Officials, activists and politicos wrestle with idea of an NYPD inspector general

STEPHON JOHNSON Special to the AmNews | 6/20/2013, 10:42 a.m.
When the city was mired in crime in the 1970s and 1980s, being from New...
Officials, activists and politicos wrestle with idea of an NYPD inspector general

When the city was mired in crime in the 1970s and 1980s, being from New York was a badge of honor. It said you survived something others couldn't. But when the city began to turn things around in the 1990s, being from New York meant that you were from the home of MTV, "Seinfeld" and the birthplace of America's new youth music: hip-hop. Over a decade into the 21st century, those who survived the bad old days don't recognize the city they once loved, but they appreciate the improvements it's made.

Under the reign of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and current Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City's drop in crime has become the stuff of legend in certain circles. The New York Police Department is looked at as the standard-bearer for not only law enforcement in America, but across the globe.

But with the city's current stop-and-frisk policy, which disproportionately targets Black and Latino males, and the unchecked surveillance of Muslim residents, some have called for an overseer. A watchdog. Someone who can make sure the police are doing their job without violating the constitutional rights of the residents they serve.

Could politicians, at a time when the city is as safe as it's ever been, muster enough courage to openly challenge the NYPD and its practices? Could politicians rock the boat even when that boat is successful? One mayoral candidate has surprisingly jumped on board after not publicly appearing as a fan on a recommended addition to the city's law enforcement.

According to a January poll by Quinnipiac University, 50 percent of all New Yorkers disapprove of stop-and-frisk (the practice where police officers can stop and question anyone randomly based on suspicion of wrongdoing) and 46 percent disapprove. Among city Democrats, 59 percent disapprove while 79 percent of Republicans are in favor. Sixty-eight percent of New York's Black residents disapprove of stop-and-frisk (54 percent of Hispanics disapprove), while 56 percent of whites approve of the practice.

When divided by borough, stop-and-frisk meets its highest rate of disapproval in the Bronx at 63 percent, while there's a 62 percent approval on Staten Island. Among age groups, the only one with majority approval for stop-and-frisk are residents ages 65 and up. The objection to stop-and-frisk, if one uses the Quinnipiac poll as a barometer, is overwhelmingly young, outer-borough and predominantly Black and Latino.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), in its current form, came to be in 1993 after decades of push and pull between the NYPD and the city. What was once a board that was part police and part civilian is now all civilian. The board was given subpoena power and authority to recommend discipline in cases the board reviews, but without the power to actually do something, the final decision in cases of police misconduct lies in the commissioner's hands.

Just last year, the CCRB was given expanded rights in its prosecutorial role over police officers accused of misconduct, but Council Speaker Christine Quinn has left one of the seats on CCRB vacant since 2009, when former board member Dennis DeLeon passed away. Despite an expanded budget, the CCRB has been rendered powerless. The NYPD and the city, still have the final say.

But two people from the world of academia have proposed a solution to this problem: an inspector general to oversee the NYPD.

Last fall, Faiza Patel and Andrew Sullivan of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law produced and distributed a proposal for an NYPD inspector general to elected officials, the media and other members of academia. In the 39-page document, Patel and Sullivan advocate for an inspector general who is independent of the NYPD and would be free to determine which reviews to conduct, review the NYPD's record-keeping practices on intelligence gathering, have access to the same personnel and documents as the NYPD, promote transparency and regularly report to the mayor and the City Council.

But according to NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne, the role of investigating and overseeing police conduct is already in good hands. In an email, Browne said that there's not one police department in the country that has as much oversight as the NYPD, and the thought of an inspector general would be "unnecessary and redundant." He made a list of the groups who are responsible for the checks and balances of the NYPD to prove it.

"Five independently elected district attorneys; each has independent authority to investigate and/or prosecute NYPD officers, subpoena records; and has (2) two United States attorneys appointed by the president, either one of which may investigate and/or prosecute NYPD to its officers; and has (3) an independent Citizens Complaint Review Board--signed into law by former Mayor [David] Dinkins--to investigate police misconduct; (4) the Mayor's Commission to Combat Police Corruption, and; (5) the department's own Internal Affairs Bureau and other inspectional entities, which together employ approximately 1,000 department personnel in addressing or preventing police misconduct or inadequacies," Browne wrote.

