When New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced the formation of a new band of gun crackdown police units, known as Neighborhood Safety Teams, earlier this year, he vowed that they would consist only of upstanding officers.
Addressing concerns that the new teams would replicate the misconduct of their predecessors — the plainclothes anti-crime units, which accounted for around three in 10 NYPD killings between 2000 and 2018 despite making up roughly 6 percent of the force — Adams promised that the city would be in a “constant state of monitoring” to ensure that the units would contribute to public safety without “the abuses that we witnessed in the past.” One reporter quoted him as guaranteeing that Neighborhood Safety Team officers would have “squeaky clean” records.
The NYPD and the mayor’s office have refused to release a roster of those assigned to the teams, forcing the public to take officials’ word that they’re composed only of reputable cops. But in May, New York Focus found a workaround: identifying which officers have undergone Neighborhood Safety Team training.
Despite Adams’s reassurances, the investigation found that many of the trainees had histories of complaints for excessive force and abuse of authority: 70 percent of the trained officers had at least one known, closed complaint filed against them, and 13 percent had at least five.
The mayor’s office declined to answer questions for that initial report. But when asked about the findings at a press conference, Adams demurred, pointing out that investigations into complaints against NYPD cops often don’t turn up enough evidence to validate them.
“There’s a difference between complaints and substantiated complaints,” Adams said. He went on to assert that, in his experience as a former police officer, people who commit crimes try to game the system by filing frivolous complaints against dedicated officers.
“What I have noticed during my days of policing is that, if an officer is someone that’s committed to a facility, or a house, or a block, and they are aggressively doing their job, not allowing tenants be harassed, not allowing people to sell drugs on corners, the bad guys have figured that out — ‘let’s just call in a complaint on them,’” Adams said.
“If it’s substantiated, that’s one thing. If it’s just a complaint, that’s another thing,” the mayor continued. “So let’s drill into those complaints.”
New York Focus did drill into them — and found that the Neighborhood Safety Team trainees are, on average, even greater outliers when it comes to substantiated complaints. Whereas the average Neighborhood Safety Team-trained cop has a slightly higher number of overall complaints than the average NYPD officer, the trainees average nearly twice the number of substantiated complaints as the department as a whole.
(City officials have stressed that not every officer who undergoes Neighborhood Safety Team training joins a unit. But when narrowing the list to those who have taken both of the NYPD’s two gun unit-specific courses, the overlap is likely significant: At the time of the initial investigation, NYPD data listed 207 officers as having taken both courses, while the department said that 208 officers had been assigned to the teams.)
Furthermore, there is little evidence that supports Adams’s claim that people who regularly commit crimes file complaints as a distraction tactic. Asked by New York Focus, his office did not supply evidence backing up the assertion. A former head of the agency responsible for investigating most civilian complaints against NYPD officers, Mina Malik, told New York Focus that there has been “no statistical information to support a wide-ranging gaming of the system.”
The insights into the mayor’s remarks come to the fore as questions arise about other Adams-era NYPD initiatives — like the mass deployment of officers, including undercover cops, to the subway system — and whether Neighborhood Safety Team patrols overlap with those initiatives.
In response to a list of questions, the mayor’s office referred New York Focus to Alfred Baker, the NYPD’s head of media relations. In a phone interview, Baker extolled the Neighborhood Safety Teams’ work as “instrumental in achieving some of the violent crime reductions that we’ve seen.” (Per NYPD statistics, the first six months of 2022 saw 12 percent fewer shootings than the same period in 2021 — though 20 percent more than in 2020, and experts warn against drawing conclusions from year-over-year crime data.) According to Baker, the NYPD “has taken more than 3,700 guns off the street” this year, of which the Neighborhood Safety Teams are responsible for about 150.
Baker also praised the Neighborhood Safety Team training. “It’s really good training that they’ve gotten, and it’s state of the art, it’s forward leaning,” he said. “It incorporates the best thinking and the best reforms that the NYPD has in many ways been a leader in even [since] before some of the more widespread focus on policing that’s necessary now.”
New York Focus asked Baker for written materials from those training courses — as well as, again, official Neighborhood Safety Team rosters — but has not heard back.
Gun Unit Trainees Have Higher Rates of Substantiated Complaints
An independent city agency — the Civilian Complaint Review Board, or CCRB — investigates most civilian grievances against NYPD officers.
