For years, one of the main issues facing the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the independent oversight agency of the New York Police Department, was that it had virtually no evidence. Citizens would accuse cops of doing something bad, but would almost never have anything approaching proof—legally, at least, "He did this!" or, "You gotta believe me!" wasn't a significant enough reason for the Board to investigate.
So officers walked off scot-free in an overwhelming majority of the cases. Without the goods to make its case, the subpoena-wielding agency was left powerless, and gained a reputation around town for being something of a joke.
Thanks to the smartphone, that seems to be changing.
On Wednesday, the CCRB released a report that heralded videos as the main reason September 2015 saw the most substantiated claims—29 percent of those investigated—made against the NYPD in the oversight agency's 22-year history. In other words, over a quarter of civilians' complaints led to solid proof that a police officer committed misconduct according to a preponderence of the evidence.
The number of substantiated claims has risen sharply in recent years, after only 8 percent were substantiated in 2011. September was also the sixth straight month that the rate of claims being legitimated was above 20 percent; in fact, for cases that involved video in September, 51 percent lead to substantiation, as opposed to 22 percent for those without—a drastic departure from the past.
"We live in an age where video evidence is obtained through various surveillance sources and bystanders who record police-civilian encounters," CCRB Executive Director Mina Malik said in a statement. "The availability of video evidence is key in some cases and is driving the current increase in substantiations."
Of course, just as video evidence can help victims of brutality pursue justice, it can bail out cops who claim they're being smeared. As Malik put it, "This evidence has proven to be extremely useful in resolving cases for both officers and civilians alike."
Police Commissioner William Bratton claims to be on board with videos helping to keep cops and citizens accountable. As Bratton said in an interview on MSNBC Monday, "I think that's a positive, because it will in fact, hopefully, control police behavior when inappropriate, but also will control public behavior, when the public understands that their acts of stupidity, their acts of confrontation, their acts of brutality are also being caught on tape."
In one of his first addresses to the Department last year as the city's top cop, Bratton made it clear that he'd go after what he described as "the brutal, the corrupt, the racist, the incompetent" officers under his watch. Perhaps that was a nod to guys like Daniel Pantaleo, the cop behind the filmed death of Eric Garner on Staten Island in July 2014. Pantaleo had been sued multiple times in the past for allegedly infringing upon the rights of black men. But he avoided indictment under a grand jury in the Garner case despite the video evidence—a reminder that smartphones are no panacea for what ails policing in America.
Still, it seems like all these questionable encounters being filmed by the public is paying dividends in New York.
After rejecting CCRB guidance at roughly the same rate as his predecessor, Ray Kelly, early in his term, Bratton has played nicer with the agency in recent months, working with the review board to discipline more offers, albeit with generally lenient punishments.
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The apparent shift in thinking at 1 Police Plaza came full circle last month with the James Blake incident. A video that went viral showed an undercover officer, James Frascatore, pile-driving the famous former tennis player outside of his hotel before questioning. It was a sting gone terribly wrong, and Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio promptly issued apologies on the city's behalf. "This shouldn't have happened and he shouldn't have been treated that way," Bratton later told local broadcaster NY-1. (The officer was subsequently placed on desk duty.)
Bratton has also begun to outfit cops in some precincts with body cameras as part of a court-ordered pilot program. And earlier this month, the NYPD announced a new use of force policy that will require officers record every instance and interaction they have with a citizen. This change comes in addition to stop-and-frisk receipts that theoretically could discourage cops from harassing people of color.
Overall, the CCRB has seen claims significantly drop over the last two years, signaling either a citizenry that is more targeted in its beefs—or a Department that is starting to get its shit together.
Critics will continue to bemoan the questionable relationship between the CCRB chair, Richard Emery, and Bratton, as well as the fact that two major vacancies on the Board limit its ability to function. But it's safe to say that there is now some kind of correlation between New Yorkers' smartphone habits and routine policing. That might be old news to Copwatch chapters spread across the five boroughs, but to the average citizen, it represents a welcome change.
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