Mary Gardner, CLS ’22
When an NYPD officer abuses his authority, who holds him accountable? The short answer is: no one. After George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were murdered by police officers, millions of Americans risked the pandemic to protest police violence and push for comprehensive reform. Local governments felt the pressure of civilian scrutiny. People across the country began to inquire with greater urgency—Who reviews police misconduct? Who disciplines officers? Who terminates officers who endanger civilians?
In New York City, the Civilian Complaint Review Board (“CCRB”) functions as the independent watchdog agency intended to increase police accountability by processing claims of misconduct and recommending disciplinary action to the Police Commissioner. The CCRB is comprised of civilian employees and has the power 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.” Although the existence of an independent watchdog agency has been lauded as ‘progressive,’ New Yorkers have long wondered how the CCRB works—and if the CCRB works.
Over the summer, New York lawmakers passed a series of laws intended to increase police accountability and curb police violence. This package included the repeal of 50-A, a law that shielded police disciplinary records from the public. On August 20, 2020, 323,911 accusations of police misconduct were published by the New York Civil Liberties Union. The data rings alarm bells.
Between 2001 and 2020, over 81,000 officers have received at least one complaint, but the CCRB has recommended disciplinary action for only 3,188. Of these, 798 received some kind of penalty or additional training and returned to their roles, and 890 were not disciplined at all. In the last twenty years, only seven officers have been fired.
The data tells us that NYPD Officer Michael Raso has fourteen substantiated allegations in eight separate complaints against him, but he has not been fired. Officer David Leonardi has eleven substantiated allegations in seven separate complaints against him, but he remains on the force. Officer Joseph Tallarine has 23 substantiated allegations in six separate complaints, but he has maintained his position and even earned several raises.
Moderate liberals who favor gradual police reform—including President-Elect Joe Biden—have long referred to violent officers as a “few bad apples.” The CCRB data demonstrates the New York City’s disciplinary measures systematically retain “bad apples” while creating the illusion of civilian oversight. The whole barrel is rotten.
Now that the failures of the CCRB are readily apparent, the path to reform should be clear. New York needs a civilian oversight agency that is truly led by civilians and has some teeth. Currently, the City Council selects five board members, the Mayor selects five, and the Police Commissioner selects three. New York Mayors have long felt political pressure to appear ‘tough on crime,’ so the board members selected by the Mayor lean conservative. As a result, the communities most impacted by police violence remain severely underrepresented. If the CCRB is truly intended to represent the population, the Mayor’s five board seats should be elected by citizens in each borough. The current mayoral appointees are racially diverse, but lack socioeconomic diversity – three out of five are corporate lawyers.
Furthermore, the CCRB should have the authority to actually discipline officers based on their findings. At the moment, the board can only recommend disciplinary action to the Police Commissioner who may disregard the recommendation completely if he chooses. The new data demonstrates that the Police Commissioner follows the CCRB recommendation only twenty percent of the time. The consequences of this design flaw are tremendous. Officers who engage in excessive force, sexual harassment, and abuse of authority, are often reprimanded by losing a few vacation days. Giving the CCRB real disciplinary authority would give the organization a backbone. Taking disciplinary authority out from under the NYPD and placing it in the hands of democratically-elected CCRB is a necessary step in creating meaningful police accountability.
 Luis Ferré-Sadurní and Jesse McKinley, N.Y. Bans Chokeholds and Approves Other Measures to Restrict Police, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/12/nyregion/50a-repeal-police-floyd.html.
 CIVILIAN COMPLAINT REVIEW BOARD, https://www1.nyc.gov/site/ccrb/about/about.page (last visited Nov. 21, 2020).
 See Ferré-Sadurní, supra note 1.
 Innocence Staff, In a Historic Victory, Governor Cuomo Signs Repeal of 50-A Into Law, Innocence Project (June 9, 2020), https://innocenceproject.org/in-a-historic-victory-the-new-york-legislature-repeals-50-a-requiring-full-disclosure-of-police-disciplinary-records/.
 Ashley Southall, 323,911 Accusations of N.Y.P.D. Misconduct Are Released Online, N.Y. Times (Aug. 20, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/20/nyregion/nypd-ccrb-records-published.html.
 Ashley Southall, Ali Watkins and Blacki Migliozzi, A Watchdog Accused Officers of Serious Misconduct. Few Were Punished., N.Y. Times (Nov. 15, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/15/nyregion/ccrb-nyc-police-misconduct.html.
 George Joseph, Christopher Robbins, Jake Offenhartz and Jake Dobkin, Here Are the Current NYPD Officers with the Most Substantiated Misconduct Complaints, Gothamist (July 28, 2020, 1:32 PM), https://gothamist.com/news/here-are-current-nypd-officers-most-substantiated-misconduct-complaints.
 Reid J. Epstein and John Eligon, Biden Said, ‘Most Cops Are Good.’ But Progressives Want Systemic Change., N.Y. Times (Aug. 19, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/19/us/politics/democrats-biden-defund-police.html.
 See CIVILIAN COMPLAINT REVIEW BOARD, supra note 2.
 See Southall, supra note 5.
 See Joseph, supra note 8.