We’re About to Know a Lot More About NYPD Misconduct
"Without the details in the closing reports, it’s much more difficult to parse out whether an officer has a history of allegations relevant to a particular case." | Flickr/drpavloff

We’re About to Know a Lot More About NYPD Misconduct

Two years after the repeal of a state law that kept police performance records secret, documents narrating alleged NYPD abuse are starting to become public. But it could still be years until they’re all released.

In October 2018, a 34-year-old woman in the Bronx accused New York City Police Department Lieutenant Eric Dym of using physical force against her and hitting her against an inanimate object. The Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), the city agency tasked with digging into most complaints against NYPD officers, investigated the incident, and concluded that the central allegation was “unfounded.” Dym was let off the hook.

Until recently, that’s all the information that the public could obtain about the 2018 incident, leaving the impression that Lieutenant Dym definitively did nothing wrong. But a recently released CCRB document — one of a trove of newly publicly accessible CCRB investigative reports — paints a much murkier picture.

According to the report, Dym and another officer approached the woman and her friend in an unmarked car one evening and informed them that they were under arrest for allegedly kicking a taxi cab. The woman denied kicking the cab and began to argue, so Dym placed her in an armlock and shoved her against a police car. The woman claimed that Dym then twisted her arm and slammed her head against the car. While in a booking cell in a nearby police station, she complained of pain in her arm and head and blurred vision, eventually passing out and only regaining consciousness after EMTs arrived, according to the report. When the EMTs took her to the hospital, she reported feeling dizzy and recalled being hit in the head.

Dym denied hurting the woman, and other officers on the scene claimed that they “did not observe” him shoving her head against the police car, per the report. None of the officers’ body-worn cameras captured whether Dym slammed the woman’s head. And so, even with repeated and consistent testimony from the alleged victim — first in the hours after her arrest, then in a complaint to the CCRB, and then again in a sworn statement — it was a civilian’s word against cops’.

“Officers may use reasonable force to place a person in custody or prevent escape from custody,” the investigator wrote, citing the NYPD’s patrol guide. With the lack of video evidence, the CCRB voted to “exonerate” Dym — a notoriously abusive cop, with 28 known, closed complaints containing 56 different, substantiated allegations of wrongdoing — of the excessive force charge.

The investigative report, known as a “closing report,” is a comprehensive document that outlines all of the investigative measures and narrates all of the known facts involved in a CCRB investigation. Until recently, CCRB closing reports were kept confidential, but a change in police accountability laws spurred by the 2020 wave of Black Lives Matter protests, followed by legal fights from transparency advocates, have wrested them into the public domain, shedding new light on civilian complaints against NYPD officers.

Because the process for releasing the closing reports involves labor-intensive redacting, most likely won’t become public for years to come. Still, transparency advocates have lauded the decision to publicize them.

“The closing reports provide narratives — they provide actual detailed statements of what the police do when they have interactions with members of the public,” said John Teufel, a former CCRB investigator, lawyer, and civilian NYPD watchdog.

It allows you to see with your own eyes,” he said. When you’re able to actually read these reports, these tragic little short stories, you can really see how the police are out of control and ungovernable in the city of New York.”

Changing Precedent

The public release of CCRB closing reports has been years in the making.

In June 2020, in response to mass protests following the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd, the New York legislature repealed a section of the state’s civil rights law that had kept confidential records used to evaluate the job performance of police officers or other civil servants. The law, known as 50-a, was purportedly enacted as a privacy measure and a way to protect testifying cops from overzealous cross-examination by defense attorneys, but it had become a tool with which state and local government agencies could deflect inquiries into police misconduct.

The 50-a repeal was a big win for transparency advocates, who had long seen it as a crucial step forward in the fight to hold police accountable for abusive behavior. And after legal battles with cop unions, police misconduct records started to trickle into the public sphere. In New York City, home to by far the largest local police force in the country, the CCRB began releasing what amounted to metadata about those complaints — like the subject officers’ names and assignments, the categories of the alleged misconduct, final results of the CCRB investigations, and whether the NYPD imposed any discipline.

But that’s all they were: metadata. The details on what specific abuses civilians were accusing officers of, as well as how the CCRB went about investigating them, weren’t yet making it into the public eye — leading to what advocates describe as misleadingly incomplete snapshots of police misconduct.

“When you look at allegation histories … it doesn’t tell you what factual allegations are underlying it,” said Jennvine Wong, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Cop Accountability Project. “It’s just a summary. It’s like a report card.”

The summaries can sometimes obscure key information. For example, former NYPD Chief of Department Terrance Monahan was in charge of the police response to the 2020 protest movement that prompted the repeal of 50-a, which earned him a whopping 55 allegations in May and June of that year. But before the CCRB could fully investigate the incidents, he left the force, thus escaping accountability; the conclusions on all 55 allegations are listed as “subject retired.” However, closing reports against Monahan show that he authorized officers to use pepper spray, batons, and other forms of force to “clear the streets” of protesters and media.

