Yoav Gonen, The City
The NYPD let 21 cops who should have been terminated for serious misconduct in recent years remain on the job — including a veteran detective who inappropriately contacted several women who’d called a Crime Stoppers hotline, according to an oversight panel.
In the Commission to Combat Police Corruption’s 20th “annual” report, quietly released last month, the investigators said the discipline meted out by the NYPD was insufficient in 38 out of 338 cases — or just over 11% — that were concluded between October 2018 and September 2019.
That’s the same rate of disagreement revealed in the commission’s prior report, released three years ago in late 2019.
The five-member CCPC, established under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 1995 to root out corruption in the police department, releases reports almost every year that gauge the appropriateness of NYPD discipline and the quality of the department’s internal probes. While the reports detail specific cases, they do not name the officers involved in them.
Among the recent outcomes the commission disagreed with was the case of William McGrade, a detective who crassly reached out to a tipster who had called the supposedly anonymous Crime Stoppers hotline in March 2019 to provide information about a home invasion.
According to the commission’s report, the detective — whose identity was obtained through NYPD records released to THE CITY — told the woman she “sounded sexy over the phone, and asked her what she was wearing, and whether she slept naked.”
He also sent her inappropriate text messages and a photo of him wearing a suit, the CCPC noted.
It was unclear how the woman brought McGrade’s actions to authorities.
When confronted by department investigators, the detective admitted to having earlier reached out to two other female tipsters — including one he eventually met in person.
He was punished by being placed on a one-year probation, where any further misconduct could lead to automatic dismissal, and the loss of 45 vacation days — but the commission said the discipline didn’t go far enough.
“We believe that termination would be more appropriate given the detective’s disciplinary history and the particular facts of this case,” the report says.
That history included similar misconduct in 2013, according to the commission, when McGrade was caught texting and calling a domestic violence victim in an effort to start a relationship.
For that misconduct he had been docked just two vacation days, which the commission called “inappropriately lenient.”
The CCPC members also pointed to the risks of compromising the public’s faith in the confidentiality of the tip line as an aggravating factor that should have led to the detective’s outster.
“His misconduct was particularly serious because he breached the Department’s obligation to maintain the anonymity of tipsters’ identities,” the report says. “If the department does not vigorously protect that anonymity, potential tipsters might fear that their identities will be publicly revealed, or revealed directly to the individuals whom they report, resulting in threats or physical harm.”
Attempts to reach McGrade, who retired from the NYPD in June 2021 according to a police spokesperson, weren’t successful.
An NYPD spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment on any specific case, but said the commission’s agreement on 89% of the discipline decisions imposed in the period reviewed was a sign of a “strong” disciplinary system.
“The department appreciates the work of the Commission to Combat Police Corruption,” said the spokesperson, who did not provide their name. “Their analysis of the cases in which they disagree will be taken into consideration when evaluating future cases with similar conduct.”
Who Decides Punishments?
The issue of police discipline and accountability has been a trying one for decades, and has garnered considerable attention as police killings and other misconduct have more often been captured on video in recent years.
One of the factors reformers have objected to is a structure that allows the NYPD commissioner to have full discretion in determining punishment for misconduct — including the power to overturn a guilty verdict made by an administrative judge at a departmental trial.
Following the local protests sparked in part by the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, there was a concerted push among some elected and criminal justice officials to alter that arrangement — which is governed by state law.
In December of that year, Fred Davie, the chair of the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board said that the body — which investigates and prosecutes certain types of police misconduct — should also be given the power to determine an officer’s discipline in cases that it handles.
A month earlier, The New York Times had reported that the NYPD only accepted the CCRB’s recommendations for disciplinary penalties in 29% of the most serious cases the board had prosecuted — doling out more lenient punishments in thousands of cases.
Within months, City Council members sought to pass a new law limiting the police commissioner’s absolute discretion, but then-Mayor Bill de Blasio — now a candidate for Congress — made it clear he wouldn’t support such an effort.
In part because of questions of jurisdiction, the Council ended up passing a solely advisory resolution — sponsored by then-Councilmember Laurie Cumbo (D-Brooklyn) — encouraging the state to give the CCRB disciplinary decision-making authority over its own cases.
And legislation introduced in Albany last year to limit the police commissioner’s disciplinary authority in cases sparked by complaints by civilians died in committee in both the state Assembly and Senate.
“You want to make sure that when disciplinary measures are taking place that they’re appropriate, and that they’re neither too lenient nor too heavy handed,” said State Senator Jamaal Bailey (D-Bronx), sponsor of the Senate version of the bill. “Sometimes maybe an independent body is the best arbiter for that.”
