The city’s primary police watchdog group hasn’t interviewed a single police officer under investigation since the pandemic hit, thanks to the agency’s slow switch to an online system.
But cops say they won’t talk to investigators remotely even when the system gets going.
Meanwhile, 1,109 Civilian Complaint Review Board investigations are awaiting police officer interviews, according to agency records. And the number of complaints against officers is only growing in the midst of ongoing protests.
CCRB officials say they want to begin questioning officers online, via a Webex system, beginning June 22.
Police unions say that they will not allow their members to be questioned that way, unless there’s an extenuating circumstance.
“As a basic policy, we won’t do Zoom,” said Phillip Karasyk, an attorney for the Detectives’ Endowment Association.
The city’s three other police unions have taken a similar stance, according to a source familiar with their position.
The unions contend that the online option doesn’t let lawyers see their clients’ body language and can make it difficult to privately advise them.
Yet that hasn’t stopped the state’s court system from conducting arraignments and bail hearings. The city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings also holds multiple proceedings online.
Even the U.S. Supreme Court, traditionally one of the most resistant institutions to change, has begun hearing arguments via teleconference.
“It’s being done across the legal system at every level, in every jurisdiction now,” said John Siegal, a CCRB board member. “And that’s got to happen in the police disciplinary process, too. There’s no excuse at this point.”
Lawyers don’t need to “read the room,” he added — and they are “not allowed to kick the witness under the table to send signals in any circumstance.”
The slow online setup and union opposition to remote questioning comes at a time when people in New York City, and throughout the country, are pushing to rein in the police in response to multiple high-profile killings of black people by cops.
Still, the police unions say they are not worried about possible negative attention the stance will generate.
“We are there to fully protect our clients’ rights,” said Karasyk. “The best way to have an interview is face to face. Everybody is in the same room and gets the feel of what’s going on.”
CCRB Executive Director Jonathan Darche said the agency wants to have a digital system in place that works for everyone.
Before the pandemic, police interviews were audio-recorded, he noted.
With the Webex system, the board sought to mimic that system and allow officers or witnesses to just call with their phones, if necessary. It remains unclear whether the board will allow an option for in-person interviews once the remote system is in use for police.
Investigators have interviewed complainants by phone and gotten their sworn statements online.
“When we went to work from home, we had not ever contemplated doing police interviews by phone or online,” Darche said.
Other government agencies, like the city’s Department of Education and the state court system, got online systems up within days to a few weeks.
The timeline to resume police interviews also got delayed by the coronavirus crisis and then the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, according to Darche. The NYPD was short handed at the peak of the virus crisis, with nearly 20% of the workforce out sick.
When the protests began in late May, the NYPD extended shifts, to get more officers on patrol.
“Just as we were about to get back moving again, the protests occurred and the department shifted their manpower again so that people were working 12-hour shifts with no days off,” said Darche at a board meeting this week, “which made it tough for us to work with folks.”
Focus on Floyd Protests
Now, CCRB officials say they will prioritize some 750 complaints alleging abuses by police during protests across the city after Floyd’s death and the accompanying curfew.
Darche reminded the board and public at a meeting on Wednesday that the CCRB was born out of a violent 1980s police-and-protesters clash.
“The Tompkins Square Park riots ... resulted in the movement that successfully pushed for the creation of CCRB,” Darche said during a public board meeting on Wednesday. “This is a similar situation that we’re seeing now. And so the agency is making an effort to prioritize these cases. To move swiftly on these cases.”
Some of the reported police abuses during the recent protests have been captured in cellphone videos, including an officer yanking a protester’s mask down and then blasting his face with pepper spray. One cop was recorded whacking a cyclist with a baton as he pedaled across a street.
The CCRB previously confirmed to THE CITY that it is looking into an incident where two NYPD SUVs surged into a crowd of people.
Dozens of protesters detailed alleged abuses by officers during a City Council hearing on Tuesday.
CCRB investigators typically interview cops after they’ve reviewed medical records, talked to the complainant and checked for surveillance footage and other possible evidence.
Agency probers have continued to conduct other parts of their reviews since the mid-March coronavirus shutdowns closed off in-person interviews. All told, the agency cleared 403 fully investigated cases and just under 400 truncated cases — in which complainants stopped cooperating — since March.
As for pending cases, they may be further delayed because the agency is facing ongoing backlogs of requests for body camera footage needed as evidence. Last June, the CCRB raised concerns that 37% of investigations were waiting for video from the NYPD.
The use of body worn cameras by all uniformed patrol officers as of early 2019 has had a big impact on investigations. A February CCRB report showed that 31% of complaints in which bodycam footage was entered as evidence were substantiated — found to be credible — compared to 13% without.
Extensive negotiations resulted in a November memorandum of understanding between the NYPD and CCRB. The agreement will give investigators better — though not unfettered— access to video footage, kept inside a “secure room” at the agency. But the agreement has yet to be implemented.
A year after the CCRB first flagged the video delays, more than 40% of the CCRB’s requests have been waiting over three months for the NYPD’s response.