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For many years, New York's Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) — the agency that investigates complaints against NYPD officers — was a dysfunctional and notoriously inefficient kangaroo court whose recommendations for discipline were rarely observed. But that seems to be changing.
According to the CCRB's latest bi-annual report, far more claims of excessive force are now being fully investigated and substantiated than in previous years. CCRB chairman Richard Emery attributes the improved substantiation rate to the rise of civilian-recorded videos that catch police red-handed when they're behaving badly.
"The big news in police oversight is one word: Video," Emery wrote in the report published on Tuesday. "Video is changing everything."
The percentage of excessive force allegations corroborated by video evidence increased from 4 percent to 21 percent between 2012 and 2015, according to the report, while the number of cases where video evidence was crucial to the outcome climbed from 15 percent to 45 percent over the same period.
Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed Emery to lead the CCRB last year, and tasked the former civil rights attorney with resolving the agency's "internal political problems" and restoring its integrity. In an interview with VICE News earlier this year, Emery said there was a backlog of nearly 2,000 cases when he took the job. "It was a mess," he said, calling the agency, "a stepchild of the NYPD."
Emery acknowledged that there was a likely "pro-police bias" on the CCRB's board for any number of years. CCRB lawyers, not NYPD employees, now serve as prosecutors in cases related to police misconduct. The agency now has its own independent investigators and lawyers, including a brand new "field evidence collection team" that gets dispatched to "canvas for surveillance video and witnesses" at sites where abuse allegedly occurred. Emery also said bystanders are now submitting more video to the CCRB.
If claims are substantiated, the CCRB can recommend disciplinary action against offending officers, but NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton still ultimately has the final say about punishments. That doesn't sit well with police reform activists. Chris Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), believes Bratton should have the authority to discipline officers — but not for civilian complaints. "When an officer goes out and engages in misconduct against a civilian, that's one category of complaints where it should be out of the hands of the police commissioner," Dunn told VICE News.
Emery admits that the CCRB was previously a "toothless tiger" that failed to garner respect from the police department, and consequently, "its recommendations were ignored, for the most part." Officers are now disciplined in 91 percent of cases that involve substantiated misconduct claims, the highest discipline rate since the CCRB was established in 1993, and a 30 percent increase over 2014.
The report also indicates that the number of overall claims being submitted to the CCRB has dipped, though Dunn warned that this stat doesn't necessarily reflect improvement. The NYCLU attorney pointed out that many New Yorkers became so fed up with the CCRB's ineffectiveness that they gave up filing complaints, while others don't even know the agency exists.
Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was initially published. A previous version erroneously stated that the CCRB rarely reprimanded officers for misconduct, when in fact the agency can only recommend a reprimand. Additionally, CCRB investigators have always been independent from the NYPD, contrary to what the earlier version stated.