell and other sources within the CCRB said the unions had finally agreed to take part in remote questioning, but that Darche had acquiesced to the unions’ demand that officers and their union shop stewards and attorneys could appear together in the same room and not have to turn on their cameras during the calls.
“But the investigators, who are at home, have to turn on their cameras, opening up their home to the officers,” Thelwell said.
According to multiple staff members, one arrangement would have required agency investigators to rotate their cameras around the room where they were conducting the interviews in their homes to prove no one else was present, a prospect that Thelwell said many investigators found invasive, and that allowing officers and their union reps to turn off their video would have a detrimental impact on investigations.
“Over the years we’ve seen officers come to the interviews, and sometimes the rep will be passing the officers notes about how to answer a particular question, or the rep would be kicking the officer under the table when the officer is trying to answer a certain way that they don’t want them to answer,” Thelwell said. “The rep was not at the incident, so they’re not supposed to answer. They’re not supposed to speak. So we were concerned that having the officer not on video would lend itself to an interview that’s not reliable because we don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes.”
Neither the NYPD or the Police Benevolent Association (PBA) responded to a request for comment on this point. The PBA’s president, Patrick Lynch, disputed that the union had requested remote interviews be conducted with cameras off.
“During the summer of 2020, when COVID cases were falling and the city was beginning to reopen, police officers were ready and willing to participate in in-person CCRB interviews in a masked and socially-distanced setting,” Lynch said in a written statement to Gothamist, adding that officers had concerns about the confidentiality of remote interviews. “If these CCRB employees wanted to avoid the current backlog, there was a simple solution: show up for work in person, just as police officers did for the entire duration of the pandemic.”
By late July, Darche had dropped his end-of-August deadline, staff said. A new one – while promised – didn’t materialize until an end to emergency orders placed the new statute of limitations on May 4th. The requirement for investigators to pan their cameras around their homes was never implemented, CCRB staff said.
The city’s police unions eventually agreed to appear on camera. “After instructions from the NYPD, the unions relented,” read a September 2nd, 2020 email from CCRB leadership to staffers.
But police representatives required the CCRB to set up an elaborate system that would only record the audio of an interview. Investigators had to call into a video conference by phone to make the recording. Several investigators said this resulted in a number of instances where interviews were accidentally not recorded due to technical failure – losing evidence in the process.
As for the CCRB’s plan for pressuring police to talk, a total of 66 officers were charged with “impeding an investigation.” But once interviews resumed, investigators were instructed to remove the officers’ names from those cases in the agency’s files and replace them with the phrase “an officer,” granting them anonymity. According to the CCRB, it was part of an agreement the agency made with the police department in exchange for officers sitting for questions. More than five months elapsed in which investigators did not conduct officer interviews with any regularity, wasting what they said was valuable time in investigating and closing protest cases.
Difficulty obtaining NYPD body-cam footage
Video is the primary currency of any investigation into police misconduct, and the 2020 protests were awash in it – captured on cell phones in brief snippets of street cinematography.
Former CCRB investigators are old enough to remember a time, not so long ago, when complaints against officers did not revolve around video evidence. But today, according to an agency analysis published just months before the protests swept through the city, access to video evidence more than doubles the CCRB’s ability to substantiate allegations against officers, from 13% in cases with no video evidence, to 31% where video is available. The agency’s report showed how video footage can also be beneficial for officers – improving the exoneration rate in cases of misconduct by about 50%.
The CCRB, however, has long complained of having severely limited access to one of the city’s biggest, most important troves of video evidence – the footage captured by tens of thousands of cameras worn by NYPD officers.
The NYPD’s use of body-worn cameras began as a pilot program, ordered by a federal judge in 2013 who’d found that the police department’s stop, question and frisk policies were unconstitutional. After a brief trial run, the program rolled out in earnest in April 2017. By the time racial-justice protests filled the city’s streets in 2020, the police department was uploading 130,000 videos to its cloud-storage drive each week, according to the NYPD’s legal bureau.
