As protests sparked by the death of George Floyd rage around the city and nation, some New Yorkers may find themselves experiencing or witnessing police misconduct.
But what to do about it?
For those looking to report potentially unlawful police actions somewhere beyond social media, it can be “a really challenging process,” said attorney Andrew Case, a former spokesperson for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, or CCRB, which looks into alleged misconduct by the NYPD.
“The system is not set up to make it easy for people to report misconduct and get satisfaction from it,” he said.
Jennvine Wong, an attorney with the Cop Accountability Project at the Legal Aid Society, said giving an organization like hers a call may be a good first step.
The group does not investigate individual complaints against police officers, but can offer guidance on navigating a confusing system or help you go to the next step — and beyond.
“It might not be just one step. We can give them three different ways that they want to approach it, and also talk through how they want to approach it,” she said.
If you are seeking financial compensation, you’ll need a lawyer to file a civil lawsuit.
There are various avenues to pursue disciplinary action against police. Case suggests considering what you want the outcome to be since “different agencies do different things well,” he said.
“The place that you report depends on what you want to have the report do,” said Case. “Something that people really should think very much about before they make any kind of report is — what are my goals here?”
The Civilian Complaint Review Board
If you want to see an individual officer disciplined, your best bet may be the CCRB, particularly since a court ruling from last week freed up the oversight board to take reports from anyone — not just direct victims of misconduct. That can include reports spurred by videos posted online.
The agency, with approximately 200 staffers, is the most common place people have leveled allegations against NYPD officers. In 2019, the review board got 4,959 complaints — the highest number since 2013.
The board investigates four categories of police misconduct: force, abuse of authority, discourtesy and offensive language — collectively known as “FADO.”
Grievances about police corruption or neglect are sent to the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau.
CCRB probers gather evidence and question witnesses before filing a report to the 13-member board, which makes a decision on how to move forward.
In CCRB parlance, a “complaint” can contain several “allegations.” In 2019, 24% of complaints were “substantiated” but only 12% of allegations, according to the board. Those cases are sent to the NYPD with a disciplinary recommendation.
Meanwhile, 35% of allegations were “exonerated,” meaning the conduct described happened but the preponderance of the evidence determined no rules were broken. Another 33% were unsubstantiated and 9% were unfounded, while 11% of cases fell apart because the officers in question were unidentified.
The suggested penalties include loss of vacation time, suspension or termination. The police commissioner has final say and has historically downgraded or ignored some of the CCRB recommendations.
Complaints can be filed online or by calling 311 or the CCRB’s hotline at 1-800-341-2272 or 311. They can also be mailed to 100 Church St., 10th Floor, New York, NY 10007.
The State Attorney General’s Office
If you think your case should be part of a larger investigation of a systemic issue, the state Attorney General’s office may be a better option, or going to an advocacy group like the New York Civil Liberties Union.
The AG’s office handles police-related discrimination through its Civil Rights Bureau and public corruption issues through its Public Integrity Unit. But aside from a unit tasked to investigate police-caused deaths of unarmed people, no division directly investigates individual cases of police misconduct.
On Sunday, however, Gov. Andrew Cuomo asked Attorney General Letitia James to investigate allegations of police brutality at this weekend’s protests. The office is seeking complaints from the public via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau
The Internal Affairs Bureau of the Police Department is charged with investigating corruption and misconduct from within. The IAB accepts complaints from the public via telephone, email or mail. To file a complaint, email IAB@NYPD.org or call (212) 741-8401. Mail goes to P.O. Box 10001, New York, NY 10014.
A big caveat: No investigation by IAB will be made available to the public, so it may be unclear what, if any, discipline results.
It’s also possible the IAB will refer your complaint to the CCRB if investigators determine the case does not fall under their purview, Wong noted.
Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD
This independent body, created by the City Council in 2013, investigates the NYPD for abuse, fraud and corruption. It’s important to note that the office “was not established to replicate the investigative functions of the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) or NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB),” its website says. The office can investigate individual officers, but “largely focuses on patterns and trends.”
Few New Yorkers have used this method to report allegations in recent years. In 2019, the office took just nine complaints of police misconduct, according to data from the CCRB, and has received just three so far this year.
The office makes only recommendations of its findings to the NYPD, mayor and City Council, but has no authority to change policies or discipline officers according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Prepare to Wait
If you do submit a complaint to an investigative agency, be patient, Wong said.
“The investigations can sometimes take a long time, which I think is one of the top complaints that people have,” she said.
Hearing back about a complaint can take months.
Eventually, you will likely be interviewed. Get ready to be “calm and prepared and ready to tell a detailed account of your story,” Case said.
“People will ask pretty detailed, probing questions. Where were you? When did you get there? What were you doing there? What actions did you observe?” he said.
And be honest, he advises.
“They will evaluate your credibility better, ironically, if you appear to be truthful enough to say, ‘Well, yeah, you know, they said step off the sidewalk and I didn’t step off the sidewalk.’ That doesn’t mean they are allowed to just throw you to the ground,” he said.
Wong added that reporting misconduct does not necessarily lead to serious discipline for any officers, even if found guilty.
If disciplinary action does follow, New Yorkers will be able to find a record of it — a new change advocates have long lobbied for.
Previously, all disciplinary actions taken were shielded from public view due to a law known as “50-a.” Police-brutality protests in June renewed a push to scrap the law and it has now been repealed.
Wong said the law is key to keep the police accountable.
“Without that transparency, it means that the NYPD is saying ‘Trust us, we can police ourselves,’” said Wong.