The opportunities for a sustained look inside the NYPD are few and far between. While it has always been an insular and opaque institution, it has become doubly so since 9/11 expanded its intelligence and anti-terrorism functions. That is one of the many reasons that the federal trial (Floyd v. City of New York) on the Department's stop-and-frisk practices has taken on such import. Normally closed off from journalists, academics, the public and even the City Council committees charged with its oversight, it is only through litigation that we have been able to peer through the NYPD's blue walls at some of its inner workings.
The view has not been a pleasant one, but it has been instructive. Since the trial began on March 18, we've been treated to a series of revelations about the callous attitudes of officers on the streets and the willful manipulation of statistics by the brass (see sidebar).
While revelations of misconduct by individual officers and failed policies by police leadership are not new, it is rare to see them uncovered in such a systematic and sustained way. In the past, only major scandals have created this kind of opportunity. In 1970 the Knapp Commission, created by Mayor John Lindsay, investigated allegations of widespread corruption made by Det. Frank Serpico and Sgt. David Durk. A long investigation followed by extensive and dramatic public hearings uncovered a broad practice of pay-offs within the detective ranks to overlook vice operations. These hearings led to a major reorganization of the Detectives Bureau and the creation of internal anti-corruption measures that remain in place today.
The Mollen Commission, appointed by Mayor David Dinkins in 1992, uncovered smaller scale but more intensive police corruption in Harlem's 30th Precinct. A group of officers were found to have been engaged in the systematic theft of money and drugs, as well as in the reselling of those drugs.
Since then the department has avoided any major outside inspections.
In the wake of the beating and torture of Abner Louima in 1997, Mayor Rudy Giuliani created the Task Force on Police/Community Relations. The Task Force had no real power of investigation and its recommendations were sarcastically dismissed by the mayor.
Since then there have been no real public investigations of the NYPD. Local District Attorneys have the authority to investigate corrupt or illegal practices, and the Civilian Complaint Review Board can investigate individual cases of misconduct towards the public, but neither of these bodies looks at the patterns and practices at the heart of the new invasive policing that dominates the NYPD. That policing has resulted in five million stops since 2004, 88 percent of which have not ended up in an arrest or a summons.
In part it is this lack of public accountability that has driven calls for the creation of an Inspector General with the power to forcefully investigate the NYPD's operations. While this new entity would be independent of the police, it would nonetheless be under the control of the mayor, which raises questions as to its potential for effectiveness under a leader enthralled by or under the political sway of the NYPD.
It is in this context that advocates for police reform have come increasingly to rely on the kinds of litigation that Floyd represents. This is one of the few situations in which police officials can be called in and publicly questioned under oath. It also allows for a structured forum for the presentation of the personal narratives of the effects of improper police conduct on the lives of actual New Yorkers.
The trial is expected to continue well into May. Whatever the ultimate outcome of the Floyd case, it is playing an important role in exposing NYPD practices and shaping the political debate about policing in New York. This case is having a definite impact on the mayoral race, as candidates have been forced to take clear positions on a variety of policing issues that have been largely ignored in past elections. While community organizing and policy work have aided in this increased political awareness, impact litigation such as the Floyd case will continue to be an essential tool in resisting the power of the NYPD to close itself off from public scrutiny and criticism.
Alex Vitale is an associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York (New York University Press). You can follow him on Twitter at @avitale.