Last June State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Raffaele of Queens accused police of violently assaulting him while observing their treatment of a homeless man in Jackson Heights. Judge Raffaele had actually called 911 to alert dispatchers that the police at the scene needed assistance. According to him, an officer struck him in the neck in an effort to disperse onlookers, some of whom were angry at how the police were treating the homeless man.
This incident is disturbing enough, but now, the judge claims that the Queens DA’s office is attempting to whitewash his complaint against the officer. Judge Raffaele said that he had to make repeated efforts to get the DA’s office to investigate his complaint. When investigators finally showed up to take his statement they had already spoken to the police and seemed to have made up their mind that the judge’s allegations were unfounded, before interviewing him or two other witnesses. Those witnesses, who know the judge, back up his claims about the behavior of the police and said that the investigators from the DA’s office came in with their minds made up and spent more time trying to undermine their statements and question their immigration status, than listen to their version of events.
This would hardly be the first time that a local DA sided with the police in the face of evidence to the contrary. Police and prosecutors have a special relationship. Anyone who has watched an episode of Law and Order knows that the DA’s office is largely dependent on the police to gather evidence and testify convincingly in court, in order to get a conviction. At the same time, police need prosecutors to take their cases and prosecute them vigorously, if they want to see the people they arrest sent to jail or prison. This special reciprocal relationship creates a fundamental conflict of interest when it comes to prosecuting police for wrongdoing.
Advocates for police reform such as Communities United for Police Reform (CPR) and the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) have called for an independent Inspector General (IG) of police, who would have the power to oversee the policies and practices of the NYPD, and not just complaints of individual wrong doing as now handled by the Civilian Complaint Review Board CCRB). Such an office might be important in gathering evidence of police misconduct, but would still be dependent on local prosecutors to bring a criminal complaint.
The CCRB is not sufficient either. While it has a staff of trained investigators and some increased role in departmental hearings, the final arbiter of administrative discipline remains the Police Commissioner. More importantly, it cannot bring criminal cases on its own and must instead rely on local DA’s.
What is needed is an independent prosecutor, who isn’t tied to the local DA’s office. This is already the case for many small jurisdictions that ask other counties or their state Attorney General’s office to handle such cases. Many large jurisdictions, such as the five New York City DA’s, have special units to handle these cases, but this doesn’t really address the structural conflict of interest.
One solution would be to create a “blue desk” in the State Attorney General’s office, which would handle all prosecutions of police officers in the state. They would also need to have the authority and resources to investigate claims of wrongdoing brought to them by the public, local police internal affairs bureaus, and any oversight groups such as an Inspector General or CCRB. In many ways the creation of both an IG and a state AG “blue desk” would be a powerful one-two punch for effective police reform.
Alex S. Vitale is Associate Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics. He has written extensively about policing and is a frequent commentator on these issues in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR and many other media outlets. He is also a policy advisor to the Police Reform Organizing Project at the Urban Justice Center. Click here for his previous article for The Indypendent. You can follow him on Twitter: @avitale.