Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Internal Affairs Bureau130
Despite public pronouncements that the department is taking allegations of excessive force seriously, it appears that officers are still not being disciplined by the police department after the CCRB has substantiated complaints. During 1996, the police department disposed of 187 CCRB-substantiated complaints; there were only six guilty findings after a departmental trial, with ten found not guilty.131 There were far fewer departmental trials in 1995 and 1996 as compared to earlier years, with many more complaints dismissed prior to trial for lack of prima facie evidence or the expiration of statutes of limitations. For example, in 1994 there were seventy trials, but in 1995 and 1996 combined, there were only thirty-three.132 Critics of the police department claim this decline reflects police officials' efforts to ignore the CCRB's findings altogether.
Human Rights Watch attempted to obtain information from the Internal Affairs Bureau through interviews and correspondence. No high-ranking official agreed to meet with Human Rights Watch as requested in August 1996, though a sergeant, George Tom (hereinafter "IAB representative") was able to answer some of our questions.133 A letter requesting very basic information about the operations of the IAB was sent to IAB in September 1996; a copy of the letter was sent again in November, and the same request was submitted in June 1997 to the Deputy Commissioner for Public Information. Human Rights Watch also made repeated calls to obtain answers to the questions posed in the letter. In late June 1997, Chief Charles V. Campisi of the IAB provided a partial response to the letter that wasoriginally sent to him in September 1996.134 According to police-abuse experts in the city, the difficulty Human Rights Watch encountered in obtaining information is typical.
Although the IAB representative told Human Rights Watch in January 1997 that the size of the IAB staff is not public information, Chief Campisi replied to this question, stating that there is a staff of 615 in the IAB, with 487 internal investigators.135 Campisi explained that the IAB handles both criminal and administrative inquiries, with its investigations often serving as the primary criminal investigation of officers.
According to police department figures, there has been a decrease in the number of shootings by officers, and the city's force shoots suspects less than in many other large police departments. In 1996, there were 254 incidents of on-duty shootings and sixty-three off-duty shootings; seventy-four suspects were shot, thirty fatally.136 In 1997, there were 253 incidents (on- and off-duty combined).137 Twenty individuals were killed by shots fired by officers in 1997.138
After a December 1997 fatal shooting by an officer who was involved in more shootings than any other officer on the force (See Whitfield case, above), the department began monitoring officers involved in shootings.139 It was reported that 250 officers involved in three or more shootings would be more closely monitored; seven officers reportedly have been involved in six or more shootings.140 Commissioner Safir and civil rights activists in the city reportedly were surprised that the department's firearms discharge board did not already monitor officers involved in multiple shootings.141
In response to a Human Rights Watch inquiry about deaths in custody, Campisi reported that the IAB only began tracking deaths in custody in 1996, and that there were forty-four cases that year; as of late June 1997, twenty cases in 1997 had been investigated by IAB.142
The linkage between civil lawsuits and the initiation of an IAB investigation is unclear. According to the New York City Law Department, "...[C]oncerning notification procedures where a lawsuit alleges police misconduct, the Law Department does not have a formal procedure for notifying IAB or the CCRB of such lawsuits."143 It appears that any such notification is indirect, at best. In correspondence with Human Rights Watch, the IAB's chief states that, "in situations where an officer is served court papers for civil litigation involving excessive force, the officer must submit to his or her commanding officer a request for indemnification by the City of New York. This request triggers an investigation by the commanding officer concerned and `conferral' with the Internal Affairs Bureau."144 The IAB did not respond to Human Rights Watch's questions regarding whether civil lawsuits against officers are compiled as part of the department's officer monitoring system to identify "at-risk" officers, but according to othersources, few lawsuits are even recorded in an officer's personnel records or are disciplined, while taxpayers cover the cost of misconduct.145
For example, sixteen-year-old Yong Xin Huang was shot and killed by an NYPD officer in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn in March 1995.146 Huang and two other boys were playing with a pellet gun; a police officer put his 9 millimeter Glock semi-automatic on or near the boy's head, and the gun allegedly discharged accidentally. There were also impact wounds to the top of Huang's head, face and forehead that may have resulted for his head being pushed into a glass door. In May 1995, a grand jury concluded that no criminal charges should be filed against the officer involved, and the officer was not disciplined. The Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence included the case as part of a March 1996 report presented to U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter regarding police violence against Asian-Americans, but they received no response and do not believe any federal investigation or prosecution took place on the case.147 In March 1996, the city agreed to pay $400,000 in damages to the family in an out-of-court settlement.