A Tangled Web
In a dozen cases where the CCPC flagged the discipline imposed by police brass as too lenient, the members determined that the punishment should have also included probation with the possibility of dismissal.
This included one case where an officer improperly accessed a license plate database to provide his friend, who owned a livery-car service, with the name and address of someone who was allegedly involved in a car accident with one of the service’s employees.
Police later learned that the livery employee was a drug dealer who had been selling fentanyl to the person whose plate the officer ran. And that person just happened to be a confidential informant (CI) for the New York State Police.
Using the information provided by the NYPD officer, the livery service employee reached out to the confidential informant, told him he knew where he lived, and threatened to kill him if he didn’t cough up $25,000.
That contact forced the state police to cut their investigation short and arrest the drug dealer prematurely, the report said.
Despite the significant ramifications of his actions, the officer only lost 10 vacation days for “misuse of Department computers.”
“The consequences of his actions, though unintended, compromised the safety of the CI and forced an ongoing criminal investigation to terminate prematurely,” the commission found. “Under all the circumstances, this officer deserved significantly more than the usual 10-day penalty.”
The bulk of terminations recommended by the CCPC last month were for officers who provided false information to the department either verbally or in writing, which if categorized as making a “false official statement” would be grounds for termination.
Instead, police officials often charge these instances as “conduct prejudicial to the good order, efficiency or discipline of the department,” which the commission has for years been slamming as an end-around.
“Department policy has long called for termination in cases of intentional and material false statements unless ‘exceptional circumstances’ existed,” the commission said in its latest report. “In practice, however, termination has rarely been imposed.”
The CCPC did credit the NYPD for making some positive revisions in the language for punishing false statements as part of a “disciplinary matrix” that was adopted and implemented last year under pressure by City Council. The matrix sets up a range of penalties for a host of violations of the patrol guide, and requires a written explanation from the police commissioner for significant deviations from it.
The matrix now says that punishment for false official statements should be termination, except under “extraordinary circumstances.”
But the commission said a significant number of instances where officers lie are still not clearly categorized as grounds for termination — particularly when officers fib to the Internal Affairs Bureau or Civilian Complaint Review Board.
“The Department’s past practice of not seeking termination has not only minimized the seriousness of intentional lies but has, as a practical matter, incentivized officers to lie in hopes that even if their dishonesty is provable, they will still keep their jobs,” the report says. “This, in turn, results in an unacceptable number of cases in which officers lie when questioned.”
Among them is a cop who allegedly drove his car onto a sidewalk at 185th Street in The Bronx in pursuit of a suspect, striking and injuring him.
When questioned about the Feb. 2017 incident more than a year later, Officer Justin Cristiano claimed he had lost control because of slippery conditions — something that was disproven by video, according to the CCPC report.
The victim, who suffered broken ribs, a foot and internal bleeding according to a 2014 lawsuit against Cristiano and the city, settled two years ago for $250,000, Law Department records show.
Even though Cristiano pleaded guilty to making an intentional false statement, the NYPD placed him on probation and docked 30 vacation days rather than terminating him because of his “high-performance evaluation ratings, department medals, and praise from his commanding officer,” according to the report.
Attempts to reach Cristiano, including through his former attorney, were unsuccessful.
A recent report by the civil rights group LatinoJustice found that of 169 officers flagged for lying to CCRB investigators between 2010 and 2020, not one of them was terminated.
Review Board Powers Expanding
Under a city charter change approved by voters in November 2019, the CCRB was granted permission to investigate and prosecute instances of false statements by police. Previously, suspected false statements could only be flagged by the CCRB and referred to the NYPD’s internal investigators .
To date, the board has fielded 194 allegations of false statements by NYPD personnel.
On Wednesday, the board will be voting on rules that would further expand its purview and ability to launch investigations.
The vote is expected to pass, meaning for the first time, the CCRB would be able to self-initiate investigations, rather than rely on complaints from the public. The board could also use social media posts as a reason to open a probe.
The board would also newly handle complaints of improper use of body-cameras — such as the failure to turn them on.
In the fall, the board will further expand its oversight to include a look back at an officer’s disciplinary history in instances of bias-based policing or racial profiling, a change that was spurred last year after the City Council identified racist online posts by a deputy inspector.
The CCRB also voted to expand its own powers in 2018 to include investigations of allegations of sexual misconduct by police personnel against civilians — but the implementation was delayed by two lawsuits filed by the union that represents police officers.
While the final lawsuit was denied on appeal last week, the board has already fielded 383 such complaints.
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