Browne also mentioned the NYPD's Advocate's Office, which prosecutes internal infractions that "don't rise to the level of federal or state prosecution. This office is staffed with civilian, former prosecutors and lawyers."

According to the proposal, all of that isn't enough because the entities aren't as independent and objective as they should be to produce results.

"To begin with, purely internal mechanisms like the Internal Affairs Bureau are no substitute for independent review by a neutral and objective outsider ... none of the institutions identified by the commissioner [Ray Kelly] have ever monitored department-wide polices for compliance with legal standards," read the proposal.

Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center's Liberty & National Security Program, said that the drop in the crime rate doesn't undermine the need for an inspector general. In her eyes, it increases it.

"Clearly, there are constitutional problems with the NYPD's surveillance and stop-and-frisk practices," said Patel. "These have been raised in various lawsuits. But the crime numbers also don't support the claim that New York City is safer because of stop-and-frisk. While violent crimes fell 29 percent in New York City from 2001 to 2010, other large cities experienced larger declines without relying on stop-and-frisk abuses: 59 percent in Los Angeles, 56 percent in New Orleans, 49 percent in Dallas and 37 percent in Baltimore."

Earlier this month, the NYPD released data from its stop-and-frisk activities after persistent requests from the New York Civil Liberties Union. The stats, from the year 2011, show that out of the 685,724 people who were stopped or detained under "reasonable suspicion," almost 90 percent of them were either Black or Latino. Overall, Blacks and Latinos make up 53 percent of the city's population.

At around the same time of the report's release, U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that the Clean Halls Program violated the constitutional rights of New York City residents. According to Scheindlin, for years the NYPD should have known (or already knew) that its officers had routinely violated constitutional rights through Clean Halls. Scheindlin said that the NYPD failed to properly train officers about when it was legal to make trespass stops in private residents. Scheindlin eventually suspended her ruling while the NYPD and the city made an appeal, but residents are pushing back against NYPD policies.

One of those people fighting against current NYPD policies is Joo-Hyun Kang of Communities United for Police Reform. Kang's group, made up of several organizations that advocate for police reforms that eliminate discrimination and improve accountability, has been a staunch advocate for ending the unlawful use of stop-and-frisk (a reform she feels is useful when done properly. She's also a fan of the inspector general idea.

"The NYPD currently lacks strong, independent oversight to protect the rights of New Yorkers from systemic rights abuses--that isn't provided by CCRB, Internal Affairs Bureau or any other existing entity," said Kang. "Establishing an inspector general would provide effective oversight with subpoena power and would be an important first step in ensuring New Yorkers have faith that the NYPD is accountable for their actions."

But Bloomberg argued during his final State of the City Address that stop-and-frisk was a part of the police's success in bringing down the crime rate.

"While the incarceration rate across America has increased by 6 percent over the past decade here in New York City, we've reduced it by 32 percent," said Bloomberg. "We've done it through proactive, targeted policing that prevents crime, and that includes stopping and questioning people who are acting suspiciously or who fit the description of a suspect. I understand that innocent people don't like to be stopped, but innocent people don't like to be shot and killed either. Stops take hundreds of guns off the street each year."

To people like Eugene O'Donnell, a lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former NYPD officer, Bloomberg's remarks demonstrated the need for an inspector general. O'Donnell said that not only can the mayor and the Police Department not be trusted regarding conduct, but the alleged cost of hiring another overseer would be offset by the decrease in lawsuits.

"The city and its high officials are potentially liable for civil and criminal violations in connection with these activities," said O'Donnell, who participated in a panel discussion regarding an inspector general last fall. "Because tracking alleged 'Middle Eastern'-inspired terrorist actors inevitably involves allegations of racial, ethnic and religious profiling--issues that have caused consternation over the course of American history--the department must tread cautiously, deliberately and thoughtfully here on the basis of credible, solid, verifiable evidence and not based on whim, surmise or caprice.

"This is easier said than done," O'Donnell admitted.

Over the past several months, Democratic mayoral hopefuls have publicly spoken out (some ambiguously) on NYPD conduct when it comes to surveillance of Muslims via counterterrorist operations. Quinn, City Comptroller John Liu, former City Comptroller Bill Thompson and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio have toed the line on Muslim surveillance, but they quickly jumped on stop-and-frisk, which affects a bigger chunk of the city's population.

