After the Derek Chauvin guilty verdict came in last week, city Comptroller Scott Stringer chastised politicians who promise police reform without following through — and declared he would “fight for justice” and “upend the status quo” if elected mayor.
It wasn’t the first time Stringer vowed on the campaign trail to take a hard look at the NYPD.
While running for comptroller in 2013, Stringer told reporters he would audit the Police Department’s Intelligence Division following reports that officers from that unit spied on Muslims in mosques after 9/11.
A close look at Stringer’s time in office shows that he’s released two audits of the NYPD during his nearly eight-year tenure. The most recent one was issued in June 2015, though he says two more NYPD audits are on the way this year.
By comparison, his office has completed 17 audits of the New York City Housing Authority, 15 of the Administration for Children’s Services and 14 of the Department of Homeless Services, records shows.
“At a time when Scott Stringer could have reacted to our calls for justice and produce more accountability he chose to abstain,” Hawk Newsome, co-founder of the independent Black Lives Matter of Greater NY.
“As he runs for mayor it’s concerning to us,” he added. “Politicians make a lot of promises but the best judge of them is their past.”
Stringer, in a statement to THE CITY, said audits are just “one subset” of what his office does and cited several police reform studies his team has issued.
One such report showed that “legalizing marjiuana could lead to millions in tax revenue.” Another called for abolishing mandatory court fees and forgiving outstanding court debt “to end the criminalization of poverty within the justice system.”
One academic said it’s “wonderful” that Stringer has published those reports on the criminal justice system.
“But that does not mean that it should be done at the expense of, or in lieu of, financial and performance audits of the Police Department — that is one of the primary duties of the city comptroller,” said Thad Calabrese, the director of the finance specialization at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.
Stringer Calls for Cuts
During Stringer’s tenure as the city’s top fiscal watchdog, the NYPD’s spending has come under attack as calls to defund the police took root after the police killing last year of a Black man, George Floyd, by Chauvin, a white, now-former Minneapolis cop.
The Police Department’s spending has gone up by $1.2 billion, or 27%, from fiscal year 2010 to 2020, according to city budget documents.
“There’s absolutely no reason why the NYPD budget rose this significantly,” Stringer told THE CITY in a statement. “During a period when police stops, summonses, and arrests dropped by a dramatic 80% — saving frontline officers literally millions of hours of time — we should not have seen headcount and overtime increase.”
In February, Stringer declared “it’s time to defund the police now,” but later backed away from that statement.
In June, he put forth a plan to trim the NYPD’s budget by $1.1 billion over four years, if he’s elected mayor. He’d slice uniformed staff by 3%, via attrition, cut overtime by 5%, and drop other expenses by 4%.
For years, police officials blocked the public from a complete look into NYPD spending.
When then-city Comptroller John Liu launched the web portal Checkbook NYC in 2010 to give New Yorkers a full view of all city spending, the Police Department resisted.
“The NYPD didn’t want to be a part of that,” Liu told THE CITY. “We had to have many negotiations with Commissioner [Ray] Kelly.”
Kelly argued that security-sensitive purchases should be blocked from disclosure, but ultimately allowed for a limited number of contracts and spending to be posted in the database.
But Liu and others, including the New York Civil Liberties Union, contend that the department has unfairly designated contracts for basic items and new technology as confidential.
Most recently, NYPD brass have been criticized for investing in a $74,000 robotic surveillance dog that was trudged out after an arrest at the Kips Bay public housing complex in Manhattan. The “dog” didn’t turn up in Checkbook NYC.
NYPD ‘Difficult to Audit’
In April 2018, Stringer announced that his office and the NYPD had come to an agreement to publicly display more police contracts into the Checkbook NYC system.
“Only in rare cases in which security considerations exist will they be omitted,” Stringer’s office said in a press release at the time.
In 2014, Stringer launched ClaimStat to detail legal cases and payouts made by certain city agencies.
Legal claims against the NYPD have gone down by 50% from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2020, the site shows. Over that same period, the number of arrests has also decreased, while some other agencies, like the Correction Department, have seen major spikes in legal claims.
Still, simply releasing information is “not enough,” said Calabrese, who previously worked at the city’s Office of Management and Budget.
“The audits are a primary means of holding agencies accountable,” he said. “The audits are important because it explains what the issues are and why they developed. Whereas information being released relies on the user to figure out that information.”
Liu also conducted two NYPD reviews, but was only in the office for four years from 2010 to 2014. Former city Comptroller Bill Thompson completed six NYPD audits during his tenure from 2002 to 2010.
“The NYPD has always been a place that’s difficult to audit because so much of their information is confidential in different ways,” Thompson told THE CITY.
Audits are one of the main tools the comptroller’s office has at its disposal. The examinations can identify possible misuse of funds, questionable contracts or sloppy record-keeping.
“Audits are important. That’s why there’s an audit bureau,” said Frank Braconi, who served as the chief economist for the city Comptroller’s Office from 2006 to 2016.
An Audit Quota
The Comptroller’s Office is required to do audits of every agency once every four years, but can dive into the budgets of any agency more frequently. Stringer said his office has a new NYPD audit coming out this fiscal year, which ends June 30, and another by the end of the calendar year before his term expires.
One of the audits appears to be a long sought-after look into the NYPD’s slow move to replace cops on desk duty with less costly civilian staff.
An estimated 500 police officers are working full-time in clerical roles within the department, with many assigned to stationhouses across the city, according to Ralph Palladino, second vice president of District Council 37’s Local 1549, which represents the administrative aides.
The union leader noted Stringer two years ago promised in a meeting to conduct an audit to project how much civilianizing the NYPD could save the city.
Former city comptrollers Thompson and Alan Hevesi both estimated the city could save millions of dollars by civilianizing certain roles.
NYU professor Calabrese said he was “surprised” that the NYPD, especially given its size with approximately 35,000 officers and 19,000 civilian employees, has only been audited twice in the last nearly eight years.
In 2015, Stringer’s team audited the security controls of NYPD’s network of surveillance cameras tied to its Domain Awareness System (DAS). The audit concluded that the “NYPD was in compliance with its guidelines and in general had adequate security controls over its information system.”
Auditors did find that some people who had access to the system had not used it for over three months and some for more than a year. Investigators said also people who left the NYPD did not automatically have their access deactivated.
Stringer says that review fulfilled the vow he made in 2013 to audit the NYPD’s Intelligence Bureau. The DAS is overseen by the same deputy commissioner who supervises the Intelligence Bureau, he noted, and the system is used for day-to-day detective and police activities.
‘He Dropped the Ball’
Newsome said that review didn’t go far enough. He noted he was questioned by officers in the Intelligence Bureau after he was arrested during a rally last year.
“Scott Stringer promised Muslim brothers and sisters that he would investigate and audit the NYPD Intelligence Unit,” he said. “I’m very upset that he dropped the ball on that.”
Stringer’s first audit of the NYPD was a look into 911 and the implementation of its Computer Aided Dispatch System. The review “generally” found the new system launch and integration was “successful.”
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Six years later, Stringer says the audit “deeply informed” his reform plan which, in part, calls for an independent 911 system away from the NYPD.
Some of the candidates vying to replace Stringer have vowed to take a more hardline audit approach to the NYPD.
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson says he will prioritize audits of departments like the NYPD with large budgets.
“The Department of Education, the NYPD, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and the Department of Homeless Services, would be audited annually at a minimum,” his website says.
Other candidates in the race, including Brooklyn City Councilmember Brad Lander, State Sens. Brian Benjamin and Kevin Parker, as well as State Assemblymember David Weprin have all made similar pledges.