The IAB representative told Human Rights Watch that he believed the CCRB only handles "low-level" discourtesy allegations or ethnic/racial slurs, and that IAB does not share information with the CCRB at all.148 He stated that allegations of domestic violence and "bar fights" involving officers were of a "less serious" nature and would be dealt with at the bureau level, explaining that IAB only deals with firing offenses and possibly criminal allegations; if the IAB investigates an incident and it is not prosecuted criminally, the IAB will use the information to pursue the case administratively.
According to press reports, in an eighteen-month period Commissioner Safir dismissed 106 officers; only eight dismissals were related to excessive force charges,and three of those were tried on criminal charges in highly publicized cases.149 For two of the three tried - Paolo Colecchia and Frank Speringo - dismissal was mandatory under state law following their convictions for fatal shootings. Officer Livoti was the third officer dismissed after standing trial, although he was acquitted.150 In an October 1997 statement submitted to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, however, Commissioner Safir claimed that he had dismissed thirty-five officers because they had committed excessive or "unnecessary" acts of force - most were dismissed following internal investigations rather than following a CCRB referral.151
According to Commissioner Safir, there are several monitoring systems that should hold officers who commit abuses accountable.152 A Force Monitoring Program utilizes computer tracking capabilities to identify officers who seem to be using excessive force repeatedly. A Civilian Complaint Reduction Program notifies commanders when an officer has generated a high number of complaints, and a Resisting Arrest Charge program highlights officers who lodge a high number of "resisting arrest" charges. Remedies under these programs include counseling, reassignment, training, heightened evaluations, and "special" monitoring, in which termination is likely. And in February 1997, a police committee was formed to examine officers with six or more civilian complaints during a five-year period.
There is no disciplinary sanction available between thirty days suspension and dismissal. The Mollen Commission recommended a new range of penalties,including fining officers found guilty of misconduct.153 In June 1995, the mayor and police department agreed with the proposal, but it was never enacted, even though it reportedly requires only an amendment to the administrative code.154 In September 1997, a "Police Disciplinary Bill" was pending in the state legislature that would allow the police commissioner to suspend without pay - for more than thirty days - officers charged with criminal offenses who have not been administratively investigated and disciplined; as it is, they can only be suspended for thirty days, after which they must be paid and are usually placed on desk duty pending the administrative investigation.155 The bill would also remove provisions allowing officers to wait up to forty-eight hours before providing their statements to investigators when they have been accused of misconduct.156
In one case, the department did not punish an officer but the city argued that it should not have to represent the same officer in a civil lawsuit stemming from a beating by the officer's partner because the officer had broken departmental rules by providing false statements and other misconduct relating to the beating. Officer Frank Bolusi was Officer Gerard Pitti's partner when Pitti encountered Victor Medina and his friends in Brooklyn in February 1992.157 Officer Pitti allegedly grabbed Medina and beat him with a nightstick, a radio and his fists. When Medina's friend yelled at the officer to stop beating him, the friend was briefly handcuffed. No one was arrested, and the friend wrote down Pitti's badge number. Medina went to the hospital with one ear hanging off and a collapsed lung. Pitti waslater convicted by a jury on assault charges for the beating but was not sentenced to jail time; at the time of sentencing, the judge mentioned that the supportive presence at the hearing of several local politicians was a factor in the sentencing.158
Pitti's partner, Officer Bolusi, testified at the trial that he never saw Medina, even though he was in the squad car with an open window.159 He claimed he was "catching up on paperwork" during the beating. As of late 1997, Bolusi had not been departmentally disciplined even though the city argued that it should not have to defend and indemnify Bolusi in the civil lawsuit stemming from this incident because he had broken departmental rules requiring him to testify fully and truthfully, to report any unusual occurrence while on patrol, and prohibiting him from making false statements.160 In the opinion of the judge presiding over the criminal case against Officer Pitti, Officer Bolusi had provided an "astounding" account of the incident.161
As described in the Mollen Commission report, the code of silence is thoroughly ingrained in the NYPD. "Officers who report misconduct are ostracized and harassed; become targets of complaints and even physical threats; and are made to fear that they will be left alone on the streets in a time of crisis."162 Officer Bernard Cawley testified to the Mollen Commission that he never feared that fellow officers might turn him in:
...it was the Blue Wall of Silence. Cops don't tell on cops. And if they did tell on them, just say if a cop decided to tell on me, his career's ruined. He's going to be labeled as a rat....And chances are if it comes down to it, they're going to let him get hurt.163
The inculcation of complete loyalty begins at the police academy, according to some officers. Said one, before the Mollen Commission, when asked when officers learn about the code of silence, "[I]t starts at the police academy and it just develops from there...It starts with the instructors telling you never to be a rat, never to give up your fellow officer...."164
In December 1996, the Commission to Combat Police Corruption, an independent agency created in 1995 by a mayoral executive order, studied how the NYPD disciplines its members who make false statements.165 That commission examined over one hundred cases processed through the NYPD's disciplinary system. The commission studied cases in which officers made false statements to avoid the consequences of an illegal search or the use of excessive force, or to cover up off-duty misconduct; the commission called these types of false statements "routine," in contrast to lies to cover up widespread financial corruption, as examined by the Mollen Commission. It found, "[T]he punishments traditionally meted out for false statements have been inadequate," and called for tougher punishments.166 Commissioner Safir did implement a policy change in December 1996 allowing him to dismiss officers if a police administrative judge finds that they have lied.167 But in an October 1997 New York Times article, Commissioner Safir's claim that he had dismissed eighteen officers for making false statements was undermined by internal police documents showing that few officers were dismissed for that offense alone; most who were dismissed faced other charges as well.168
In addition to officers' silence about individual cases, the department as a whole is unnecessarily secretive. In February 1997, two young men were shot and seriously injured by officers in upper Manhattan.169 Eighteen-year-old Robert Reynoso and seventeen-year-old Juval Green were shot after plainclothes officers say they heard shots fired and saw the young men running; the officers fired at the men, hitting both, but no weapons were found in their possession or on the scene afterward. Another bystander may have been shot and grazed by a stray bullet. He reportedly told a police officer he believed he had been shot, but was taken to the 30th Precinct station house and held overnight instead of being taken to a hospital. His trousers, which allegedly had a hole in them that would support his contention that he had been shot, were confiscated.