Last year, Quinn said she'd continue the strategy of monitoring Muslim groups if she were elected mayor, but she did tell the Wall Street Journal, "It's crucial to make sure that their voices and concerns are heard, and that's why the NYPD must continue its efforts to reach out to all communities."

But Quinn's tightrope approach has drawn the ire of activists. During a late December protest in Queens' Jackson Heights neighborhood to protest stop-and-frisk and Muslim surveillance, among the many signs on display at the march, one read: "Christine Quinn can de-fund stop-and-frisk from the NYPD budget ... but when?"

Quinn has been criticized by community organizers for not using her power and authority to force the NYPD to re-examine or reform their more controversial policies. And yet, the council speaker surprised many political leaders by brokering a deal with the City Council that would introduce an NYPD inspector general. She predictably drew the ire of Bloomberg.

"Around the country, inspector generals--as they're called--inspector general offices exist within police departments to combat corruption and misconduct, and that's exactly what our Internal Affairs Bureau does," said Bloomberg. "The FBI's inspector general is charged with the same responsibility: combating waste and fraud and misconduct in the FBI. But our City Council's bill would create a new bureaucracy with the power to oversee the policies and strategies--that's what they say, policies and strategies--adopted by the police commissioner.

"That's not an inspector general; that's a policy supervisor, and I don't think any rational person would say we need two competing police commissioners," stated Bloomberg.

Republican mayoral candidate and former MTA Chairman Joe Lhota was more direct in his displeasure with Quinn's recent maneuvers. Lhota has called on her to drop support for an inspector general and declared the concept dangerous to the public safety of New Yorkers.

"We need to do everything we can to un-handcuff the police department to have a laser-like focus and continuation in the reduction in crime and reverse the direction that this is going," said Lhota.

As for the other candidates, Thompson issued a statement last year declaring that the city needs to be "vigilant" in protecting New Yorkers from terrorist attacks, but singling out a race or religion "raises eyebrows."

Liu has stated numerous times over the past 12 months that he would abolish stop-and-frisk altogether if he were elected mayor. During a forum hosted by the Citizens Crime Commission in early December, Liu said that stop-and-frisk stood against core American values.

"Stop-and-frisk is a practice that I do believe has no place in a democratic society," said Liu. "When you read about 700,000 people being stopped and frisked on the street, and almost all of whom have done absolutely nothing wrong, you don't expect to read about that in New York City. You expect to read about that in some, maybe, third-world country, or a country that's ruled by dictatorship."

When de Blasio gave remarks last year at John Jay, he also said that policing to keep New Yorkers safe is needed, but a relationship needs to be fostered between the NYPD and Muslim New Yorkers.

"The choice is not between a large force focused on fighting crime and combating terrorism versus a force focused on fostering cooperation from within the community and respecting the rights and aspirations of every law-abiding New Yorker," said de Blasio. At his office at 1 Centre St. in lower Manhattan in March, the public advocate said that the NYPD needed an inspector general and the police had to be checked. He didn't, however, mention anything about counterterrorism.

"I think we need more consistent and clear oversight," said de Blasio. "I've seen from different vantage points how policing is evaluated in this city. We have a fantastic police department that's done a lot of good, but this mayor has certainly deferred to the police commissioner to an extraordinary degree. I think the same is true of the City Council.

"The CCRB is different from an inspector general," continued de Blasio. "It's been undermined in many ways over the years and has had its power taken away. Internal Affairs is about the narrower question of police conduct as a professional matter. What I'm talking about with the inspector general is philosophy. What's working, what isn't and are we responding to community needs. I think an inspector general would have acted on the problem of stop-and-frisk years ago."

While mayoral candidates have taken their stand, one way or the other, with police conduct, the establishment of a NYPD inspector general would be difficult given the results produced over the past two decades. However, Patel remains hopeful that an organizational change in attitude could happen.

"For an inspector general to be successful, there has to be some acceptance by the police that he or she will actually improve their performance," said Patel. "I hope that the NYPD leadership will recognize the benefits that an inspector general can bring to the department, as have other police departments such as the LAPD and the L.A. County Sherriff's office and even the FBI."

Nonetheless, Deputy Commissioner Browne said the NYPD is fine without an inspector general. If he had one word to describe the concept, what would it be?

"Wasteful," he said.