The city Department of Investigation’s unit that keeps an eye on the NYPD has been without a permanent inspector general for more than a year and is working with half as many staffers as at its peak — resulting in less scrutiny of police activities.
DOI Commissioner Jocelyn Strauber said during a City Council hearing last week that the agency was interviewing people for the inspector general job, but had not hired anyone yet.
The lack of permanent leadership has concerned government and police watchdogs, who say the city’s 31,000-member police department needs as much oversight as possible.
“When there’s one less agency — and right now DOI is largely out of the picture — it just makes it easier for the NYPD to proceed without any sort of meaningful checks,” Chris Dunn, the legal director at the New York Civil Liberties Union, told THE CITY.
Jeanene Barrett has been the acting inspector general for the police department since Philip Eure stepped down at the end of 2021. Eure led the unit since its inception in 2013. Barrett previously served as Project Manager for the New York City Joint Remedial Process, which was the community engagement connected to the federal monitor for the NYPD. She is also a professor of criminal justice at John Jay and at Brooklyn College.
In August, Strauber appointed Charles Guria, a Brooklyn prosecutor and one-time lawyer for the Mollen Commission police corruption panel, as IG, but quickly rescinded the job following allegations of sexual harassment.
One Report, 10 Ignored Recommendations
Pre-pandemic, the NYPD IG would release a report every few months: four in 2017, and three each in 2018 and 2019.
Though it’s been more than a year since Eure left, Barrett — who is holding the job until an appointment is made — has issued just one report.
That report, released Nov. 3, zeroed in on whether the NYPD was living up to the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act, passed in 2020 and requiring public disclosure of the specific snooping technology cops use and whether those are having a “disparate” impact on Black and Hispanic communities.
The report found the police department was not at all transparent about its use of surveillance technology and had made no effort to quantify the “disparate impact” issue. Barrett made 15 specific recommendations for improvement.
Right off the bat, the NYPD rejected 10 of them, refusing to adopt multiple suggestions the IG made to improve transparency.
The police department did accept the IG’s recommendations to provide an itemized list of the technologies it uses by Dec. 3 and another list of new technologies adopted or discontinued since then by Jan. 15. As of this week, the IG has yet to see either list, DOI officials said.
In the department’s response to the inspector general, NYPD Acting Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters Carrie Talansky said the department had been even more transparent than the POST Act required. Talansky accused the investigators of misrepresenting how the NYPD deployed its technology.
She said the department had rejected most of the IG’s recommendations because it was already “in compliance,” and contended that a “pervasive and confounding theme of the report is that the NYPD is surreptitiously spying on the general public.”
“To be clear,” Talansky wrote, “the NYPD does not conduct mass surveillance of the public for surveillance’s sake.”
The NYPD did not respond to questions sent by THE CITY, or to a request for comment.
The issues within the DOI’s NYPD unit mirror the larger staffing issues at the department.
The oversight agency is down more than 100 staffers since before the pandemic, from 546 to 412, and its funding could be slashed over 20% in the upcoming budget, officials stated at a Council hearing last week.
Within DOI’s police department unit, those shortages have led to a sharp decline in investigative reports.
“The big concern is that the staffing shortages are creating a situation where they’re not producing any reports and doing any real oversight,” said Dunn.
A spokesperson for DOI said the unit currently has a budget for 22 positions, and five are vacant, after years of consistent decline in employees from a high of 38 staffers in 2017.
During her testimony at last week’s City Council hearing, Ivey Dyson, a counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, said she’s aware that the pandemic and a hiring freeze at the city contributed to DOI’s staff shortage.
But in a summary briefing shared with the Council and THE CITY, the Brennan Center also notes the NYPD’s “stonewalling of IG investigations has lowered office morale and drove well-qualified staff to leave for more impactful roles elsewhere,” citing outgoing staffers.
The NYPD has often resisted the recommendations from its inspector general. Since 2015, the NYPD has accepted — in principle — about 75% of the IG’s 255 recommendations.
But a review of DOI’s records by THE CITY found that, as of last summer, 42% of those ostensibly accepted recommendations hadn’t been fully implemented or were still pending.
Reports are still pending on issues that have been investigated for years, like a probe of the NYPD’s gang database that was launched in 2018.
In the summer of 2021, the DOI told THE CITY that the report was in its “final stages” — but it still hasn’t been released.
DOI spokesperson Diane Struzzi told THE CITY on Monday they expect to release the report within the next three months.
Faiza Patel, a senior director at the Brennan Center, says that without proper oversight, the job of public safety is only half done.
“For New York to be safe and also to make sure that the police actually respect our rights, we need to have a functioning police department and we need to make sure there are rules and mechanisms in place to make sure that police don’t abuse their powers,” Patel told THE CITY.
“And we have one, but not the other.”