In creating the program, Judge Shira Scheindlin’s stated intent was to increase transparency into NYPD conduct. “The recordings will diminish the sense on the part of those who file complaints that it is their word against the police, and that the authorities are more likely to believe the police,” Scheindlin wrote in her decision.
But the CCRB argues its investigations are hamstrung by the fact that the agency relies on NYPD personnel to conduct searches of the department’s body-cam video database and make decisions for CCRB investigators over what footage is and is not relevant to their cases. Investigators submit request forms to the police department detailing their search parameters and wait to see what they get back.
It’s akin to doing a job that relies on Google searches, but having to send your search terms to a person in another part of the city who you don’t know and have never met, hoping they know what to look for. Stranger still, the CCRB is asking the target of its investigations to supply it with the evidence.
‘We lost huge amounts of critical evidence because we had to go through a bureaucracy that was permitted to drag its feet,” said one investigator.
Instead of using body-worn cameras as a tool for transparency, CCRB staff said the police department treats the footage like criminal evidence solely meant for assisting its own cases, and that the NYPD was more likely to share the footage with prosecutors than to hand it over to the city’s police-oversight agency.
“They see it as their own property,” said another, former CCRB employee. “And that they get to decide who gets to see this property that they own.”
The numbers have borne this out.
A June 2020 CCRB memo leaked to ProPublica in the wake of the protests stated that the CCRB had over 1,100 pending requests for body-worn camera footage for which the NYPD had provided no response. The year before, CCRB records showed that NYPD compliance with requests for footage had plummeted – with the number of requests filled within 20 days dropping from roughly 96% in 2018 to just 43% in 2019, leading to a growing backlog of cases that couldn’t move forward. The watchdog agency also said the police department had begun redacting more video evidence, or withholding it altogether.
According to CCRB staff, the leaked memo helped by putting pressure on the NYPD to hand over protest-related footage more readily, but investigators said that didn’t mean those responses were complete.
In Camila Gini’s case, none of the body-worn camera footage acquired by the CCRB showed any sign of Gini or Andie Mali’s arrest by NYPD, according to the agency’s investigation report on her complaint, which was obtained by Gothamist. It also showed that when the agency’s investigator requested police documentation that would have helped point them to which officers made the arrest, they discovered it didn’t exist. The report states that police officers from 30 different command units were sent to the May 30th protest at Barclays Center.
“However, few of the detailed lists from each individual command include vital information such as the exact location officers were stationed and what times they were present,” the report reads.
The officer whose name was handwritten on Gini’s court summons for disorderly conduct, Zakie Karimzada – who the CCRB report calls “one of the most likely subjects” in the case – claimed in an interview with the investigator that he did not recall being involved in Gini’s arrest in any way. He and two other officers interviewed also told the investigator they did not remember who the highest-ranking officer was on scene at the time and location of the incident.
“It seems unusual to me that they wouldn't see any of this on footage, but I'm assuming the officers either turned off their cameras or just didn’t log the footage,” said Rigodis Appling, Gini and Mali’s attorney. “They were definitely arrested and you're supposed to turn on your camera immediately when you encounter and when you're going toward an arrest, even when you approach people, sometimes you're supposed to turn on your camera, and definitely if there's any use of force, the cameras are supposed to be on. So there should have been footage.”
The CCRB has consistently argued for direct access to the NYPD’s database of body-cam footage, which would allow investigators to conduct their own searches. That would place New York City’s CCRB on par with police oversight agencies in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, both of which have a form of direct access to police body-cam video. Nearly half of the CCRB’s current body-cam footage requests have been pending over 90 days, according to the agency’s latest monthly report.
“CCRB should have direct access to the body-worn camera database,” said one former employee. “It could be done if NYPD allowed it. It’s not going to allow it and has said repeatedly it’s not going to allow it. I think it would require legislation.”
The NYPD did not respond to multiple questions about why the CCRB does not have direct access to the city’s body-cam database.