What the metadata does show is that, since 2006, the CCRB has only “substantiated” 10 percent of resolved allegations. NYPD backers have pointed to that low substantiation rate to downplay the importance of civilian complaint histories against NYPD officers. Last month, after a New York Focus investigation found that many officers trained for the NYPD’s new gun units had extensive histories of civilian complaints, Mayor Eric Adams, who had promised a rigorous vetting process for the new teams, responded that “there’s a difference between complaints and substantiated complaints.”

“If it’s substantiated, that’s one thing. If it’s just a complaint, that’s another thing,” he said.

But lack of substantiation doesn’t mean that a civilian complaint was bogus. In a plurality of the remaining 90 percent of allegations, the CCRB only concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to determine whether misconduct occurred. And, as the Dym and Monahan cases illustrate, there are several reasons the CCRB might not substantiate otherwise concerning allegations — and the closing reports can shed light on those instances.

The NYPD’s history of stonewalling CCRB investigations raises additional questions about how well outcome data represent officer misconduct. From 2018 to 2020, the CCRB had particular trouble getting the NYPD to hand over evidence, specifically body-worn camera footage. In early 2019, the number of footage requests that remained open jumped from 14 percent to 95 percent, and over the next year and a half, the CCRB continued to complain of delays, the need for follow-up requests, and false NYPD reports that no video of an incident was available. When body-worn camera footage is available, the CCRB’s substantiation rates more than double.

Thus, details about the complaints filed against officers and the investigations into those complaints could enable the public to more fully evaluate the officers’ records. And while a number of CCRB records contain some narrative details, only closing reports hold all of the key information about the agency’s investigations in one place.

In the months after the repeal of 50-a, advocates and activists — including Wong and Teufel — began submitting public records requests for the closing reports. But the CCRB initially shut them down, citing aspects of state law that exempt sensitive information like victims’ names and non-final agency determinations and recommendations from public disclosure. Teufel and the Legal Aid Society appealed the decisions, and were denied again, prompting them to sue the CCRB for the documents in August and October of last year, respectively.

The CCRB finally relented. Around the turn of the year, it adopted a policy of releasing the closing reports via public records requests — with complainants’ information and investigators’ recommendations redacted — and settled the cases with Legal Aid and Teufel. Since then, it has slowly been releasing redacted versions of the reports.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the CCRB said that the agency “is committed to being as transparent as possible.”

“Our [Freedom of Information Law] team has worked diligently to release hundreds of closing reports in the last year and will continue working with the public to fulfill all requests as quickly as possible,” the statement said.

The NYPD did not respond to requests for comment.

More to Come

Though the CCRB has committed to releasing the reports, most won’t be available for years. Most of the delay comes from the labor-intensive process of redacting the documents, which are speckled with victims’ personal information and investigator recommendations.

According to Wong, the CCRB has agreed to provide the Legal Aid Society with at least 80 closing reports per month among the roughly 4,000 it has requested as part of its lawsuit, and Legal Aid is currently working on a way to publish a database of the reports it receives. Teufel and a small group of other civilian watchdogs have also been requesting and receiving closing reports, and are currently in their own negotiations with the agency to get as many released as quickly as possible. But the CCRB has received more than 90,000 complaints since 2006, and more than 8,400 since the beginning of 2020, so even releasing dozens or hundreds of reports a month, the agency isn’t hitting anywhere near the pace it would need to make all of the reports public anytime soon.

“For our [public records] request alone, it is going to take several years to complete,” said Wong. “They need to find a way to do the redactions faster,” she said, suggesting staff increases and software as potential ways that the agency could expedite the processing.

According to the CCRB spokesperson, the agency’s “long-term goal” is to automatically publish the closing reports on its website.

Released closing reports are already making waves. In April, the civil rights organization LatinoJustice published a report based on case files, including closing reports, from CCRB investigations involving 181 NYPD officers who were found to have lied to the CCRB. It found that nearly one half of the officers who lied to the agency were never disciplined — neither for their false statements nor for the underlying conduct they were attempting to cover up. It also found that the NYPD failed to inform defense attorneys whose clients were arrested by the lying cops about the officers’ records.

According to Wong, closing reports’ potential use in court makes releasing the rest of them especially urgent. In addition to being in the public interest, they are valuable for defense attorneys whose clients allege cop misconduct. Without the details in the closing reports, it’s much more difficult to parse out whether an officer has a history of allegations relevant to a particular case.

In addition to public records requests, the Legal Aid Society had been litigating over whether prosecutors should be compelled to hand over closing reports as part of the discovery process in criminal cases — “so that our criminal defense attorneys are able to cross-examine officers with actually usable information, not just these perfunctory summaries,” said Wong.

Teufel hopes that the increased transparency will lead to more robust discipline for abusive officers. “People can see that the disciplinary process is not working,” he said. “That’s really what it is — from beginning to end, we can show now that the NYPD is not taking the steps necessary to get these officers off the streets.”