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The Civilian Complaint Review Board — the city agency ostensibly responsible for oversight of the NYPD — was created in 1953 and molded into its current form in 1993, when Mayor Dinkins convinced the City Council to remove the CCRB from the NYPD’s direct jurisdiction and make it an independent agency. This action by Dinkins led to a drunken police riot at City Hall, where infuriated officers gathered to hurl racial slurs at the then-mayor. But those racist cops needn’t have worried — the CCRB never escaped the tentacles of the NYPD, and this is by design. Recent weeks have seen the CCRB (where I worked from 2006-2008) hit a low point, which is really saying something. Nowadays, the police commissioner can publicly tell the CCRB to blow off, get lost, arrivederci, and leadership of this alleged oversight agency responds with “Thank you sir, may I have another.”
Historically, the CCRB has been a backbencher city agency, run by a mayoral ally (the last guy also officiated de Blasio’s wedding) and given little press attention. When front-page police misconduct occurs, the papers briefly remember its existence, only to lose interest once they realize CCRB has no news to give them. For example, after Daniel Pantaleo murdered Eric Garner, it took the CCRB three years to substantiate any misconduct against the officer, and another two before Pantaleo was ultimately fired at the behest of the Police Commissioner. In the interim, the CCRB had nothing to say about the matter, even though it was the most public police killing since Sean Bell in 2006 (time it took for killers of Sean Bell to be fired: six years).
Historically, the CCRB has been a backbencher city agency, run by a mayoral ally and given little press attention.
George Floyd’s murder sparked another round of interest in CCRB, and for many, occasioned the first time they found out that all the CCRB can do is “recommend” discipline to the NYPD — they cannot actually punish cops. (I have written before about the legal structure of the CCRB, and I don’t have the room or patience to do it again here.) The ACLU has found that from 2000 to 2020, the NYPD reduced or eliminated recommended CCRB discipline in a whopping 74% of CCRB cases. Only one percent — one percent! — of cases over the same period ended in some sort of serious discipline, and even that statistic is too generous, as losing one vacation day is considered “serious.” Indeed, since 2015, only seven officers have been fired for misconduct, and in each case it was only after the officer lied to internal NYPD investigators or was convicted of a crime.
The CCRB’s impotence thus became one focus of the police reform movement in New York, along with more radical propositions like abolition or defunding. Because it felt like a more “moderate” position, politicians flocked to the issue of discipline. In January 2021, the City Council introduced a slate of bills that would, in theory, improve police accountability if they became law, the most important of which would strip the police commissioner of sole and final authority to mete out punishment to cops. The next month, in response to public pressure, and desperate to give vulnerable Council Members cover to vote down any serious disciplinary laws, CCRB Chair Fred Davie (the guy who did de Blasio’s wedding) announced that he had reached an “agreement” with NYPD that would — again, in theory, always in theory — dramatically reduce the number of CCRB findings ignored or modified by the NYPD.
The mechanism by which this change was to occur was a “Memorandum of Understanding,” in common parlance, an agreement, between CCRB and NYPD. The Memorandum put in place a disciplinary matrix, a system of factors and rules CCRB and NYPD would presumptively adhere to when meting out police discipline. The stated goal was to ensure that cops were punished consistently and fairly, and remove some of the subjective decision-making previously inherent in the process. Of note, the memorandum specifically stated that only in an “extraordinary circumstance” would the NYPD or CCRB deviate from the matrix.
In March 2021 — the month after the memo was signed — the Council voted on the slate of police bills. By that time, the bill that would disempower the police commissioner had been reduced to a gentle request that the state legislature make the change instead of the City Council, a fairly shameful example of buck-passing. This neutered bill passed. The state legislature never acted on it.
As for the memo, anyone with knowledge of how the NYPD consistently protected its own could see how useless it would be. At the next public Board meeting, I showed up and asked Davie why on earth he would think NYPD would comply with its terms, given their historic treatment of CCRB recommendations. He blew off the question and went on one of his famous soliloquies about his great working relationship with NYPD leadership, and his trust and faith in them to live up to their side of the agreement. The meeting was on Zoom but I like to think if it was in person you would have heard groans from the crowd, like a stand-up comic bombing spectacularly.
How did that work out? Well, of the 80 cops the CCRB recommended be disciplined for George Floyd protest-related misconduct, the NYPD disciplined exactly three. The CCRB’s 2021 annual report noted that for serious cases — those leading to formal charges — the NYPD concurred with the CCRB’s recommendation only 27% of the time.
In 2021, theCCRB and NYPD put in place a disciplinary matrix, a system of factors and rules CCRB and NYPD would presumptively adhere to when meting out police discipline.
Last month, NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell delivered the coup de grace, which somehow felt both excessively cruel and completely predictable. In a message to her rank and file, Sewell boasted that she overturned CCRB findings more than previous commissioners, citing the 70-plus cases in which she reduced or eliminated punishment. Sewell also announced that she would be — apparently unilaterally — modifying the disciplinary guidelines to reduce punishments on officers.
Remove the bureaucratic niceties and this is just one party to an agreement declaring that they will no longer abide by the agreement. It’s your boss saying he’s decided not to pay you for that last week you worked. One would think this very public cucking would occasion a ferocious and proud response from the CCRB. One would think! Take it away, current CCRB chair Arva Rice: “I’m not surprised that at this point in time we’re looking back at the discipline matrix… I want to continue to have a positive relationship with [Sewell] in order that we can make these changes that are clearly necessary to the matrix.” Not once during this interview did Rice criticize Sewell for tossing out so many CCRB recommendations.
This is not an oversight board. It exists at the whim of the NYPD and its most prolific defender, Eric Adams. The CCRB may legally be an “agency” but it has no agency. It’s been so neutered and degraded that it can now only express love and admiration for its abuser. CCRB is a balloon floating through the winds of New York City politics, and when it brushes against the NYPD they knock it aside. The only reason no one’s popped it yet is that it serves the important function of making it seem like someone is overseeing the only New Yorkers who enjoy a monopoly on violence.
I say pop it. Stop feeding New Yorkers a line of bullshit about police accountability, stop maintaining the illusion that cops will be punished when they do awful things. If we’re tossing out the disciplinary matrix, let’s also junk the larger matrix, the carefully constructed façade of reality in which the police aren’t just freewheeling thugs who answer to no one. The NYPD doesn’t take CCRB seriously. Neither should we.
John Teufel is a freelance writer and attorney who recently sued the CCRB to force the release of NYPD disciplinary records. He writes the This Month In Eric Adams column for The Indypendent. Find him on Twitter at @JohnTeufelNYC.