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Police Policy Reform – Systemic Change to NY Criminal Justice

City Bar Recommends Areas for Reform by
New York State and City Leaders

In a report titled “Police Reform Efforts in New York State and New York City: More to Do,” the New York City Bar Association argues that “substantial and systemic change is the only appropriate response to address abusive – and sometimes deadly – use of force by police officers, often deployed without consequence, and the only way to ensure that police officers are held to the highest standard as public servants,” and outlines several areas in which policymakers should focus on reforms.

New York State and New York City have seen an unprecedented number of police reform bills enacted in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing nationwide public protests. However, “even in the midst of protests about police violence and calls for racial justice, one can clearly see unnecessary and abusive use of force aimed by the police at protesters,” the City Bar writes. “In order to permanently alter this cycle, sweeping changes are required, bolstered by the commitment of individuals who occupy leadership positions in the field.”

In furtherance of the City Bar’s work to support a fair, equitable and anti-racist criminal justice system, this report is offered to policymakers to identify a few areas that call for additional consideration and action. The report is divided into two sections: Section I focuses on the reactive processes and policies that follow allegations of police misconduct; Section II focuses on proactive policies and makes recommendations intended to reduce violence and police misconduct.

The report points out that in most jurisdictions outside New York City, the discipline process of police officers is subject to union negotiation, while within the City such decisions reside with the Commissioner of the NYPD. “Both forms of discipline are beset by inordinate delays and, often, a failure of consequence for police misconduct” states the report. “We hear, again and again, that police leadership and rank-and-file officers support the discipline and removal of ‘bad apples,’ but the actual results fall well short and public trust suffers.”

In recommending that the State Legislature conduct public hearings to examine whether the State should ban from collective bargaining the process of disciplining officers for misconduct, the report suggests that public hearings “can explore studies that have found: (i) that collective bargaining by law enforcement officers regarding discipline leads to an increase in violence and incidents of misconduct; (ii) that the largest predictor of a police officer’s use of force is whether the officer has been found to use excessive force in the past; and (iii) that unchecked use of force is contagious, and that officers who use excessive force create a culture that leads others in their immediate team to use excessive force as well.” The report adds that “[o]ne can be a supporter of organized labor while also recognizing that we “need a release valve to get bad officers out.”

In New York City, “in many cases substantiated by the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), the NYPD does not discipline officers beyond providing verbal admonishments or additional training or departs downward from the discipline recommended by the CCRB, and even internal NYPD recommendations, with little to no transparency,” the report states. Work has already been done to study and offer smart, comprehensive policy recommendations to reform the NYPD’s disciplinary process. Some of these recommendations have been adopted, and the report acknowledges NYPD’s recent release of a draft disciplinary matrix for public comment, but the City Bar urges “policymakers, other agencies and members of the public” to continue to make inquiries and “hold NYPD accountable.”

Other recommendations include establishing an independent prosecutor’s office for police misconduct, which would address perceptions of conflicts of interest among district attorneys’ offices; and requiring information-sharing among DA’s offices in New York City when they determine that an officer has acted in such a way that disclosure of his or her actions may be required under the law in future cases.

Proactive policy recommendations include the establishment of alternative responses in areas outside the police’s areas of expertise or training. “Specialized personnel such as violence interventionists, social workers, mediators, trained community members and mental health care professionals are better positioned to answer routine calls that currently are handled by the NYPD. Circumstances that require the response of armed personnel should be carefully considered,” the report states. Other recommendations include: reviewing mental health and ableist practices; reducing and reimagining school safety officers; changing the NYPD’s use of statistics to focus on keeping communities safe and whole rather than on maximizing enforcement and punishment; enhancing and diversifying police training; increasing scrutiny of the purchase of military equipment by law enforcement and reducing the use of military tactics during protests; and continuing to decriminalize low-level crimes.

The report by the City Bar’s Committees on Civil Rights; Corrections and Community Reentry; Criminal Courts; Criminal Justice Operations; and Pro Bono and Legal Services is based in large part on the experiences of lawyers representing individuals in those communities, as well as lawyers representing the State and the City, and working at other government agencies, in academia, and in private practice. “We recognize, however, that no conversation on police reform is complete without the important voices of police officers and community members themselves. We offer these suggestions with that understanding and in the spirit of adding to, and hopefully advancing, the larger conversation,” the City Bar writes.

The report concludes: “In this moment it is incumbent on those in power to do everything they can to ensure that the protests and ensuing public debates do not end up being a squandered opportunity to create real change. Together we can achieve a systematic re-configuration of policing in New York State and New York City for the benefit of all stakeholders.”

The report can be read here: https://bit.ly/3jeki6d

About the Association
The mission of the New York City Bar Association, which was founded in 1870 and has 25,000 members, is to equip and mobilize a diverse legal profession to practice with excellence, promote reform of the law, and uphold the rule of law and access to justice in support of a fair society and the public interest in our community, our nation, and throughout the world. www.nycbar.org