Amid his whirlwind of activity upon taking office at the start of January, Eric Adams journeyed to Harlem to honor David Dinkins, lighting a candle and praying at the late mayor’s resting place inside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
Like Dinkins, Adams takes over the city in a moment of public health crisis — although this time it’s driven by COVID-19 and mental illness, not AIDS and crack. There’s hysteria over crime, although the year before Dinkins took office (1989), there were 1,905 murders in the city, as opposed to 485 in 2021.
Despite the pandemic and crime “epidemic,” Adams also inherits a city in much better economic shape, with the luxury housing market breaking all-time records.
Throughout his campaign and first week in office, Adams has burnished his NYPD bona fides, insisting that his background as a police captain uniquely prepares him for the current policing issues the city faces. One of the ways he can honor Dinkins’ legacy is by allowing the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) to finally fulfill its mission.
The CCRB is the oversight agency of the NYPD, tasked with investigating, mediating and prosecuting complaints of NYPD misconduct.
When he ran for mayor in 1989, Dinkins pledged to support legislation that would make the CCRB an entirely civilian-led agency (for the preceding four decades, the NYPD essentially controlled it). Once in office, the mayor appeared hesitant to push it forward. According to Norman Siegel, then head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Dinkins’ main adviser Bill Lynch’s position was that “they are our cops now.”
But prodded by a coalition of 50 activist groups, which gained support from community boards and prominent city councilmembers (including Williamsburg’s Victor Robles, Harlem’s C. Virginia Fields and Ronnie Eldridge from the Upper West Side), Dinkins came around. At the notorious September 1992 City Hall riot by cops protesting the proposed CCRB overhaul, one demonstrator stomped on the hood of Council Speaker Peter Vallone’s car, prompting the enraged lawmaker to push through passage of the all-civilian CCRB.
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Ever since the new iteration took effect in 1993, the CCRB has been a constant source of frustration for those seeking police accountability. Even when the agency’s investigators substantiate allegations and the board recommends charges, the police department can stonewall disciplinary proceedings. And even if the departmental trial judge recommends a penalty, the commissioner can still do whatever they want.
The outgoing CCRB chair, Fred Davie, has pushed for legislation in Albany that would enable the board to decide whether to impose punishment after an officer is found guilty in a departmental trial. Such a reform would certainly strengthen the CCRB’s powers. Even so, much would continue to depend on whether the board is willing to challenge the police commissioner and mayor.
Davie’s re-appointment in 2020 made him the first chair named after the 2019 city charter revisions specified that the person in this role would be selected jointly by the city council and mayor. (Previously, it was just the mayor’s call.) In late October, Davie told NY1’s Errol Louis that he would step down early this year as chair. “Five years as chair is enough,” said Davie, noting that any of the current board members would be a solid successor.
Of the board’s 14 other members, five are selected by the mayor and three by the police commissioner. The city council chooses five members (one from each borough) and the public advocate selects one. Although the three-year terms of nearly all 15 members began in mid-2020, Mayor Adams could certainly ask for resignations, as could NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell — and those eight would give the administration a majority of the appointees.
Two CCRB veterans, who wish to remain anonymous, tell The Indypendent they fear that under Adams, the CCRB will “roll police accountability back to the 90s.” According to one, much will depend on whether the chair has the “moral authority” comparable to Davie, a longtime Presbyterian clergy leader and former vice president of Union Theological Seminary.
Davie nonetheless faced criticism for his friendly working relationship with de Blasio’s final NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea. Prodded by Davie, in early 2021, Shea announced the creation of a “disciplinary matrix” establishing clear guidelines for the penalties that officers would face if found guilty. Before leaving office, Shea then proceeded to ignore his own matrix by doling out light penalties to foul-mouthed Sergeant Ed Mullins and to many cops found guilty of misconduct in the 2020 George Floyd protests.
On the campaign trail, Adams pledged to get rid of “abusive” cops in 90 days. That’s not necessarily an endorsement of the CCRB’s role, however. But at least one longtime ally has confidence that Adams will adhere to its mission.
“I think it’s totally false to say he will be ‘pro-cop,’” says Norman Siegel, who stresses that throughout his career in the NYPD, Adams was an outspoken opponent of discrimination both within the NYPD and by officers against city residents.
Among the changes Siegel would like Adams to implement is that Sewell should provide detailed explanations when rejecting CCRB punishments. And if she is too “pro-cop,” Siegel says, it’s then the mayor’s responsibility to fire the commissioner. Early tests for the new administration include the CCRB-approved charges against the Bronx officers who killed Kawaski Trawick in 2019 and 68 more cops involved in the Floyd protests. It’s up to Adams and Sewell to prove their skeptics wrong.
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