A report [PDF] issued this week by the city agency that oversees complaints of police misconduct has found that more complaints against NYPD officers are being substantiated than ever before.
This time last year, the Civilian Complaint Review Board substantiated police wrongdoing in 15% of cases. That rate has jumped to 21%.
"The big news in police oversight is one word: video. Video is changing everything," said CCRB Chair Richard Emery in his introduction to the report. "No longer is the lion's share of cases 'he said/she said' where additional corroboration is almost always required, and substantiation is quite difficult." Of course, sometimes even seemingly damning video evidence just doesn't matter.
According to the CCRB, 45% of all substantiated excessive force complaints against officers were accompanied by video footage in the first half of this year. Excessive force substantiations increased from 2% to 6%—an increase that the CCRB attributed specifically to the uptick in cellphone documentation.
Cellphone footage is particularly helpful in substantiating an allegation that an NYPD officer has made a "false official statement." Nineteen such allegations have been made since the first of the year, and all of them were substantiated.
This spring, Shawn Thomas, who frequently films the police, uploaded a cellphone video of two officers backing off from unlawfully searching his bag. His Youtube caption reads, "NYPD Officer want to know what's in the bag. He's seeking to do an unlawful search and possibly make an unlawful arrest. However, his partner is aware of a guy who will fight them in court and win."
It is legal to film the police, as long as the act of filming does not directly interfere with enforcement activity.
Even so, the NYPD have a habit of threatening and arresting bystanders who film them, even after the department explicitly reminded officers in a department-wide memo that the public is permitted to photograph them. Thomas has been arrested multiple times while filming police in public.
Other CCRB complaints that saw an increased substantiation rate in the first half of 2015 over the first half of 2014 include stop and frisk (from 20% to 26%), improper questioning (9% to 11%), and search allegations (10% to 17%).
Emery was also careful to stress that the overall number of complaints filed with the CCRB has decreased 22% over the last year, from 2,698 to 2,092.
Only 1,800 officers, or about 5% of the force, are responsible for 80% of those complaints. "Police misconduct is not intractable and is on the wane," he wrote. "The new culture of de-escalation is taking hold, a far less violent culture of policing that emphasizes and rewards professionalism."
Priscilla Gonzalez of Communities United for Police Reform released a statement throwing water on Emery's optimism.
"While it is encouraging to see the CCRB substantiate more cases, it is rather unfortunate that an agency with a historically poor record of oversight on police misconduct would make a fast-and-loose claim about cultural change at the NYPD," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez dismisses the idea that the increase in substantiated cases signals a culture change in the NYPD, noting that it has always been a minority of officers who are responsible for the majority of police conduct.
"In the absence of real accountability, New Yorkers have taken steps to protect one another and hold police accountability through filming officers' conduct, which has led the CCRB to substantiate more cases."