Instead, CCRB investigators said they face a constant rotation of NYPD staff assigned to handle their footage requests by proxy, some of whom are injured or otherwise placed on modified duty, and that this practice seemed to intensify in the months after the protests, partly due, they said, to a police staffing shortage during the pandemic.
That has meant officers with little experience working with the NYPD’s body-camera database were deciding what footage should be turned over, investigators said, and that separate requests for the same incidents can yield widely varying results depending on which officers reviewed the material.
“There's no way that we can get the quality of data that the NYPD is capable of providing without dedicated people who know how that system works and are not people who are just waiting to be rotated back onto patrol,” said one investigator.
The NYPD did not respond to questions about how it provides staffing for body-cam requests. In a written statement, a spokesperson said the police department works closely with the CCRB to ensure it receives footage in “a timely fashion.”
“While there was a backlog of pending video requests in the summer of 2020, there is currently no backlog,” the spokesperson said, adding that some footage is withheld when arrest records are sealed – a barrier CCRB leadership has also long advocated for lifting.
“The sealing of these cases is a legal barrier to production of the BWC [body-worn camera] footage with the consent of the arrestee,” the NYPD spokesperson said. “Obtaining consent is a responsibility that falls squarely upon the CCRB but seems to be ignored based on the posture of these questions.”
“Our centerpiece case”
All of the current and former CCRB staff who spoke to Gothamist believe the oversight agency’s lack of power over the NYPD, even for basic procedural tasks such as interviews and video requests, have left it struggling to appear credible in the eyes of the citizens it’s meant to serve.
As one former employee said, the agency’s role is largely that of a case processor – complaints are received, investigated, and then fed through a vote by the CCRB’s board with what they described as very little attention to actual outcomes.
Several staff members said they saw the CCRB’s protest cases – and the widespread support for police reform after George Floyd’s murder – as an opportunity to re-establish the agency’s role in the city and help drive big, systemic policy changes in policing. They said they wanted to go beyond routine investigations of individual officers and focus their attention on the person leading the NYPD’s protest response in 2020 – Terance Monahan.
A veteran of the department for nearly 40 years, Monahan was an expert on crowd control who’d been on scene as an officer during social unrest in Crown Heights in 1991 and in Washington Heights in 1992. He became the subject of a CCRB investigation in 2004 for his involvement in the mass arrest of hundreds of demonstrators during the Republican National Convention in New York City.
In June 2020, video surfaced of Monahan ordering the arrest of a protest organizer in Mott Haven in the Bronx, where hundreds of demonstrators had been confined by police into a small area – a police practice known as “kettling” – where they were held shortly before an 8 p.m. curfew that had been ordered by de Blasio and then arrested.
Mott Haven was widely seen by protest organizers and advocacy groups as one of the more egregious examples of an overly aggressive response from the NYPD. Video from the demonstration showed police officers on top of cars, beating protestors with their batons, and other officers shoving civilians with bicycles. Human Rights Watch determined the police response amounted to “serious violations of international human rights.”
Many believed Monahan bore responsibility, though he disputes the assertion. One former CCRB employee described the investigation into Monahan’s role in planning and ordering the police response as one that agency staff members would talk about years later.
“I thought this Monahan-Mott Haven case was going to be our centerpiece case,” the former staffer said. “We have all this stuff happening around the city, and now we’re seeing the person who’s the chief, who’s telling people what to do, how he’s acting. And then we could go, I was hoping, into broader policy proposals about how the NYPD should react to protests.”
Unlike other 2020 protests that sprawled across several city blocks, multiple investigators said the NYPD’s use of kettling in Mott Haven worked to the CCRB’s advantage.
“It was one of the few protests that was very contained. Those officers boxed people in really quickly. So it’s not that sort of moving rampage that some of those protests were,” said the same former CCRB employee. “We had a good idea of what officers were there. We could therefore have a better idea of what body-worn camera footage we did not have. We had tons of civilian footage … and we had tons of civilian testimony. It was one of the few protest cases where we had all the pieces really that makes a solid investigation.”
You have to live with the decision you make.