The names of the officers involved were kept secret, even from the young men's lawyer, and the department reportedly refused to disclose any information for at least two weeks following the shooting. A New York Times columnist obtained an internal memo that included the names of the officers who discharged their weapons and other information.170 The D.A.'s office was investigating, and the FBI was reportedly monitoring that investigation; no grand jury had been convened as of mid-May 1998.171
136 Sixty-four of seventy-four suspects who were shot were black or Hispanic, according to police figures; twenty-three of thirty fatalities were of minorities. Kocieniewski, "Police's use of deadly force in New York is low for nation," New York Times, January 2, 1998.
142 Letter to Human Rights Watch from Chief Charles V. Campisi, Internal Affairs Bureau, June 24, 1997. The police department spokesperson has provided deaths-in-custody statistics in the past, however. According to a June 1996 New York Newsday article, there were twenty-four deaths in custody in 1994 and twenty-one in 1995. Graham Rayman, "Report sees brutality in NYPD," New York Newsday, June 27, 1996. Deaths in custody may not involve misconduct by police officers.
144 Letter to Human Rights Watch from Chief Campisi, June 24, 1997. It appears that the purpose of this investigation is to decide whether the officer acted within the scope of duty and should, therefore, covered financially by the city; in the vast majority of cases the city does find accused officers' actions within the scope of duty.
145 Section 50(a) of the Civil Rights Law of New York State makes police personnel records confidential; they can be made public only with the authorization of the subject officer or a court order. Amnesty International, "Police brutality," p. 22.
147 Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, "Police violence in New York City's Asian American Communities," Submitted to U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter, March 12, 1996. Telephone interview with Hyun Lee, August 26, 1997.
151 Statement of Police Commissioner Howard Safir before the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, October 29, 1997. No definition was provided for what constitutes unnecessary acts of force. According to the Legal Affairs Bureau of the police department, the term "unnecessary" is not an official term used in department policies, but, as used in the commissioner's statement, meant force that was used when no force was justified at all, as opposed to "excessive" force used when force was justified. He was unable to provide a breakdown between the two types of force. Telephone inquiry, Sgt. Tom Tuffey of the legislative affairs unit of the Legal Affairs Bureau, April 22, 1998.
155 Michael Cooper, "4 officers accused in brutality case will not be allowed to return to duty," New York Times, September 8, 1997. The thirty-day rule meant that the officers accused in the Louima case, see above, had to begin to receive their salaries after thirty days because administrative actions had been on hold pending criminal prosecution of the officers. Because the commissioner did not want the officers to return to work, they were paid for not working.
156 Some police abuse experts have suggested that the forty-eight hour delay in obtaining statements from the target officer may be unhelpful because department investigators are able to pull together the facts before compelling the officer to provide information which would not be admissible in court.
157 Jim Dwyer, "Brutality is a crime oft ignored," New York Daily News, August 17, 1997; Dwyer, "The lies that bind police hurt us all," New York Daily News, October 13, 1996; "Officer convicted of hitting Brooklyn man," New York Times, February 1, 1995.
160 The court found that the city was not obligated to defend Bolusi even though the police department had not disciplined him for breaking departmental rules because the city's Corporation Counsel has authority regarding which officers it chooses to represent. "City has no duty to defend officer who sat by as partner assaulted man," New York Law Journal, January 17, 1997.
© June 1998
Human Rights Watch