Politics

An Opportunity Born From Crisis

I am urging New Yorkers to come together to redefine the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD from a low point in the city’s history to a turning point. 

Since Garner’s death, the all-too-familiar tension and mistrust between the community and the NYPD has risen, and the ruling by the medical examiner has only intensified calls for the NYPD to comprehensively re-evaluate many of its policies. One such demand has been for the NYPD to retrain each and every police officer in the department and to require these trainings regularly throughout an officer’s career.

While I agree that a revamped training program is essential for reform and I commend Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Bratton for acknowledging as much, training alone is simply not enough. It is my firm belief that the best way to address this problem is to equip police officers with body cameras and to record each and every stop in an effort to ensure improved police conduct and better evidence when conduct is in question. In so doing, we will protect both the officers and those they serve. 

Data collected by the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) indicates that there is a pattern of problems, not simply isolated incidents, to be addressed. In 2013 alone, CCRB received 16,675 allegations of police misconduct, of which 2,874 were use-of-force allegations. Chokeholds are clearly a problem not limited to the Garner incident. Between 2009 and 2013, there were over 1,000 chokehold allegations made against the NYPD. In 2013, chokeholds—a police tactic banned over two decades ago—were the fourth most prevalent allegation of use of force. 

But the alarming number of complaints does not tell the entire story. Complaints to the CCRB are simply too difficult to prove, and the CCRB system does not deliver the justice it purports to provide. Of the 16,675 complaints of police misconduct in 2013, just 11 percent of complaints were substantiated; even worse, of the roughly 2,800 complaints of use-of-force, just 1.7 percent were substantiated. In the case of chokeholds, fewer than half of the more than 1,000 complaints were actually investigated, and only nine were substantiated. 

Apart from the clear civil rights and societal issues brought about by cases of misconduct, there is a real concern about the city’s bottom line. A 2013 report by the office of former City Comptroller John Liu indicates that among city agencies, the NYPD is responsible for the most claims against the city and ranks highest in cost of settlements and judgments. There were 9,570 tort claims against the NYPD in 2012, and the city paid some $152 million as a result of claims against NYPD. 

Using body-worn cameras on cops has proven to be effective. A study in Rialto, Calif., found that after one year of officers using the cameras, complaints alleging police misconduct dropped by 88 percent and use-of-force incidents were reduced by 50 percent. Other large U.S. cities have implemented police body camera programs, including Los Angeles, Detroit and Miami. Even Commissioner Bratton has expressed support for the use of body cameras in the past. Initiating a pilot project, as part of a long-term strategy for citywide implementation, by equipping just 15 percent of officers with body cameras in precincts with the highest complaint rates, such as Staten Island’s 120th precinct, where Mr. Garner lived, would cost under $5 million—a mere fraction of what the city paid out in tort claims in 2012. 

Enacting a body-camera policy is both fiscally and ethically sound: Recording all encounters will enhance accountability and transparency while reducing the resources we spend to investigate and settle claims against the NYPD. Most important, it will enable the police department to correct misconduct swiftly and justly and allow our city to continue to move in the right direction. 

 

Letitia James is the public advocate for the City of New York. 

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