How does the Civilian Complaint Review Board work?

Who holds the police accountable?
Who holds the police accountable?
Alex Law/City & State
Who holds the police accountable?

How does the Civilian Complaint Review Board work?

Investigating police misconduct.
May 13, 2021

Police oversight

After the volatile protests against police brutality and systemic racism last summer, more than 750 complaints were filed against New York City Police Department officers for their treatment of protesters. However, the details of the investigations into these complaints have yet to be disclosed.

The New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board, the largest police watchdog organization in the country, is in charge of investigating complaints made against the police and providing the NYPD with disciplinary recommendations, as well as recommendations for any changes they think should be implemented within the NYPD. The board investigates complaints regarding use of force, “discourtesy,” abuse of authority and allegations of sexual misconduct.

Despite what you might think, the CCRB isn’t a part of the NYPD, it’s an independent and impartial agency – or, at least it’s supposed to be free from interference. The board is comprised of 15 members, all of whom are supposed to live in the city and “reflect the diversity of the city.” Five seats are appointed by the mayor, five by the New York City Council, three by the police commissioner and one by the public advocate. The head of the board is chosen jointly by the mayor and the City Council. None of the members of the board are supposed to have any law enforcement background, except for the three members appointed by the police commissioner.

The CCRB is staffed with more than 100 civilian investigators – none of whom are police officers, hence the term “civilian investigators” – who look into and attempt to verify every complaint the agency receives. It can take months for a complaint to be investigated and assessed as either substantiated, meaning that the complaint was verified and misconduct did occur, or unsubstantiated, meaning that the complaint did not qualify as misconduct. Complaints can also be exonerated if an investigation can verify the allegation but it was not a violation. If there’s no evidence that what was alleged actually occurred, a complaint will be deemed “unfounded.”

After investigators complete their analyses and make their recommendations, rotating three-member panels of board members that are required to have one police commissioner designee will determine whether or not they approve the disciplinary actions recommended. Recently it was discovered that several members of the board have a habit of overturning investigation findings that have substantiated complaints at higher rates than other board members and helped officers get off the hook, which has called this system into question.

Based on the distribution of the board selection, it may appear as though there is an equal distribution of power but all cases with substantial accusations are eventually given to the police commissioner as “only the police commissioner has the authority to impose discipline.” Many criminal justice reform advocates have pushed back on this stipulation as it gives the commissioner “unchecked power” and undermines having an independent oversight board and guards officers from penalties.

By the numbers

NYPD misconduct complaints

The New York Civil Liberties Union compiled a database of complaints against the NYPD using CCRB complaint data obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request. The complaints cover both the period in which the CCRB was a part of the NYPD and now when it operates as an independent city agency. Because of this data request, the NYCLU found:

  • 279,644 unique misconduct complaints, involving 102,121 incidents, exist in the CCRB database
  • 81% of the complaints where someone reported their race, since 2000, were made by Black or Latino people and 14% were made by white people
  • 61% of complaints naming an officer since the 1980s have been made against white officers and 36% have been made against Black or Latino officers
  • About 3% of complaints have resulted in a penalty for the officer or officers involved

Mini history lesson

The CCRB’s origins

The CCRB was created in 1953 as an organization within the police department in response to growing calls to examine the NYPD’s treatment of Black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers, specifically. Officers were in charge of investigating misconduct complaints and deputy commissioners had the final say in whether or not officers should be disciplined.

In the 1990s, then-Mayor David Dinkins announced that he wanted to move the CCRB out of the police department and turn it into an independent entity, which was met with fierce criticism from the NYPD. And in 1993, he did just that, in addition to providing the board with subpoena power.

The CCRB also gained the ability to prosecute officers for more serious violations in 2012 when the board determined misconduct has occurred and an officer needs to be “charged” at the NYPD’s hearing offices. However, the police commissioner still has the final say on whether or not an officer is penalized.

Stalling investigations

The NYPD holds the cards

Nearly every CCRB investigation relies on an officer’s willingness to cooperate with them by participating in interviews and turning over any evidence requested by the agency.

During the pandemic, many officers refused to submit video interviews for investigations, which were being requested in lieu of in-person interviews due to health concerns. However, officers were ordered to comply with the CCRB’s requests to participate in video interviews in August.

The NYPD is also known to hold on to evidence, such as body camera footage, that has been requested by the CCRB even though the department is required by law to turn it over. Without body camera evidence, complaints are much more likely to get dismissed. The NYPD has also told the CCRB that footage doesn’t exist, only for the board to find out later that it did. However, the CCRB and NYPD agreed in 2019 to allow investigators to watch as officers search for body camera footage they requested, though the pandemic has complicated its implementation thus far. The police department has also legally withheld paper documents and redacted the names of witnesses in paperwork given to the board about people who may be of value to the CCRB’s investigations. It is through these means that the police department can slow down investigations and make it more difficult to substantiate a complaint.

The board is required to investigate a complaint within an 18-month period and if they are not provided with the evidence they require within that time frame its investigation may not go anywhere, which makes getting evidence as quickly as possible is so important.

The NYPD is also substantially bigger than the CCRB, with a $5 billion budget compared to the board’s roughly $20 million budget. In fact, the city Independent Budget Office said last year that the board was too small to effectively oversee the department.

In November, four top CCRB staffers were abruptly terminated after pushing the agency to fight back more aggressively against the NYPD. The people who were fired included two chiefs of investigation, a deputy chief of investigations, and the director of policy and advocacy. The four former staffers then sued the city and said they were released from their posts in retaliation for wanting the agency to take stronger actions toward the NYPD’s refusal to cooperate. The CCRB has maintained that the staffers were fired as a part of the board’s restructuring to free up more cash for 20 additional investigators. Regardless, the incident serves as a reminder of just how much sway the police department still has over the board.

You’ve got options

How to file a complaint

Should you ever find yourself on the receiving end of police misconduct, you have the right to file a complaint with the CCRB and you can do so in several ways.

You can submit a complaint online, call the CCRB’s hotline to speak directly with an investigator, call 311, write a letter, go to a police station, go directly to the CCRB’s office or to a City Council member’s office who is a part of the CCRB’s Community Partners Initiative.

– With reporting from Isabel Beebe

Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
Amanda Luz Henning Santiago
is a staff reporter at City & State.
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