Daniel Farber Huang
September 2, 2020
Black New Yorkers are six times more likely to file formal civilian complaints against mistreatment by the NYPD than white people, recently released data indicate.
ProPublica, an independent non-profit news outlet, recently obtained over 33,000 records of civilian complaints filed against the NYPD going back to 1985. New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) provided the dataset, representing complaints against about 4,000 active-duty officers out of the NYPD’s 36,000 member police force, or about 11 percent of all active-duty officers.
Black individuals are disproportionately arrested relative to other populations. According to ABC News, using information from NYC OpenData and the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly half of all the people arrested during the last 13 years from 2006 to 2019 were Black, a disproportionately large percentage relative to their share of the population. Just over one-third were Hispanic, and only one out of eight were white. More specifically, Blacks accounted for 48 percent of all arrests made, Hispanics were 34 percent, whites were 12 percent and Asians comprised four percent of all arrests.
By contrast, New York City’s population is 26 percent Black, 26 percent Hispanic, 33 percent White, and 13 percent Asian, according to a study by New York University's Furman Center for Real Estate and Public Policy. New York City is distinctive among the largest U.S. cities in that it is the only one where each of the four major racial and ethnic groups makes up at least 10 percent of the population.
Word choice and definitions matter when discussing subjective topics, including when interpreting data. Because the data released by CCRB is incomplete both in total cases during the period in question as well as case-specific information, it is not possible to assess where any individual complaint may fall on the spectrum between, say, an unintentional misunderstanding to outright oppression. Broadly speaking the complaints do encompass how those in authority (the NYPD) treat those without authority (civilians(. At its most basic, taking advantage of that power imbalance may be considered bullying. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines “bullying” as treating (someone) in a cruel, insulting, threatening, or aggressive fashion. This article does not attempt to identify the singular description of what the CCRB data presents, rather, it attempts to provide some insight into what the data suggests.
The CCRB is the largest police oversight entity in the nation. It is empowered to receive, investigate, mediate, hear, make findings, and recommend action on complaints against New York City police officers alleging the use of excessive or unnecessary force, abuse of authority, discourtesy, or the use of offensive language. According to the CCRB’s website , the Board’s investigative staff is composed entirely of civilian employees, intended to conduct investigations in an impartial fashion. The CCRB forwards its findings to the police commissioner and, until its recent release of information to ProPublica, complaint details and ultimate outcomes have been kept confidential, shielded from public scrutiny.
The civilian complaints in the database were fully investigated by the CCRB, according to ProPublica. In each case, a civilian provided a sworn statement to investigators. Not included in the dataset are complaints the CCRB considered to be unfounded, meaning investigators determined the incident did not occur as the complaint alleged. In total, CCRB provided data on 33,358 complaints, and excluded approximately 3,200 complaints considered to be unfounded.
The released CCRB data details active-duty officers who have had at least one allegation against them substantiated by the CCRB. Substantiated means that the CCRB investigated the incident in question. It is striking that 46 percent of all complaints were deemed Unsubstantiated, in which the CCRB was unable to gather enough information to confirm that an alleged incident took place and it violated NYPD rules. As an independent department, the CCRB has limited investigative powers. So no action either way was taken for nearly half of all complaints and that data was not released by CCRB. CCRB’s inability to properly investigate nearly half of all complaints would imply that some portion of the police force’s “blue wall of silence” is alive and well.
The dataset would also be significantly larger if it also included complaints against former officers who had been active at some point during the 35-year period in question but have since left the force or retired.
There are Inherent Shortcomings with the Data Released by CCRB
There are inherent challenges when taking raw data and refining it into useful information. There are even greater challenges when taking that information and transforming it into meaningful insight, which by its nature is subject to interpretation and potential bias. In this series of articles and analysis, my goal is to draw out reasonable, logical, and objective inferences from the data to provide some insight. Ultimately, I believe this valuable data can be used to construct teachable moments and add constructively to the conversation on this important issue.
Other factors, including whether a particular population, gender or demographic may be more willing or less willing to file a formal complaint, contribute to the completeness or incompleteness of the data set. Language barriers and cultural considerations, for example, or even knowing that civilians are allowed to file formal complaints, may lead to some groups of people or types of complaints to be underrepresented.
Complaints against officers are categorized into four main violations: excessive use of force, abuse of authority (such as unlawful search), acting with discourtesy (such as rude or profane behavior toward a civilian), and using offensive language (such as using racial, gender or other slurs).