In digging into a complaint, CCRB investigators parse out the individual allegations of misconduct, and, at the investigation’s conclusion, the board assigns each allegation a final outcome. If the board finds that an officer engaged in misconduct, an allegation is “substantiated.” There are other outcome categories for when there isn’t enough evidence to substantiate an allegation, for when the board finds that an officer likely didn’t commit misconduct, and for when an investigator can’t identify an accused officer, among others.
Adams asserted that one needs to focus on complaints with “substantiated” allegations when assessing officers’ records. According to CCRB data, the board has substantiated complaints against more than 20 percent of cops who had taken both Neighborhood Safety Team training courses as of mid-May, compared to only 12 percent of active NYPD officers. The gun unit-trained officers had 1.75 times the average number of complaints containing substantiated allegations as the average NYPD officer: 0.28 compared to 0.16.
Six Neighborhood Safety Team trainees had three or more complaints with substantiated allegations, a feat shared with less than 1 percent of active NYPD officers.
Of the substantiated allegations against the gun unit-trained officers, 79 were for abuse of authority — like illegal stops and searches, threats, and retaliatory arrests — and 12 were accusations of excessive force.
The Neighborhood Safety Team trainees also average more overall complaints — substantiated or otherwise — than the NYPD as a whole: 2.16 compared to the 1.93 department-wide.
Who Gums Up Complaint Investigations: ‘Bad Guys’ or the NYPD?
According to CCRB data, since 2006, the board has only substantiated 10 percent of resolved allegations. And NYPD backers like Adams have pointed to that low substantiation rate to downplay the importance of civilian complaint histories against NYPD officers. But lack of substantiation doesn’t necessarily mean that a civilian complaint was phony or overblown: In a plurality of the remaining allegations, the CCRB only found that there wasn’t enough evidence to determine whether misconduct occurred.
As New York Focus reported last month, newly public CCRB documents are beginning to shed light on the many ways that concerning allegations can go unsubstantiated. For example, the board came to no conclusion on 55 allegations levied against former NYPD Chief of Department Terrance Monahan during 2020 protests because he retired before the investigations were completed, despite the documents showing that he authorized officers to use pepper spray, batons, and other forms of force to “clear the streets” of protesters and media. And Lieutenant Eric Dym, who has 28 known, closed complaints containing 56 substantiated allegations of wrongdoing, was let off the hook for excessive force allegations because his fellow officers claimed they “did not observe” — and there was lack of video evidence of — him slamming a woman’s head against a police car while arresting her for allegedly kicking a taxi.
Loyda Colon, executive director of the Justice Committee, an anti-police violence organization that facilitates advocacy, cop watch, and victim support programs, also pointed to the case of former Officer Richard Haste, who racked up six complaints containing 10 allegations — including for physical force — over a 13-month period before shooting and killing 18-year-old Ramarley Graham while trying to arrest him for marijuana possession. The CCRB wasn’t able to substantiate any of those prior allegations.
Additionally, the NYPD itself — rather than any “bad guys” — has a history of gumming up CCRB investigations. From 2018 to 2020, the NYPD refused to share much of its body camera footage with the CCRB; in May 2020, the department complied with only 16 percent of CCRB video requests. When body-worn camera footage is available, both the CCRB’s substantiation rate and the rate at which investigators “reach a clear determination” of the facts of an incident roughly double.
In August 2020, a ProPublica investigation found that the NYPD had also been regularly withholding warrants, arrest records, police station cell manifests, officer injury reports, and other records from the CCRB. And for two months that year, ProPublica found, the NYPD allowed officers to refuse to be interviewed by CCRB investigators.
Even when the NYPD eventually releases evidence, it often takes its time doing so: The proportion of CCRB body worn camera footage requests the NYPD fulfilled within 20 days dropped from 96 percent in 2018 to 43 percent in 2019. And that lost time can be crucial for an investigation.
“Investigators need to strike while the iron is hot. Cases don’t get better with time,” Mina Malik, who headed the CCRB from January 2015 to November 2016, told New York Focus over email. “Witnesses’ memories fade, crucial evidence like video footage can be lost or destroyed, or people may lose interest in participating in the investigation because their case is taking too long to resolve.”
When asked about Adams’s assertion that “committed” cops rack up high numbers of complaints because people who commit crimes file them as a distraction tactic, Malik responded that that was unlikely. “While a nefarious motive is something that would be looked at in the context of our investigations into police misconduct, … there was no statistical information to support a wide-ranging gaming of the system,” she said.
Embedded in Adams’s claim is a sentiment held among some NYPD backers that, for veteran officers, lengthy complaint histories are more or less unavoidable — that the more interaction an officer has with people committing crimes, the more complaints they are going to rack up, irrespective of how well they follow procedure. Speaking to New York Focus in May, former NYPD Commander Corey Pegues called that logic “BS.”
