​Is the NYPD Trying to Get Better at Policing Itself?

A decade after setting up a special unit to monitor the use of force by cops in Los Angeles, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton is importing the idea to NYC.

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Mar 18 2015, 10:21pm

Photo via Flickr user André Gustavo Stumpf

On November 3, 2000, the United States government adopted the Los Angeles Police Department. The LAPD, undermined by the video of Rodney King's 1991 bloody beating—among other high-profile incidents—had drawn a full-fledged review by the feds that exposed systematic excessive force violations. After years of negotiation, the two parties decided on what is known as a consent decree: Instead of a lawsuit, the LAPD would be watched over by Washington for five years straight. That way, the enforced reform measures couldn't be totally half-assed.

One of the decree stipulations was to create an internal division in charge of monitoring and investigating police shootings, like the fatal shooting earlier this month of a homeless man in broad daylight. It was originally called the "Critical Incident Investigation Division," and, when Bill Bratton assumed the role of Commissioner in 2002, the division was a year old. By 2004, Bratton had restructured the unit, bestowing it with a new title: "Force Investigation Division."

Now, just over ten years later, he plans to build the same thing in New York City.

On Tuesday night, the Staten Island Advance reported that the NYPD will be establishing a "Force Investigation Division" led by Inspector John Sprague, the head of Staten Island's Detectives Bureau. The borough was home to the infamous Eric Garner chokehold back in July, which set off months of protests in the city and around the country. Afterwards, Bratton, who rejoined the NYPD as police commissioner last year, actually sent a team of officers to Los Angeles for training. His old department there, he said, has "the most contemporary policy on use-of-force training."

As of now, details of this new endeavor are sparse, and the NYPD has yet to respond to a request for more information. But we can look to the LAPD Force Investigation Division (FID) for insight into how it might operate.

The LA unit is "responsible for the investigation of all incidents involving the use of deadly force of an LAPD officer." This includes any incidents that leads to an arrestee being hospitalized, or the death of any arrestee by accident or while in custodial care, as well as animal shootings. The division is split into three sections, with an administrative section set aside for review and oversight.

Currently in New York City, cases of deadly force end up in front of what's called the Civilian Complaints Review Board (CCRB), as well as the Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB)—the latter, of course, located inside the NYPD. Per the initial report of the new, independent inspector general tasked with keeping an eye on the department, we now know what families of victims have said for years: Those two agencies are not very reliable when it comes to pursuing justice. In numerous cases involving chokeholds, for instance, police officers were let off the hook, or received a lesser punishment from Bratton's predecessor, Ray Kelly, and policing recommendations were basically lost in a bureaucratic haze.

The new division will be specifically geared toward hearing out the next Eric Garner or Akai Gurley disaster. However, if the CCRB and IAB have failed in the past, how can we trust that these fresh watchmen will be better than the ones?

Aidge Patterson is a member of the Cop Watch Alliance. As a part of People's Justice, the New York–based organization offers video and filming workshops to help citizens watch the cops in their own neighborhood. In post–Eric Garner New York, the idea is to take matters into your hand; if the cops refuse to police themselves, you can just go ahead and add your own documentative dose of iPhone accountability. So when I first told Patterson about the new unit, he was a bit surprised.

"My initial thought is that this is still just about the police being able to 'police themselves' (similarly to the idea of body cameras on officers), which we have seen, time and time again, will not lead to justice," Patterson said.

The activist pointed out that NYPD Commissioner Bratton has consistently sought to make some internal tweaks rather than open things up to independent oversight. In the recent past, Bratton has called for the retraining of the police force and more body cameras on uniformed officers. His latest innovation is ShotSpotter, a new brand of surveillance technology that will use 300 sensors to triangulate shootings within 25 meters of their origin so cops will know exactly where to look. But to Patterson, the fact that these measures come from inside 1 Police Plaza means that they just can't be trusted.

"I would argue that, regardless if what the NYPD does to investigate themselves, it does not change the fact that we need independent, special prosecutors," he said. "And that we still need to hold the police accountable ourselves in our communities, through copwatching and other organizing tactics."

When I asked Joseph Giacalone, a former NYPD Detective Sergeant and law enforcement expert, how we're supposed to trust this new unit, he said simply, "You can't." But to him, the problem is not the lack of accountability—it's the opposite.

"They already have shooting mechanisms in place," he said of New York cops. "You may have better investigators on the case," if the Detectives' Bureau is involved instead of internal affairs, "but these cases are already investigated by the IAB, which is such a separate, secretive unit that most cops fear it ever getting involved. There are no problems as far as I'm concerned."

According to Giacalone, the problem remains training, which needs to be adjusted to better prepare officers for deadly situations. He also stressed the numbers: In 2013, the New York Police Department discharged the lowest number of bullets in decades, with 248 shots in 81 incidents. Compare that to 1972—the all-time high—when the boys in blue fired 2,510 shots in 994 incidents.

"Most people don't realize how unbelievably rare [the use of deadly force is]," he said. "You have 11 million 9-1-1 calls a year, so if you divided them by shootings, the number wouldn't even compare."

Still, Bratton is on a mission to try something new—even if it's actually an oldie imported from his last police gig. Whether it was the Eric Garner video and the cop who choked him getting off without charges, the outpouring of brutal NYPD videos over the summer, or the Justice Department's Ferguson report that put these wheels in motion doesn't really matter. We'll just have to watch what happens next.

Follow John Surico on Twitter.

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