CCRB staff said they hoped having firm evidence against lower-level officers would help pressure them into naming Monahan as the supervisor on scene giving orders. In fact, Darche said the agency questioned a large number of supervising and senior-level officers in order to better determine who was on scene at specific protests and what orders officers were given.
“We might have interviewed more senior officers for the protest cases than in all our past cases combined,” Darche said.
An internal CCRB email obtained by Gothamist shows the CCRB generated a complaint against Monahan on October 14th, 2020, including the names of victims and witnesses from the Mott Haven protest. Further emails show CCRB staff discussed whether an investigator should reach out directly to schedule an interview, as staff said is typical for most cases, or take another route.
In an email dated October 27th, 2020, Darche told his investigations team that he would personally discuss arranging an interview with Monahan when he met with NYPD Deputy Commissioner Amy Litwin the next day, which Thelwell said was unusual.
“There is no reason why the executive director should be scheduling any interview with any officer,” she said, adding that, even with high-ranking officers, investigators would normally contact their office directly to find a time that works for the police official. “That’s the only deference we give.”
Staff complained that the process dragged out for months. Calvo-Platero, the CCRB spokesperson, said that because Monahan eventually became the subject of several civilian complaints – all of which were at different stages of investigation – Darche decided the agency needed ample time to prepare. The agency felt it had only one opportunity to interview Monahan because of his rank in the department.
But before the agency could question him, Monahan announced his retirement, at which point he would fall outside the CCRB’s jurisdiction. At a press conference on February 25th, 2021, de Blasio appointed Monahan to a position outside the NYPD as a senior public-safety advisor.
In early March 2021, Monahan sat for an interview with CCRB investigators just days before leaving the police department. A Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request made by Gothamist for a transcript of the interview was denied by the CCRB, but those familiar with Monahan’s statement said it mirrored an interview conducted in December 2021 by the Department of Investigation – which released a redacted copy of the conversation to the news site THE CITY via a FOIL request.
In it, Monahan admits to ordering the arrest of Shannon Jones, a protest organizer. Video of the incident showed Monahan on scene that day, pointing towards Jones and directing officers to apprehend her. But he claimed not to have taken any part in the decision to kettle protesters and arrest them en masse, nor to have seen any injuries of civilians while he was on site. That call, he said, had been made by Kenneth Lehr, then an assistant chief in the Bronx.
“He was in control. It’s his borough. He was in charge,” Monahan told the DOI’s assistant general counsel. “I was there to observe what was going on.”
Asked in an interview with Gothamist whether he bore some responsibility as the chief of the department overseeing the NYPD’s response, Monahan said he did not want to second guess Lehr’s choice of tactics.
“Ultimately, obviously you’re responsible [as department chief], but you have to allow people to make decisions. And he made a decision and he justified it,” Monahan said. “Many decisions are made in the heat of the moment. You have a second to make that decision one way or another, what you’re going to do, and then you have to live with the decision you make.”
When reached by phone, Lehr referred questions from Gothamist to the NYPD. He retired from the police department earlier this year. Both men had nearly 40 complaints each pleaded against them from the June 4th, 2020 Mott Haven protest. All were closed because the officers retired. Monahan said the complaints against him were not a factor in his decision to retire or in his appointment by de Blasio as public-safety advisor for the city, a role he left at the start of the year.
Disciplinary recommendations ignored
One of the CCRB’s defining characteristics is its youth – not of the agency itself, which was founded in the 1950s as a division of the NYPD and has since evolved into a civilian-led organization – but of its staff. The CCRB’s recruitment model is built on a steady rotation of recent college grads, many of them looking for legal and investigative work experience before moving on to law school or other post-graduate degrees, according to interviews with numerous current and former employees.
Young, inexperienced investigators, staff members said, can frequently find themselves at a disadvantage when interviewing seasoned police officers who likely know more about the in and outs of the NYPD’s patrol guide and police procedure than they do, and they said few investigators stay longer than a few years.
