The NYPD is the only group of public employees with a massive amount of direct power over New Yorkers and practically no accountability. Credit: GummyBone

This is shaping up to be quite the beautiful Fourth of July week, and I’m sure many of you are planning on spending some time outside and unwinding with friends and family. Unfortunately, I have to puncture that happy image for just a moment by talking to you about the NYPD.

I understand some of you might be thinking “here he goes again with the cops,” and that’s fair, I write about our police force a pretty good amount. But that’s for two reasons: one, there is no group of public employees who have both this amount of daily, direct power over the lives of New Yorkers and this level of near-total unaccountability, shielded from basic scrutiny and almost any consequences if and when some scrutiny does occur. The journalist and longtime sheriff observer Jessica Pishko has coined the phrase “Law Enforcement Baronial Class” to refer to the notion of cops as super-citizens who enforce the law but are not necessarily constrained by it.

Two, the available evidence suggests not only that things could improve, but that in fact they’re trending in the wrong direction. Case in point, ProPublica ran an investigation last week showing that NYPD Commissioner Edward Caban, who’s been on the job about a year — coming in after Mayor Eric Adams all but drove out predecessor Keechant Sewell for daring not to let egregious misconduct by Chief of Department Jeff Maddrey slide (more on that later), — has been routinely derailing investigations into officer misconduct.

To explain this, let’s take a step back and look at the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) as an entity. As per its official history, the body was conceptualized in 1950 as a coalition of groups pushing back against misconduct against Black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers. It was created in a limited form three years later, but finally put under actual civilian control in the mid-1960s under Mayor John Lindsay. This arrangement was almost instantly reversed when the police union boss, Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president John Cassese — who, during conversations around civilian oversight, had said “I’m sick and tired of giving in to minority groups with their whims and their gripes and shouting” — organized a ballot measure to remove civilians from the board.

people walking on the street
NYPD leadership has never been particularly enthusiastic about even advisory civilian oversight. Credit: Howard Herdi

It won, and the CCRB would not return to being a fully civilian entity until 1993, under Mayor David Dinkins and after public outrage over some documented instances of police violence and impunity. Perhaps not coincidentally, Dinkins would go on to be a one-term mayor after suffering a defeat at the hands of Rudy Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor who leaned heavily on the notion that Dinkins was pandering to criminals and handcuffing the police, with a clear undercurrent of racism against the city’s first Black mayor.

The point is, police leadership has never been particularly enthusiastic about even advisory civilian oversight. And let’s be clear, even now, the board is advisory. The CCRB has the power to issue subpoenas and hold disciplinary trials, but it cannot actually take disciplinary action against officers, only recommend that certain disciplinary action be taken in accordance with a much-hyped “disciplinary matrix” the city rolled out in 2021.

Under Caban’s predecessors, these recommendations were routinely ignored. Sewell was reported to have rejected over half of the CCRB’s recommendations on punishment for misconduct that had already been substantiated, including consequences as mild as a verbal reprimand. She didn’t provide an explanation for the majority of the dismissals, though when she did, it often amounted to “the cop acted appropriately,” throwing the CCRB’s investigative work by the wayside even when officers had admitted to the conduct at issue. In hundreds of cases, Sewell essentially stalled until the state deadline for imposing punishment was near enough that she could claim to be out of time.

This in itself was already a scandal. The agency in charge of evaluating civilian complaints against the NYPD was being basically ignored by the commissioner, who didn’t even bother to dispute its findings. But at least there were findings. Caban has now innovated on this model by simply stopping these investigations from moving forward at all, effectively neutralizing the CCRB’s authority entirely and keeping the alleged misconduct largely under wraps. ProPublica analyzed records to determine that, in his roughly one year atop the department, Caban used this method of “retention” to prevent 54 officers’ cases from moving forward at all, about seven times as much as Sewell did. 

Caban’s NYPD also frequently failed to notify cops about the CCRB charges, which de facto prevented the trials from moving forward. In over 30 other cases, Caban stepped in after officers had already entered pleas with department lawyers and overturned the discipline, despite the cops having already admitted guilt. One such case involved the commissioner stepping in to help an officer who had pleaded guilty to both using pepper spray and a baton against protesters without legitimate cause. He ended up just losing 10 vacation days.

This comes the same week as revelations that Caban overruled not even the CCRB but the NYPD’s own officials in allowing a police officer who lied to Internal Affairs about falsifying her vaccination record to keep her job. Unsurprisingly, Mayor Eric Adams, a former cop who has been reflexively against almost any efforts to hold the force accountable, backed Caban in this determination, which even some other cops found beyond the pale. It was, in effect, letting off the hook an officer who had committed fraud against the NYPD itself.

It also comes as Chief of Department Jeffrey Maddrey — the top uniformed officer in the entire department — faces his own CCRB trial for having busted his retired cop buddy from jail after the latter was arrested for brandishing a gun at a group of children in 2021. That Maddrey did this is not really in question; there’s video of him as the then-chief of community affairs going into the precinct and leaving with his pal after voiding the arrest. This gross abuse of power netted Maddrey a punishment of only 10 vacation days docked, but even that was too much for him and for Adams, who backed Maddrey and forced out Sewell. Now the chief has his lawyers arguing that the CCRB doesn’t have jurisdiction over this matter at all.

Entities like the Police Benevolent Association (the name was changed from Patrolmen’s) often try to paint any questioning of this dynamic as somehow anti-cop or pro-crime, but what does this encourage? It’s not hard to see the self-reinforcing nature of impunity. The more cops see the CCRB being prevented from even meaningfully investigating their cases and commissioners waving away consequences even when guilt has been established or admitted, the less they’re going to be concerned with acting outside the bounds of the rules or the law.

The less they’re concerned about this, the more misconduct and unnecessary use of force will take place, which helps tank community trust in the police and in turn exacerbates the police’s sense of an uncooperative public that must be controlled by force as opposed to a population to be served- and so on. The public will only trust law enforcement that can itself face consequences. That doesn’t seem to be where we’re headed.

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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1 Comment

  1. This is the perfect editorial that describes the relationship between NYPD and an overwhelming majority of NY’ers. The NYPD operates with impunity. As you eloquently stated, The NYPD and PBA hold “The Thin Blue Line.”

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