The New York Police Department must overhaul its response to large demonstrations and better train officers to control crowds while preserving the right to protest, according to a report released on Monday by an oversight body that examines police misconduct.
The report concludes a monthslong review by the Civilian Complaint Review Board that included hundreds of investigations into clashes between protesters and the police during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that swept the city following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis officer in May of 2020.
Thousands turned out for protests that month and into June. The gatherings were scattered and sporadic, often continuing well into the night. While most protests were peaceful,some rioting broke out, resulting in smashed store windows, looted shops and police vehicles set on fire. Protesters were often accused of assaulting officers, who corralled them with pepper spray and batons.
During and after the protests, the board received about 750 complaints of police misconduct, and launched investigations into 321 of them, according to the report.
As a result of its findings, the board recommended discipline in 146 cases involving 138 officers. So far, Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell — who has the final say on discipline — administered punishment in 42 cases. She has yet to decide on the others, the report said.
A Police Department at a Critical Moment
The New York Police Department is facing challenges on several fronts.
- A Hefty Price Tag: An analysis of city data shows that the Police Department paid $121 million in police misconduct settlements — the highest amount since 2018.
- A Botched Prosecution: The perjury trial of a former detective was meant to shine a spotlight on police misconduct. Instead, it will be remembered as a highly public case of wrongdoing by prosecutors.
- Looking Abroad: The trial of Abdullah el-Faisal provided a window into how the Police Department’s secretive Intelligence Bureau, which has faced controversy over the years, pursued an international figure.
- Deborah Danner Shooting: A year after an administrative trial, Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell is still weighing whether to fire Sgt. Hugh Barry, who killed a mentally ill woman in her Bronx bedroom in 2016.
In the report, the board argued that police officers should be better equipped and trained to handle large demonstrations, and should establish a clear chain of command.
“Given what is happening across the country regarding reproductive rights, immigration, affordable housing and police brutality, people will continue to protest for their rights,” said Arva Rice, the interim chair of the board. “It is key for New York to know how to best respond to protests, especially protests against police misconduct.”
Carrie B. Talansky, the Police Department’s acting deputy commissioner of legal matters, wrote to the board that officers faced “acts of lawlessness including wide-scale rioting, mass chaos, violence and destruction” while trying to facilitate peaceful protests.
At the peak of the demonstrations, 22,000 officers were deployed in a single day, Ms. Talansky wrote, adding that about 400 were injured during the protests and 250 hospitalized.
Each complaint can contain several allegations, and the board found sufficient evidence of misconduct in only about 15 percent of those, she said.
“N.Y.P.D. response to the protests during the summer of 2020 was largely professional, commendable, and responsive to the unique circumstances that were present at the time,” Ms. Talansky added.
What the Board Found
According to the report, some officers exhibited the following behaviors:
Used batons to strike protesters in violation of Police Department guidelines.
Used pepper spray indiscriminately.
Covered up their names and shield numbers.
Failed to turn on body-worn cameras.
What the Board Recommended
The report provided policy prescriptions to improve performance in future protests:
Training for every officer in crowd control, including the proper use of pepper spray and batons.
Rethinking the tactics and tools officers use during demonstrations to mitigate risks to people and property, and to preserve the right to peaceful protest.
Adequate documentation of where officers are deployed.
Several of the city’s law enforcement unions criticized the report hours after its release.
Paul DiGiacomo, the head of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, said in a statement that the report failed to acknowledge the hundreds of officers injured.
Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the Police Benevolent Association, said the board wrongfully blamed officers for the actions of protesters that prompted officers to respond and for the Police Department’s management failures.
“We are still awaiting accountability for the city leaders who sent us out with no plan and no support,” he said in a statement.
How the C.C.R.B. Works
Independent bodies that review police work are rare in the United States.
In New York, any resident can file a complaint with the board, which is an independent city agency. If members believe a complaint has merit, the board has the authority to begin an investigation.
The agency can only examine allegations of excessive force, abuse of authority, discourtesy and offensive language. Its investigators conduct interviews and collect evidence to see whether to recommend discipline or not.
(Cases can also result in other outcomes, including “unable to determine,” meaning there is not sufficient evidence to decide whether or not an officer committed misconduct.)
Once investigators have concluded their inquiry, the board reviews a final report on the case and votes on a recommendation. The case is then turned over to the police commissioner for a final decision.