First, there’s the burnout from closely watching and cataloging hour after hour of videos showing police use of force and alleged abuses of authority, staff members said. Then, there’s the disillusionment with the overall process.
New York City’s police-oversight system hands final authority over whether officers actually face discipline or not over to the police commissioner. The CCRB’s findings are just “recommendations” that the commissioner often doesn’t follow.
So far, the NYPD’s concurrence rate for abiding by the CCRB’s findings in 2020 protest cases where officers faced serious charges is just 42% – meaning more than half received no discipline from either Commissioner Keechant Sewell or her predecessor, Dermot Shea. Last year, the police department’s overall concurrence rate with complaints of misconduct substantiated by the CCRB and recommended for discipline fell from 73% to 68%.
“I’m gutted,” said one investigator after learning the police department had reversed the CCRB’s decision on a civilian complaint the employee had spent months investigating.
“A lot of the work that I did for this case was spent on trying to identify my subject officer, and going through video parcel by parcel," the investigator said.
“It was just a tremendous amount of time and energy and the city's resources,” they added, noting the time also spent writing and editing a report on the officer’s misconduct, then having it reviewed by the agency’s executive staff. “And then, of course, the board voted on it and their time was wasted and their recommendations were basically just completely ignored.”
For years, the CCRB’s leadership has called for the city to hand final disciplinary authority over to the agency – which Commissioner Sewell opposes, according to a written statement from NYPD spokesperson, Jessica McRorie.
“In that the Police Commissioner is the single official held accountable for the conduct of police officers, the final say on discipline should remain with the Police Commissioner,” McRorie told Gothamist.
The CCRB closed Camila Gini and Andie Mali’s complaints against the NYPD on February 9th. The agency’s investigation notes from Gini’s case show that, although the police department had not turned over any relevant body-worn camera footage, the CCRB investigator had also tried to obtain video evidence from the Junior’s Cheesecake across the street from where Gini said the incident took place, but the cameras were pointed in another direction. The Applebee’s on the other side of DeKalb Avenue had already deleted its footage.
Ultimately, the agency was unable to identify the officers involved in Gini and Mali’s arrest. Gini said she had not heard from the CCRB investigator assigned to her case for several months and the letter notifying her of the outcome was sent to an old address, according to Gini’s attorney.
“It’s upsetting because it only makes me think that if there’s no footage or no recollection of any officers being there, it’s almost as if it didn’t happen to me and it didn’t happen to Andie, but it did,” Gini said.
Darche himself expressed some dissatisfaction with the protest cases as the statute of limitations approaches. "Yes, we have more unidentified officers than I would like, but I think when you look at the situation we were faced with, that we identified as many people as we did, is a credit to the work the agency did."
Gini and 10 other protestors are suing the city, seeking a change in how the NYPD polices protests. “This should not be happening to anybody,” said Gini, who noted that the experience had made her fearful of exercising her First Amendment right to peaceably assemble.
“I used to protest peacefully, many times,” she said. “That was something that was promised to me in the Constitution. I could speak freely. I can protest things I’m passionate about. But now, that is out of the question to put myself in that situation again.”
But many of the CCRB’s critics argue that the city’s system of police oversight needs to be completely rebuilt in order to have true accountability. In most cases where allegations of misconduct are substantiated, officers often only face retraining or a loss of vacation days. Several staff members said the penalties aren’t high enough.
Another flaw, Thelwell said, is the agency’s board – a mix of political appointees made by the mayor’s office, the City Council, the police commissioner and the public advocate. She said board members are entrusted to vote on cases with very little knowledge of police oversight and very little training, and it’s the mayor who appoints the board chair and decides whether they stay in the job. Several of the people who spoke with Gothamist for this story pointed to mayoral control of the agency as a limiting factor in the CCRB’s willingness to push back against the police department it's charged with overseeing.
Christopher Werth is WNYC and Gothamist's investigative editor. You can send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @c_werth. His phone and encrypted Signal app number is 347 613 6600.
An earlier version of this story misspelled Clio Calvo-Platero's last name. It has been corrected