Malik, too, finds that line of thinking problematic. “I don’t believe statistically this holds water,” she said. “In my experience, many long-tenured officers do not have lengthy complaint histories. Excusing lengthy complaint histories by saying ‘it’s unavoidable’ is not enough and can be an excuse for misconduct.”
Despite repeated emails, a CCRB spokesperson did not answer questions for this article.
The NYPD Still Won’t Release the Neighborhood Safety Team Roster
When asked about Neighborhood Safety Team trainees’ complaint histories, both the mayor’s office and Baker of the NYPD stressed that not every officer who takes Neighborhood Safety Team training is deployed to the teams. According to Baker, the NYPD has opened Neighborhood Safety Team training to officers who are not going to be deployed to the units for their own professional development. Currently, there are 204 officers deployed to the Neighborhood Safety Teams and an additional 814 who have taken some form of Neighborhood Safety Team training. As of mid-May, there were 208 officers assigned to the units and 207 who were listed as having taken both training courses.
But the NYPD has still refused to release the official rosters of Neighborhood Safety Team cops. According to Colon, families of people killed by the NYPD — including the father of Antonio Williams, who was killed by officers from a Neighborhood Safety Teams predecessor unit in 2019 — requested a list of Neighborhood Safety Team officer names and disciplinary histories during a meeting with Adams and other city officials in April. At the meeting, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Philip Banks said that information on the officers that “can legally be released, will be released,” according to Colon.
New York Focus has also repeatedly asked for Neighborhood Safety Team rosters, including via public records requests. In May and April, the NYPD denied those requests, citing exemptions for “non-routine techniques and procedures” and information that “could endanger the life or safety” of officers or enable people “to modify their conduct to evade or undermine the NYPD’s capabilities.”
The lack of transparency has only led to additional questions surrounding NYPD street policing tactics. Last month, photos and videos showing NYPD officers dressed in FedEx, Amazon delivery, Metropolitan Transit Authority, mechanic, and other worker uniforms patrolling the subways made rounds on social media. (An Amazon spokesperson told New York Focus that the company was not made aware that the NYPD would be using its uniforms for undercover work; FedEx did not respond to multiple emails.)
From ICE Watch: Video of cops disguising themselves as delivery workers at a subway station to catch fair evaders. @unfarenyc says Myrtle/Broadway station.
Is this not entrapment? pic.twitter.com/ggCsh4GF6W
— Talia Jane (@taliaotg) June 29, 2022
In one video, originally posted to TikTok, a man claims he was arrested by two undercover cops — one dressed as a construction worker and another dressed as a Volvo mechanic — for carrying a box cutter while commuting home from work. When asked about the incident, the NYPD told New York Focus that “Transit Officers conduct plainclothes patrols due to the unique environment and challenges presented in the New York City Transit system. These plain clothes officers concentrate their efforts on deterring criminal activity such as pick pockets and sexual offenders.”
While the construction worker did not have a badge visible, the badge number of the mechanic revealed him to be Sergeant Marcos Rodriguez of the NYPD’s 33rd Transit District. According to NYPD records, Rodriguez is one of five transit cops from his district who, as of mid-May, had taken both Neighborhood Safety Team training courses. When asked whether Neighborhood Safety Teams had been patrolling undercover, the NYPD simply responded, “No.” On Monday, Motherboard reported that the NYPD was refusing to release records related to the undercover subway operations.
In addition to the Neighborhood Safety Team rosters, the city has also refused to say whether any officers from the anti-crime units — the new gun units’ predecessors — are assigned to the revived teams, and the NYPD has refused to release old anti-crime unit rosters. The initial New York Focus investigation found that nearly half of the Neighborhood Safety Team trainees — including nearly nine in 10 with five or more known complaints — had also been trained for plainclothes roles at some point in their career.
According to Malik, in addition to public oversight, the lack of information about which officers are on the Neighborhood Safety Teams can hamper CCRB investigations.
“The CCRB should be given officers’ specific duty assignments so that CCRB investigators have the most accurate information regarding an accused officer’s specific duties at the time of the incident,” she said.
“Like prosecutors and other members of law enforcement, police officers are public servants and their assignments should be public, as long as the disclosure does not jeopardize the officer’s safety.”
Correction: Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Philip Banks, not Mayor Eric Adams, told families of people killed by the NYPD that information on Neighborhood Safety Team officers that “can legally be released, will be released.”