Major flaws undermine the reliability of the New York Police Department's gang database, according to a long-delayed report issued by the department's inspector general. Officers lack clear guidance on what justifies adding names to the list – at times, a single social media post showing a person standing next to someone tagged as a gang member or even the use of a particular emoji alone sufficed. The department doesn’t follow rules for checking designations, nor requirements for review that are meant to ensure the people aren’t unjustifiably kept on the list indefinitely. A shocking 99% of the 16,000 New Yorkers in the database are Black or Latino, with some added at age 11.
But the police department doesn’t seem too concerned, claiming that the inspector general verified that the list did not result in any harms. In fact, the inspector general failed to undertake any serious examination of the impact of being tagged as a gang member, which can reportedly result in harassment in the course of street stops and even arrest on trumped-up charges.
By downplaying the impact of the database, the inspector general has also added to the chorus of concerns that police oversight has been compromised. In an analysis recently published, the Brennan Center for Justice traces the reasons for these worries.
The NYPD’s Office of the Inspector General was established in 2013 in response to public concern about police stopping and frisking minority youth without cause and surveilling Muslim communities without suspicion. The office started life with a prominent leader and robust budget. In its first years, it issued a series of high-profile and high-impact reports that led to real improvements. These included stronger safeguards for police use of informants, better enforcement of police policy against chokeholds of the type that killed Eric Garner, advanced tracking and public reporting of police use of force and other forms of misconduct (which cost New Yorkers hundreds of millions of dollars in legal settlements), an overhaul of the unit handling sex crimes, and more.
The inspector general’s office wasn’t perfect. But it was building up a solid track record of serious work and bringing much-needed accountability to the NYPD.
Over the last four years the office has lost much of its luster. It is conducting far fewer investigations. In its first five years, the IG produced reports on 12 investigations; in the last four years it has published three (including the recent report on the gang database). It continues to publish reports required by city ordinances, but even some of these – such as its report on the NYPD’s use of surveillance technology published in November 2022 – are late, only emerging after extensive public pressure.
Why the dramatic drop in output and influence? Surely part of the problem lies in the lack of leadership: since late 2021, the office has lacked a permanent head; an acting inspector general no matter how proficient lacks the necessary clout to undertake this challenging job. Its staff has shrunk from a peak of 38 in 2017 to approximately 20 today – this to oversee a police department with more than 50,000 employees. The inspector general’s office is situated within the city’s Department of Investigation, but unlike other inspectors general within the department, its investigators must go through a police department handler to access information and people necessary for its work, an arrangement that has allowed the police to stonewall and slow-walk requests for years. Moreover, the NYPD inspector general seems to have been demoted within the Department of Investigation, no longer reporting directly to its commissioner.
New York City government must act to revive the office. The Department of Investigation commissioner shouldn’t wait any longer to appoint a qualified and competent inspector general and should restore the office’s place within her organization. The mayor and the police commissioner should remove barriers to the inspector general’s access to information, bringing it in line with those of other major cities such as Los Angeles and Seattle. And the City Council should pay closer attention to the office, including by requiring regular reporting on which investigations are stalled and the state of police cooperation.
Robust oversight over the NYPD is still sorely needed. In March, the city was ordered to pay $21,500 each to those attacked and trapped by police during a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest in the Bronx.
New Yorkers deserve a police department that keeps them safe and isn’t afraid to be held accountable. Without a strong inspector general, that’s not what they’ll get.
Faiza Patel is senior director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, where Ivey Dyson is counsel.