Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed Tuesday to plug a long-standing shortage of attorneys at the slow-moving NYPD office responsible for seeking discipline for officers, including those accused of the most serious misconduct.
The mayor seemed taken aback when THE CITY asked about the delay in hiring more lawyers to clear a massive case logjam identified over two years ago during an external review.
“We need those attorneys hired immediately so the work can be sped up, period,” he said. “It’s just what we need to do. Let’s do it.”
An independent panel of law enforcement experts in January 2019 identified the shortage of lawyers in the Department Advocate’s Office as “by far the largest component of delay” in cases the NYPD resolves through internal administrative trials.
The Department Advocate’s Office builds the legal cases against officers charged with certain wrongdoing — including everything from failing to report for duty to using a banned chokehold maneuver — and either prosecutes or settles with the officers.
The panel found that, as of December 2018, the office had 1,162 open cases and “only 10 attorneys who handle full caseloads.”
Office staffers told the panelists they needed at least another 10 attorneys as well as additional paralegal assistance, the review found.
At a news conference on Feb. 1, 2019, then-NYPD commissioner James O’Neill said he accepted all of the panel’s recommendations — including expediting the disciplinary process by hiring more attorneys.
Asked about the status of those hires on Tuesday, de Blasio couldn’t say. But he noted he had approved the additional personnel and emphatically assured the commitment would be honored.
“I will guarantee you live on TV, that we will hire a God-forsaken 10 attorneys.… I’ve given the instruction,” he said at his daily press briefing.
Late Tuesday, NYPD Deputy Commissioner John Miller told THE CITY that seven attorneys out of the pandel’s recommended 10 have been hired thus far, and that authorization was recently granted to hire six more.
Cases Delayed for Months
In June 2018, under pressure from the City Council, O’Neill assembled the so-called blue ribbon panel to review the NYPD’s disciplinary process — long a target of complaints by police reform advocates and victims of police misconduct.
He tapped former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White to chair the three-person group.
Among the many findings of the six-month review: Administrative trials were taking more than 18 months to resolve once charges were filed against an NYPD member. And about half of that time — 283 days — was eaten up by trial preparation at the Department Advocate’s Office.
The review of cases stretching from January 2016 to September 2018 found that the 785 that were ultimately settled — about 75% of the total — sat with the Department Advocate’s Office for an even longer period of 303 days, or about 10 months.
“The Panel found that every team at DAO that handles cases is understaffed,” the review said, recommending the hiring of four paralegals as well as the 10 additional lawyers.
The reviewers also noted that a number of vital supervisory positions at the office were unfilled at the time, including assistant deputy commissioner, executive officer and executive agency counsel.
Among nearly a dozen other recommendations, the panelists said the NYPD should study and consider adopting a disciplinary matrix that provides a set range of punishments for each infraction.
Earlier this year, once again under pressure from the City Council, that matrix went into effect.
The vast majority of officers who face discipline have their cases decided at the local precinct level, without going to the Department Advocate’s Office.
‘Honest Process’ Elusive
Amid last summer’s slew of nightly protests against police brutality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis — and the growing chorus of calls for NYPD members to be disciplined for their aggressive handling of the protests here — de Blasio announced a series of police accountability reforms.
Among them was a vow to speed up the disciplinary process when cops are accused of misconduct.
“If an officer is under investigation, those investigations from now on are going to go faster,” he said on June 3, 2020. “We’re going to have faster results.”
It wasn’t until two weeks later that the mayor provided additional details, announcing that he was setting new deadlines for investigations of police accused of using excessive force.
Decisions to place NYPD members accused of excessive force on modified duty would now be made within 48 hours, and the Internal Affairs Bureau would be given just two weeks to fully investigate such an incident, in order to inform initial decisions about discipline.
“For too long within the NYPD even when justice was served, it took a very, very long time, and that corroded trust in and of itself,” de Blasio said at a news conference on June 17, 2020. “And every day that passes, the people who felt victimized feel more and more pained, because it doesn’t feel like justice is coming. It doesn’t feel like there’s an honest process.”
Throughout the rest of the summer, the mayor used a number of high-profile cases to argue that the disciplinary process was moving more quickly, but he didn’t detail how the faster pace was being achieved.
In November, the NYPD put out a press release saying that the department had “substantially implemented” the recommendations of the panel.
The last line of the release included a final note.
“The remaining recommendation by the blue-ribbon panel to fill attorney vacancies is something that awaits funding, though the NYPD is actively recruiting, interviewing and processing applicants to fill these jobs,” it read.
Reluctance to Fire Cops
In March, nine months after the repeal of a state law that had shielded police disciplinary records from the public, the NYPD began posting dozens of disciplinary trial decisions online.
As of this week, 897 decisions had been posted — including 24 that NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea finalized this year.
Of those, eight took roughly three years from the time of the incident to closure, while five took about four years and five lasted around two years.
Of the remaining six, three took five years or more to resolve, and three took one year or less — including one that was expedited and closed within a month.
Joo-Hyun Kang, director of the group Communities United for Police Reform, told THE CITY hiring additional lawyers doesn’t get at the root of the problem of NYPD discipline: The agency’s unwillingness to get rid of cops who behave badly.
She said the Department Advocate’s Office isn’t in a rush to conclude cases and discipline officers, but that such a small percentage of disciplinary cases make their way to the office anyway.
”This is an easy way for them to make it look like they could be doing something, but it’s actually not,” she said. “The political will has to be there to fire cops, and it’s not about whether they have enough lawyers.”