Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
By Yoav Gonen, Peter Senzamici, and Carson Kessler, THE CITY
A third-year New York City cop who threw his live-in girlfriend on the couch and punched her in the face was suspended for 30 days and required to undergo counseling.
Another NYPD officer, who lied about intentionally shutting an emergency subway gate on a teenage turnstile-jumper she had arrested, forfeited 30 days vacation and was put on one-year probation.
A third officer caught lying about using force — video showed him dragging a homeless person out of a fast food joint and slamming the guy’s head into a door — was docked 21 vacation days.
These were among the 45 cases of disciplinary action taken by the NYPD over a 12-month period in which a little-known anti-corruption panel determined the punishments should have been more severe. In 11 instances, the panel found the cops should have been fired.
The annual reports by the city’s Commission to Combat Police Corruption offer a rare peek into an opaque disciplinary system that critics say for years has protected bad cops — and whose outcomes Mayor Bill de Blasio asserts city government is prohibited from sharing publicly under state law.
State legislative leaders say they’re moving to repeal or amend that law, known as 50-a, as early as next week.
Floyd Protests Renew Push
The issue of police accountability and transparency again burst into the forefront with widespread protests condemning the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police — following dozens of similar deaths of unarmed black men and women across the country in recent years.
Floyd’s pleas to officers that he couldn’t breathe while they pressed their knees into his neck and body for nearly nine minutes echoed the words of Eric Garner as he was choked by police on Staten Island in July 2014.
Garner said “I can’t breathe” nine times before he died.
While the officer who pressured Floyd’s neck was fired within days and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter, the NYPD officer who put Garner in a banned chokehold wasn’t fired until five years after the incident, following an Civilian Complaint Review Board trial.
A Staten Island grand jury declined to bring criminal charges against then-Officer Daniel Pantaleo in late 2014.
Both officers had histories of prior complaints about their behavior — including 10 against former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin.
“The one thing about the constant coming out every night and the large numbers and the national scope of these demonstrations is I think they are telling the power brokers that it’s gotta change,” said Maya Wiley, a professor at New School University in Manhattan who formerly chaired the Civilian Complaint Review Board, another police oversight body, under de Blasio.
“It’s gotta change. It just does — because it’s not sustainable for society. And it’s certainly not sustainable for the police.”
Scant discipline for misconduct likely leads to more bad policing, said Jeffrey Fagan, professor of law at Columbia Law School who served as an expert witness in a federal lawsuit that curbed the practice of stop-and-frisk.
“If you don’t discipline cops for acts of brutality, then they’re likely to do it again because they perceive no cost,” Fagan said.
In its December 2019 report, members of the mayorally appointed anti-corruption commission believed the disciplinary actions taken by the NYPD were insufficient in 11% of the 432 internal departmental trials that were concluded between October 2016 and September 2017.
The commission said 11 NYPD members should have been fired for their misconduct, while 31 others merited one-year probation that allows for termination for any infraction — known as “dismissal probation.”
In the remaining three cases, the panel wanted a further docking of vacation days.
In all 45 cases — none of which identifies the officer by name — the commission found the actions were too egregious or the officer’s employment history too checkered to warrant the modest level of punishment meted out by the NYPD.
The commission was established under executive order by former mayor Rudy Giuliani in 1995, and was charged with monitoring corruption at the NYPD and producing reports and audits. The NYPD isn’t required to abide by its recommendations.
In a prior report issued in 2017, the commission cited 123 cases that merited harsher punishment — about 10% of the total — including 53 that deserved termination.
One case from the latest report involved a third-year officer who responded to a fight in a homeless shelter that led to two residents being put under arrest in handcuffs.
When one of them spat on him, the officer struck one handcuffed shelter resident in the face — knocking her unconscious and causing two facial fractures.
“The subject officer denied punching the resident, stating that she lunged into his open hand.”
“Three civilian witnesses described this strike as a punch, but when questioned by investigators, the subject officer denied punching the resident, stating that she lunged into his open hand,” reads the commission’s 2019 report. “He also maintained that she did not lose consciousness until she fell to the ground and that her injuries were caused when she hit the ground.”
