Police Practices and Civil Rights in New York City

Executive Summary

In the world-class City of New York, the twin fears of street crimes and ugly episodes of police misconduct have created an uneasy tension between a police force compelled to lower crime rates and a concerned community that openly questions the fairness of aggressive police strategies. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has a long history of examining police practices and civil rights under its responsibility to appraise laws and policies governing the administration of justice. This commitment to investigating police conduct has involved a meaningful discourse on the duty of law enforcement to enforce the laws while respecting the civil rights of individuals.

The discourse, in turn, has produced a solid set of recommendations to meet the challenges posed by these related objectives. The Commission has in recent years completed reports on police-community relations in Chicago, the Mount Pleasant area of Washington, D.C., among Native Americans and police in South Dakota, and in Sonoma County, California. Just last year the Commission published a report on the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. The report pointed to many of the problems that have just received renewed attention concerning the LAPD. The Commission will use the information it continues to gather to update its 1981 publication, Who Is Guarding the Guardians? A Report on Police Practices, in a national report this year.

The Commission conducted a day- and evening-long hearing in New York City almost a year ago and received hundreds of pages of sworn testimony from the mayor, the police commissioner, the chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), other state and city officials, religious leaders, representatives of civic and civil rights advocacy groups, and a large host of individuals who testified that they were victimized by police misconduct. Over the last year, that testimony was analyzed by Commission staff along with more than 32,000 pages of other supporting documents secured by subpoenas from the agencies that testified at the hearing.

Among the documents are orders concerning the Internal Affairs Bureau of the police department; reports on complaints substantiated by the Civilian Complaint Review Board; materials used in the training and recruitment of police officers; forms used to process civilian complaints; documents concerning officers with excessive CCRB complaints and the use of performance monitoring systems to address the use of excessive force; information on cultural diversity training; use of force curricula; training guides and manuals used at all levels from the academy to precinct guides; all complaint procedures and practices; all dispositions by the CCRB; and statements, memos, and instructions generated by the department concerning crime reduction strategies. Additionally, thousands of individual UF-250 forms, which are designed to record important descriptions of “stop and frisk” encounters, were reviewed. Staff has also received more information from city agency representatives since the hearing. The hearing report has been reviewed and commented upon by affected agencies, including city agencies and officials in New York who testified at the hearing.

The report makes a number of important findings and recommendations. Most importantly, the New York Police Department (NYPD) has not involved affected communities sufficiently in the planning and implementation of strategies that could reduce tensions while controlling crime. The report recommends that the city should establish an independent monitor to monitor the police in New York City and that there should be an independent prosecutor who would be appointed to handle high-profile cases involving allegations that deadly force has been used inappropriately. The report notes that there is a proposal passed by the City Council that is under legal challenge at this time.


The NYPD continues to be largely unrepresentative of the diverse population of New York City. In fact, since 1994 African American hires have decreased; from recruitment to application there are major problems. This year’s experience of half the number of 1996 applicants for the April exam portends worsening of the problem. The department does not utilize a number of community organizations and leaders who are willing to help in recruitment. Further, the department needs more officers to live in the boroughs they police. 

Civilian Complaint Review Board data show that police with less than an associate degree are more likely to have substantiated misconduct complaints. The department ought to encourage new officers to have a baccalaureate degree and give officers time off to work on college credits to help professionalize the force. The promotions process needs revaluation from top to bottom to address the paucity of high-ranking officers of color.


The diversity training offered by the department reinforces stereotypes instead of undermining them. There is controversy about whether diversity training works, but bad training cannot work. Further, high-level officials do not involve themselves, therefore it does not appear to be a priority from the perspective of the rank and file officers.

Police-Community Relations

The NYPD seems to have avoided learning from the experiences in San Diego and Boston and in other places where officials employ approaches to policing that reduce crime and minimize racial tensions. Community involvement seems to be a key. The mayor and police commissioner need to release specific information to the public on compliance with the Mayor’s Task Force on Community Relations recommendations. What has been released is spotty and incomplete, and the impression is they have been mostly ignored.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board and Internal Affairs Bureau

The CCRB has much improved in the last 2 years, in staffing and resources, but is given little credit because it still needs a lot of work and crises keep occurring. The rate of increase in discipline by the police when the CCRB substantiates a claim has risen from 20.7 percent in 1996 to 52.6 percent in 1999. The NYPD does not help to inspire public confidence by refusing to say what discipline was imposed upon a CCRB finding. CCRB semiannual reports on its own operations include major weaknesses. There are no reports on the type of misconduct alleged or why it was unsubstantiated for example. Further, the reports should include the officer’s command to make it possible to monitor specific problem areas in the city. There should be monitoring by an independent watchdog that will review and report on NYPD disposition of substantiated complaints. CCRB needs more outreach, town hall meetings, and forums on a regular basis to inform the public and provide for an airing of public views on the police. High-level officers should be required to attend. The police union agreed that the 48-hour rule could be bargained away in collective bargaining. It should be abolished. Further, NYPD officers testified that no one ever asks or rewards them for enforcing the law while maintaining a record of no complaints filed and being a protector of the civil rights of civilians. In the evaluation of officers, complaint avoidance should be rewarded. There should also be some mechanism for prosecuting the most serious cases. This may include the alleged, unnecessary shooting of an individual. The idea is not that local prosecutors lack devotion to their duties but to reduce concern when prosecutors must work with the police on a routine basis.

“Stop and Frisk”

New Yorkers have stronger legal protection under state law against an unlawful stop and frisk than is available under the federal Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court. This protection is not abrogated because the police use a special unit such as the Street Crime Unit or a drug crime unit. NYPD policy is that a UF-250 form should be filed by an officer when a person is stopped forcibly or is frisked and searched, and is arrested or refuses to identify himself or herself. The officer is to submit the form to his desk officer. According to NYPD officials, this form was introduced in 1964 and amended to its present version in 1973. It was mandated as a rigorously enforced priority by Police Commissioner Howard Safir in 1997. However, testimony at the Commission’s hearing indicated that perhaps only in 1 out of 30 stop and frisk encounters resulted in a filed UF-250 form. This criticism was echoed recently in a preliminary report by the CCRB, whose investigators have determined, based on a study of hundreds of instances in which people had been stopped and frisked, that NYPD officers routinely fail to file the required paperwork after stopping and frisking people on the streets of the city.

The UF-250’s examined by the Commission were for the year 1998; 139,409 forms were completed. Everywhere, African Americans were stopped far out of their proportion in any of the communities policed. So were Hispanics but at somewhat reduced levels. Whites and Asians were stopped at far below their representations of the population in each area policed. While the mayor and the police commissioner attributed these disparities to suspects’ profiles as reported by crime victims, this claim is belied by police testimony that the Street Crime Unit and other specialized units root out crime by scouring neighborhoods and making stops with no complaints and no victim. They simply stop who they think they should stop. The NYPD needs to be careful not to engage in racial profiling of this sort, whether in regular or specialized units. It not only violates the law but undermines respect for the police and can cause deadly altercations, as in the tragic and unnecessary police shooting of Amadou Diallo.

The City of New York must maintain a world-class police force that provides protection against illegal activities, including civil rights violations by its own officers, for all of its diverse populations.