Not all records were complete. Some might be missing ethnicity or racial details of people involved. Gender was typically limited to male or female. Few instances specified if a person identified as LGBTQ, which limits deeper research into alleged violations based on sexual and gender orientation.
Where it was possible to identify both race and gender, the number of formal complaints filed by Black civilians was six times greater than whites. Black males had complaints 6.7 greater than white males, and Black females filed complaints 4.5 times more frequently than white females.
The raw numbers are staggering as well. While 2,141 white males filed complaints against the NYPD, 14,270 Black males filed official complaints. Hispanic males filed complaints 2.5 times more often than white males.
Looking at the volume of complaints over the last 20 years, from 1999 to 2019, is telling as well. Data prior to the late 1990s is limited, possibly due to the fact that CCRB provided cases for active-duty officers and a large number were likely not working for the NYPD more than 20 years ago.
New York City’s Mayors Help Set the Mood
In 1994, Rudolph Giuliani was New York City’s mayor until the end of 2001. Giuliani was a proponent of the “Broken Window Theory,” which advocated creating safer communities by pushing police to crack down actively on minor crimes such as vandalism. The Broken Window Theory promoted the idea that punishing minor crimes would in turn discourage larger crimes from occurring.
Michael Bloomberg took office afterward, and ramped up “stop-and-frisk” in 2002. Instead of merely punishing minor crimes once they occurred, stop-and-frisk sought to catch people for crimes before they even happened.
According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, the NYCLU, officers are supposed to fill out a form documenting the details of a stop. The forms were filled out by hand and manually entered into a NYPD database until 2017. After 2017, reports were entered electronically.
In 2002, over 97,000 NYPD stops were recorded, and 82 percent (over 80,000) of the people stopped were found to be innocent. Stop-and-frisk increased dramatically over the following years, peaking at over 685,000 stops in 2011. According to the NYCLU, lawsuits and public pressure resulted in court orders forcing sweeping reform of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program.
In 2014, Bill de Blasio was elected mayor. As a proponent of stop-and-frisk reform, in his first year as mayor, recorded stops dropped to just over 45,000 in 2014, compared to over 190,000 in 2013, which was Bloomberg’s last year in office. Instead, de Blasio is more of a proponent of the Broken Windows Theory. In his first year in office, de Blasio reappointed Giuliani’s NYPD Commissioner, Bill Bratton, who implemented the Broken Window Theory back in the 1990s, back to the top police post as his Commissioner.
The overall number of complaints annually by Black and Hispanic civilians against NYPD officers stayed generally consistent during both Bloomberg’s and de Blasio’s administrations. Complaints about Abuse of Power were the most common, however, the proportionality of alleged violations differed under the different administrations.
Complaints by Black males for frisk and/or search-related incidents decreased proportionally from 32 percent of all complaints under Bloomberg to 26 percent under de Blasio so far. Complaints for stop and/or questioning by Black males decreased from 27 percent during Bloomberg’s administration down to 19 percent under de Blasio. Proportionally, under de Blasio other complaints increased, such as for vehicle stops and searches.
There are other revealing insights in the data. From 1999 through 2019, among Black males there were 9,138 complaints regarding incidents resulting in a summons or arrest. Importantly, there were another 5,111 complaints against the NYPD for incidents that did not result in an arrest.
Put another way, over the last 20 years, on average every single weekday (or 250 days out of each year), an innocent Black male experienced an interaction with a NYPD officer that was perceived to be so negative the civilian felt compelled to file a formal complaint about police misconduct.
Abuse of Authority made up nearly 4 out of 5 complaints where no arrest occurred. Again, none of the Black male civilians in those altercations were charged with a crime or issued a summons. Because the dataset is not fully comprehensive, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions on any aspect, however, given the disparity between white and Black complaints this would indicate long standing persecution against innocent Blacks. With such a large number of formal complaints filed – over 5000 of them in the last 20 years against active-duty police – the data would suggest ingrained persecution and harassment of Black males by police. The majority of complaints were for being frisked and/or searched (32 percent of all No Arrest complaints) and being stopped and/or questioned by police (25 percent). Police refusing to provide their name or badge number was the third largest complaint (nine percent of claims).