The NYPD didn’t seek to put the officer on dismissal probation — as the commission members would have liked — because the officer’s actions were deemed “impulsive, not pre-planned,” the report says.
The officer pled guilty to using excessive force on a handcuffed person and forfeited 30 vacation days.
The NYPD committed in February 2019 to a host of recommendations intended to reform the department’s disciplinary system and make it more transparent.
In response to a panel of law enforcement experts he convened months earlier, then-NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said the department would implement 13 changes — including five within 60 days.
Of those, the most significant was the adoption of strictly defined punishment guidelines for committing acts of domestic violence — something the Commission to Combat Police Corruption had been advocating for years.
As of April 2019, the NYPD agreed for the first time that termination would be presumed for any member who’s criminally convicted of domestic violence, or involved in two such incidents absent a conviction.
The first act of domestic violence, absent a court conviction, would for the first time result in a one-year probation, except in rare cases.
As for the other promised reforms, NYPD officials said Tuesday that some have been completed while a number of them are still in the works.
“The recommendations the NYPD has adopted will make the system the strongest and most transparent it can be, within the bounds of state law,” said NYPD Assistant Chief Matthew Pontillo. “It will also build upon a cadre of recent reforms, including the deployment of body-worn cameras, the dissemination of videos from those cameras and the annual publication of data on discipline, among other things.”
Although a citizen liaison was supposed to be hired last fall, the executive level position remains unfilled, according to police officials. They said a candidate will be selected shortly out of a pool of 34 applicants.
Officials also said attorneys haven’t been hired yet to speed up the disciplinary process, and that their hiring depends on the city’s fiscal 2021 budget — which will be finalized this month. The original recommendation was embraced during last year’s budget cycle, shortly after the independent panel highlighted delays caused by the staffing shortage.
The NYPD has also produced a new patrol guide provision clarifying the rules around false and misleading statements, officials said.
The Commission to Combat Police Corruption found that while a patrol guide provision makes false statements punishable by a presumption of termination — whether the falsehoods are in court testimony, departmental interviews or documents — the NYPD has rarely charged its members under that provision.
Instead, the department typically charges members under a “conduct prejudicial to good order” provision — which doesn’t come with the same, steep punishment.
On Tuesday, nearly a dozen City Council members announced efforts to pass two stalled police accountability bills in coming weeks.
One proposal, introduced in 2018 by Councilmember Rory Lancman (D-Queens), would make it illegal for police officers to use a chokehold — or any move that obstructs air passages, including pressing a knee to the neck — while making an arrest.
Chokeholds are already banned by the NYPD’s guidelines, and de Blasio has cited those rules in arguing that the law isn’t necessary.
The other proposed measure, brought last year by the Council’s public safety committee chair, Donovan Richards (D-Queens), would require the NYPD to spell out clear guidelines for how every infraction should be punished, under what’s known as a discipline matrix.
It’s something the NYPD committed to exploring last year, but that Richards said hasn’t been done.
“Right now if you asked me what does the NYPD’s inner disciplinary system look like, I’d tell you it’s non-existent … it’s what I consider the wild, wild West,” Richards told THE CITY.
“When you go to school and you get in a fight, you know you’re getting suspended for seven days. But here there’s not even a framework,” he added. “The bottom line is if people don’t think there’ll be consequences for their actions or they think people aren’t watching, they are more likely to go out into communities and cause pain.”
NYPD officials countered that a disciplinary matrix is nearing completion, although it will be an evolving document.
Also Tuesday, following days of largely peaceful protests marred by clashes with cops and late-night looting, de Blasio said the city would take steps to reform the NYPD disciplinary system.
“We are going to improve and speed the process…. It must go faster and we will ensure it goes faster,” the mayor said during an online news conference.
“We will do a better job of addressing the police officers who don’t seem to fit in a precinct or be able to work with communities,” he added. “We will do a better job of removing those few — and they are few — who do not belong in our police force.”
This story was originally published on [June 2, 2020] by THE CITY.”
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