Police Practices and Civil Rights in New York City

Statement of Chairperson Mary Frances Berry, Vice Chairperson Cruz Reynoso, and Commissioners Christopher F. Edley, Jr., Yvonne Y. Lee, Elsie M. Meeks, and Victoria Wilson  

This Commission report, Police Practices and Civil Rights in New York City, carefully balances the sworn testimony of selected witnesses with an analytical review of subpoenaed data and documents. It is our hope that elected and appointed officials will examine the evidence in this report and accept its invitation to reject the status quo and to improve police-community relations in New York City. 

The report acknowledges that the work of police officers is hard and dangerous. Most police officers perform their jobs in accordance with the rule of law and with a reasonable expectation that their work will be honored by the community they serve. The report also acknowledges an appreciable decline of both crime in the city and fatal shootings by the NYPD. If this report only addressed law enforcement accomplishments, the report would simply hone in on these salutary statistics and conclude with praise for a department that has achieved much in these two categories. Instead, the focus of this report is on the issues that reflect the mandate of this Commission, including an examination of the extent to which there are strategies and systems in place for ensuring that civil rights are protected while the NYPD is implementing strategies and systems for reducing crime.

The Commission had a strong interest in studying the methods used by the city to balance crime fighting with the exercise of appropriate restraint, particularly following the highly publicized tragedies involving Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo. Abner Louima was brutally sodomized with a toilet plunger by an NYPD officer. Amadou Diallo, an unarmed person of color standing in the vestibule of his home, was tragically shot and killed by four plainclothes officers from the NYPD’s Street Crime Unit. Although these incidents are not the focus of this report, the Commission cannot dismiss or deny the significant impact that they have had on police-community relations in New York City. 

At the same time, a number of additional concerns had been raised regarding NYPD policies and practices, including its “stop and frisk” tactics, which have significantly and disproportionately affected people of color on city streets. We acknowledge that officials and experts will differ on the best law enforcement strategies to reduce crime while ensuring that civil rights are protected. However, there are police departments that have demonstrated the capacity to maximize public safety through professional police conduct without endangering the civil rights of members of the community. The Commission continues to spotlight these “best practices” and will update its historic publication Who Is Guarding the Guardians? later in this year.

This hearing report is legally and logically supported by facts secured from the sworn testimony of witnesses who appeared before the Commission at its public hearing. The witness testimony is bolstered by written evidence contained in more than 32,000 pages of subpoenaed documents and a statistical overlay presented with charts and graphs reflecting information contained in more than 100,000 individual records regarding stop and frisk encounters stored on CD-ROM by NYPD officials. The witnesses included the mayor, the police commissioner, the chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, other public officials, religious leaders, representatives of civic and civil rights advocacy groups, New York Police Department officers, and individuals describing personal encounters with the NYPD. 

Before this report was approved by the Commission, it received extensive internal and external scrutiny during several levels of review. Following the standard operating procedures of the Commission, the staff made necessary corrections, where appropriate, and added substantive new information to the initial drafts of this report in light of legal sufficiency reviews, editorial policy reviews, and affected agency reviews. 

We must emphasize that the Commission’s findings and recommendations regarding stop and frisk practices by the NYPD are built upon a strong foundation of data provided by the NYPD and from testimony provided under oath by some of its own officers. The combination of the sworn testimony and the analysis of the NYPD data could lead a reasonable, objective observer to conclude that racial profiling has been a factor in the stop and frisk practices of the NYPD, including its specialized units. For example, according to witness testimony, these units do not consistently receive or rely upon descriptions of assailants by crime victims before engaging in stop and frisk practices. Moreover, the assertion that there are alternative explanations for the disproportionate numbers of African American and Latino persons who are stopped, but not arrested by NYPD officers, is not backed by any data provided by the NYPD or any records of profiles. 

This targeted inquiry into police practices was not intended to look broadly and directly into prosecutorial practices and successes. We would not and could not criticize any district attorney without a formal and focused review of his or her office. Instead, the report offers a recommendation for addressing the sensitive and delicate interrelationship of separate law enforcement agencies in cases where an independent entity could increase public confidence in the outcome of highly sensitive cases. We expect that the public will understand that an independent counsel for high-profile cases only will serve the best interests of the NYPD, the community, and local prosecutors. 

The timeliness of the report’s discussion of monitoring and disciplinary systems is underscored by the recent revelations of the Commission to Combat Police Corruption, which was created in 1995 by the mayor after he successfully blocked a City Council attempt to create an independent agency with wide-ranging authority to investigate police corruption. According to news accounts, the mayor’s commission has strongly confirmed in its draft report that the current internal system for disciplining officers is slow and ineffective. The mayor’s commission recommends that some internal disciplinary cases should no longer be prosecuted by NYPD lawyers. The points raised in that draft report appear to be consistent with the findings and recommendations found in our report. In order to ensure viable community support for the NYPD’s crime-reduction strategies, it is crucial that a credible, independent monitoring and disciplinary mechanism be substituted for the current system.

We believe that this report will help the city and its police department to refocus their attention on strategies and systems that will uncover and discourage police misconduct and encourage community support. Professionalism is the key to effective police strategies. Police officers must be willing to remain professional and uphold the duties of their office, even in the face of mounting public criticism. The Commission is concerned, therefore, that at the time this report was being approved, the NYPD was facing new allegations that in June 2000, several officers failed to respond to calls for help from women who were being sexually attacked at an event in Central Park. It is our hope that these allegations against a few officers are not a sign, as some critics have suggested, of a frustrated force, weary of official scrutiny. 

This report should help law enforcement officials to better understand that police officer professionalism and stronger ties with the community are inextricably connected.