How to File A Formal Complaint
There are several ways to file a complaint with the CCRB: online, by phone (1-800-341-CCRB or 311), at CCRB’s downtown Manhattan office, at a participating Council Member’s district office, at any police station, or by sending a letter in the mail. After the complaint is received by CCRB, complainants are asked to provide a formal statement at CCRB’s office. If the complainant is hospitalized or in jail, CCRB is supposed to send an investigator to the person’s location. The CCRB site states the agency takes complaints regardless of a person’s immigration status and never asks complainants or witnesses about their immigration status. The CCRB also provides translation services available in all languages for people with limited English proficiency.
The released CCRB data details active-duty officers who have had at least one allegation against them substantiated by the CCRB. Substantiated means that the CCRB investigated the incident in question. The outcome of a CCRB investigation can range from Exonerated, where the officer was deemed to have acted lawfully; Substantiated, where there is sufficient evidence the officer committed the alleged act without legal justification (and a disciplinary recommendation is sent to the police department); and Unsubstantiated, where there is insufficient evidence to determine if the officer did or did not commit misconduct.
Officers in 29 percent of all complaints were exonerated of any misconduct.
Retired FBI agent-turned-expert police witness Philip Hayden wrote in a January 31, 2019, USA Today op-ed article that the blue wall of silence is “the unofficial oath of silence within departments. Cops don’t rat on cops. That blue wall is one of many factors that further pushes the widening divide between the world as seen by law enforcement and the world experienced by the citizens whom officers are sworn to protect.”
He described his personal decision to break his silence and speak out against fellow law enforcement officers who were being sued or charged with a crime.
“Any law enforcement officer who cares about the law, and public perception, should work hard to get officers who’ve done something illegal, immoral or wrong off the force. Citizens don’t want them around. Just as important, neither do their fellow officers,” Hayden said.
Section 50-a’s Wall of Silence Comes Down
Five years ago, in February 2016, Assembly Member Daniel J. O’Donnell introduced an Act to repeal Section 50-a of New York State’s civil rights law to the New York State Assembly.
According to the filing, the 50-a exemption was adopted into New York State Civil Rights Law back in 1976. The exemption allowed law enforcement officers to refuse disclosure of "personnel records used to evaluate performance toward continued employment or promotion" for police officers, correction officers, firefighters and paramedics employed by the State or political subdivisions The intention was to prevent criminal defense lawyers from using such records in cross examination of police witnesses during criminal prosecutions.
In 2014, nearly 40 years later, the State Committee on Open Government to the Governor and the State Legislature said in its annual report, "this narrow exemption has been expanded in the courts to allow police departments to withhold from the public virtually any record that contains any information that could conceivably be used to evaluate the performance of a police officer."
Most government records are generally available under New York’s Freedom of Information Laws (FOIL), however, 50-a has side-stepped disclosure under FOIL. Similar to 50-a, FOIL provides public employees protections necessary to guard against unwarranted invasions of privacy and from disclosures that could jeopardize their security or safety. What’s more, according to the filing, courts can protect NYPD personnel against improper cross-examination and determine if police records are admissible in a trial, which 50-a also purports to protect.
The State Committee on Open Government noted that 50-a “creates a legal shield that prohibits disclosure, even when it is known that misconduct has occurred."
On June 12, 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the “Say Their Names” reform agenda, which included the repeal of Section 50-a. Following the killing of George Floyd, Cuomo proposed the Say Their Names agenda to “reduce inequality and reimagine the State’s criminal justice system,” according to a press release. In addition to repealing 50-a protections, Say Their Names bans chokeholds by law enforcement officers, prohibits false race-based 911 reports, and designates the Attorney General as an independent prosecutor in killings of unarmed civilians by police.
Cuomo said, "These are issues that the country has been talking about for a long time, and these nation-leading reforms will make long overdue changes to our policing and criminal justice systems while helping to restore community confidence in law enforcement.”
Fred Davie, CCRB’s Chair, also said in a separate June 12, 2020 statement, “For too long, the law has prohibited New Yorkers from accessing many details about the police disciplinary process, making it impossible for them to know how – or if – an officer who engaged
in misconduct was disciplined … This is a major step toward bolstering public confidence in the system, allowing for more comprehensive reporting about police misconduct, and ultimately, changing the dynamic between police and civilians for the better.”
Assembly Member O’Donnell, who introduced the repeal Act five years ago, said in the press release, "As Section 50-a of the New York State Civil Rights Law is repealed and new police reforms are implemented, we will see meaningful change for our communities. It will come in the baton that isn't swung, the gun that isn't fired, and the life that continues uninterrupted. It will come in the form of answers for those who have lost family members to police violence, allowing them to feel some measure of peace.”