The first report from the New York Police Department Inspector General's office, issued Monday, reveals an "alarming" lack of transparency and consistency regarding how and when officers use prohibited chokeholds—and to what extent they are held accountable for such use of force.
The investigation, triggered by Eric Garner's death and the ensuing public outrage, looked at 10 cases where the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) determined that NYPD officers used chokeholds and recommended disciplinary action. The Garner case was not included in the analysis because it's still subject to an internal investigation.
"Even this limited review of the ten most recent substantiated chokehold cases revealed that certain policy changes should be made," the report (pdf) reads.
According to a press release (pdf), the investigation "found a concerning disconnect in determining discipline, communication road-blocks between agencies in the review of use-of-force complaints, and questions regarding the effectiveness of officer training."
The New York public radio station WNYC reports:
The office reviewed 10 cases from 2009 through 2014 where the NYPD used a banned chokehold. In six of those cases where the Civilian Compliant Review Board recommended disciplinary action, then-Commissioner Ray Kelly rejected those recommendations all six times.
"We really don't know why the police commissioner came out with a different result, a lesser result than the CCRB recommended," NYPD Inspector General Philip Eure told WNYC. "That sort of thing undermines confidence."
The Daily News described one such incident: "On Valentine's Day 2008 in the Bronx, two witnesses backed up a complainant's charge that while he was arguing with officers investigating a domestic violence call involving his neighbor, a cop placed his hands around the complainant's neck and squeezed his Adam's apple. CCRB recommended departmental charges; Commissioner Kelly approved a much lesser punishment—the loss of five vacation days."
Moving forward, the 45-page report recommends that the police commissioner's disciplinary decisions are "reasoned, transparent, and in writing, particularly when they depart from the recommendations of CCRB."
What's more, the review notes: "While the substantiated use of prohibited chokeholds by members of NYPD in any context is troubling, the fact that several of the subject officers in the ten cases reviewed by OIG-NYPD used chokeholds as a first act of physical force and in response to mere verbal confrontation is particularly alarming. Rather than using communication skills and approved tactics to de-escalate tense encounters with members of the community, these officers immediately turned to a prohibited and dangerous physical act to try to control the situation."
While the report was quick to point out that "observations in these ten cases do not present evidence of a widespread problem of officers resorting too quickly to force," it adds that the inspector general's office "intends to examine a broader sample of cases in which officers used force in encounters with the public in order to ascertain whether police officers are escalating encounters and using force too quickly as a systemic matter."
The report acknowledges that the investigation raised more questions than it answered. Among those:
- Was NYPD’s handling of these ten substantiated chokehold cases representative of how NYPD treats the majority of use-of-force cases substantiated by CCRB?
- What, if anything, does the fact that DAO and the Police Commissioner rejected CCRB’s disciplinary recommendations in each of these chokehold cases reveal about the disciplinary process for use-of-force cases more generally? Does CCRB view use-of-force offenses too harshly or too one-dimensionally? Does NYPD...take too lenient an approach toward these cases?
- Do the different approaches by which CCRB and NYPD evaluate use-of-force cases present inconsistencies, inefficiencies, or other systemic issues that erode public confidence in NYPD’s system of accountability?
According to a cover letter written by the city's Department of Investigation commissioner Mark Peters, the inspector general's office will in the future examine how the NYPD handles low-level summonses, how it interacts with people with mental illness, and its post-9/11 strategy of surveilling certain religious and political groups.
Civil liberties groups agree that more work remains to be done.
"It’s important that the city is finally looking at its failure to discipline officers who have engaged in misconduct, but that review should not be limited to chokeholds," New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman told Common Dreams in an emailed statement. "Year after year the Police Department routinely fails to discipline officers in cases in which misconduct has been substantiated, and we hope the Inspector General will soon be taking those into account as well."