How NYPD officers are blocking accountability

NYPD officers tackling a protestor on May 30th.
NYPD officers tackling a protestor on May 30th.
Steve Sanchez Photos/Shutterstock
NYPD officers tackling a protestor on May 30th.

How NYPD officers are blocking accountability

Covered badge numbers, body cameras turned off and a state law impede transparency.
June 4, 2020

Social media streams on Wednesday night were filled with videos of New York Police Department officers using force on protesters who did not appear to be resisting or fighting back at all, but if New Yorkers are hoping that the officers will be punished they’re likely to be disappointed.

There were officers hitting a man with a baton as he walks away with his bike, before other officers ran in to join the beating.

There were reports of a man with a bleeding head being shoved to the ground by police, widespread reports of police officers taking people’s bikes and video of cops pushing through an apparently peaceful crowd. 

That’s just a few of the many instances of police officers potentially violating the NYPD patrol guide – and even the law – in the last week, as officers responded to protests against racism and police violence. 

New Yorkers looking for transparency and accountability from their police department probably won’t get it. The NYPD has found many ways, both institutional and personal, to make sure the public can’t easily find out which officers might be breaking the rules and what punishment they might receive.

Many officers have been covering up their badge numbers with black elastic bands. The mourning bands are meant to honor the dozens of NYPD personnel who have died from the coronavirus in the last few months, but the department’s patrol guide is clear that the bands should be worn higher on the badge and not cover the officers’ shield number or rank designation. Officers can often be visually identified by the public in other ways, by numbers on their helmet or their nameplate – but not always, as some officers have also removed their name tags.

The clear attempt at obfuscating identity has struck a nerve. The National Lawyers Guild has threatened to sue, saying “this practice provides a sense of impunity to members of the service that they can violate demonstrators’ rights without consequence.” Assemblyman Harvey Epstein, a Manhattan Democrat, introduced legislation to make it a misdemeanor for officers to obscure their badge numbers. In an open letter to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, hundreds of his former staffers demanded that he immediately fire the officers who have covered their badges at protests.

However, the NYPD hasn’t seemed particularly concerned. NYPD Chief of Department Terence A. Monahan shrugged it off when City & State asked him about the practice. “It’s supposed to be off the numbers,” Monahan said Tuesday night, referring to the black bands. “But sometimes when you wrestle with people on the street, it moves down.”

Others attending protests in New York have noticed that many officers have their body cameras turned off. That isn’t necessarily against policy, since officers are only required to turn on body cameras in specific situations, such as when they are interacting with a suspect. 

Some civil rights advocates have called for body cameras to be turned on in a wider set of circumstances. There is widespread disagreement on that issue, with many privacy advocates raising concerns about the cameras being used as active surveillance. 

Nor do the mayor or governor seem to be overly concerned with holding officers accountable. While de Blasio ordered an investigation of the NYPD’s response to protesters on Sunday, it will be run by two of his own appointees, rather than an independent body. And de Blasio said on Thursday morning that he had not yet seen any of the widely shared videos of police hitting protestors with batons. Gov. Andrew Cuomo also seemed to deny on Thursday that cops used batons on peaceful protesters, despite apparent evidence to the contrary caught on numerous videos.

The primary way that New York has limited police accountability is through an interpretation of New York state Civil Rights Law Section 50-a, which severely limits the release of police disciplinary records. That means New Yorkers can’t legally see whether certain officers have a history of complaints against them or whether they have faced internal discipline from the department. Active disciplinary investigations are also made secret and no details are revealed, unless reporters can attend the hearings held inside NYPD headquarters. 

Criminal justice reform-minded legislators have been pushing for a repeal or a reform of 50-a for years, but it has failed to pass. Now thanks to the protests, the movement to repeal has earned more public support, and New York legislators’ inboxes have been flooded with demands to pass a bill. They will face opposition from New York’s police unions, which have long opposed increasing transparency. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has previously shied away from supporting the change, is now calling for reforming the law, though not repealing. That’s also true for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who at his press conference Thursday reiterated that he would support a repeal of 50-a, as long as a bill included additional language that would protect accused officers’ home addresses from being publicized. However, de Blasio’s concern appears to be grandstanding. As Gothamist reports, “personal information like addresses are already protected from disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, and the repeal of 50-a wouldn’t change that.”

Although de Blasio says he supports reforming the law, he declined to release the names or disciplinary records of police officers who are currently being investigated in connection to the protests. If 50-a were repealed, the public could know much more information about the officers who drove their police cars forward into crowds of protestors in Brooklyn on Saturday. And though disciplinary records in high-profile cases have previously been leaked without major consequence, de Blasio said those officers and their records will be kept secret for now. “There are things we cannot release under state law and we don't do illegal acts,” de Blasio said that his Law Department told him, “which is why I would like us to simply get rid of a broken law.”

Jeff Coltin
is a senior reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.
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