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Can the New Inspector General Really Change the NYPD?

We talked to Philip Eure, the man charged with reforming the country's largest police force.
January 22, 2015, 6:23pm

Inspector General Philip Eure. All photos by Jason Bergman

The building has to be one of the most unassuming in downtown Manhattan.

The hallways are quiet and bare, lined by mostly empty offices where an encyclopedia-sized police patrol guide on the bookshelves instantly stands out. This is clearly a space in transition, but as a newcomer, you'd be unsure if the people were either moving out or settling in—a hollow quality rare in New York City's bureaucracy. In fact, the only reason I knew I was on the right floor was because of a classroom-ready whiteboard in the lobby, with a few words scribbled:

"Welcome to the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD."

Established in May, this is the home of a 40-person team of investigators, lawyers, and policy analysts, all charged with the titanic mission of reforming the New York Police Department.

Stationed a few blocks from 1 Police Plaza, the oversight agency was the brainchild of the Community Safety Act, a veto-surviving bill passed in 2013 by the City Council in response to simmering tensions over the NYPD's most notorious practice, stop-and-frisk. It is the biggest Inspector General (IG) office of its kind, and at its helm is a 52-year-old African-American man named Philip Eure.

Eure is a calm, confident type with a wonky disposition. But figuring out whether he is a technocrat in policeman's clothing or vice versa isn't easy. For years, Eure served as the head of the Washington, DC police department's Office of Police Complaints, spreading what he calls the "gospel of police oversight" to the nation's capital. Before that, he spent a decade in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.

Eure has had his eye on New York City policing for a while, too, but he's new to living here. In fact, when his selection was announced last year, one of the first challenges he faced as IG was finding an apartment—no small task in a city where rent never seems to stop rising. But he didn't have much time to settle in. Captured in a video now seen by millions, the choke hold death of Eric Garner at the hands of Officer Daniel Pantaleo on Staten Island took place just six weeks into his tenure.

Although Eure's office will not be investigating individual cases, the tumultuous sequence of events since Garner's death made it clear just how important reforming the NYPD was. For a time, Eure's office remained silent even as the city was deafened with protest, whether it was on the streets or at the funerals of fallen cops Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.

But last week saw Eure's office release its first report, which was focused—not coincidentally—on choke holds as an excessive use of police force. It's the first of many expected to come down in the months ahead. I met with Eure recently and talked about the ongoing debate over law enforcement in New York City and America at large, his racial identity as an African American throughout it all, and the question that's been on the mind of many New Yorkers lately: Will the NYPD ever change?

VICE: The past few months have been quite contentious for the New York Police Department in terms of protests and the vitriol on the streets. And you're the one person who has the power to reform the cops at a time when everyone's calling for change. With the protests, the counter-protests, and the slowdown—the breakdown of trust between the mayor and the police—how did you hold yourself back? Were there any times when you just wanted to burst out?
Inspector General Philip Eure: Having all of these things happen on our early watch, it certainly makes it a very busy time for us. But, at the same time, it creates opportunities. As I've said at staff meetings, yes, we're here while all of these things are happening in New York City. And that presents challenges for us, but it also presents great opportunities for us, for this office, and for the city. I don't fashion ourselves as the great savior, but I certainly think we have an important role to play in improving police department policies and procedures, improving community relations, promoting public safety in a way that other oversight agencies haven't been able to in New York City in the past.

When you first moved into these offices in late May, what were the first glaring problems you saw in how the NYPD does business?
So here I am, the new and first Inspector General of this office that provides oversight for the largest police department in the country; one of the best, in many ways. It's a very sophisticated police department, and it has a lot of strengths, which should not be forgotten. Having said that, I was coming on board to start an agency with 40-plus employees, and that was a challenge. I guess, in part, that was a reason why I was hired: because I had started an agency about half this size in Washington, DC, and I know my way around police oversight circles. We got to work immediately.

On the substantive side, in terms of the issues, we met with a number of groups over the summer, a number of stakeholders. We did a listening tour with presentations and briefings that were given to us by the leadership, whether it was the Transit Bureau, the Housing Bureau, Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB)—we pretty much had a broad introduction to the bureaus of the NYPD, and that was very helpful. But other stakeholders, too: community groups, advocacy groups that we met with, like the New York Civil Liberties Union, Communities United for Police Reform, Muslim groups, mothers of young men who had been killed in altercations with NYC police officers spanning 20 years.

In terms of the issues that we were confronted with, it was the issues that were brought to our attention through these groups—the full panoply of issues, ranging from use of force cases; of course, the tragic Eric Garner incident happened about six weeks or so into my watch. But we met with groups, and we heard concerns about political and religious surveillance from NYPD, the high number of misdemeanor arrests, " broken windows" policing theory, the way in which officers are trained, or not trained, to deal with the mentally ill. So I would say with the substantive challenges, the things I learned about the police department that needed to be changed or fixed was largely through the prism of these community groups, who were very prepared and came to us to present their lists of concerns. As we go along, we'll be dealing with these issues, looking at them from our data-driven, fact-based approach in the way that an IG can address those issues objectively.

There are changes that are afoot, and reform isn't always quick and easy.

As you mentioned, the death of Eric Garner happened six weeks into your tenure. So, in many ways, these police reform groups will say that a lot of things haven't changed under Mayor Bill de Blasio. Stop-and-frisks are down, but are still skewed towards minorities. "Broken windows" is, of course, a main talking point, too. What would you say to that criticism?
I would push back at that statement that things haven't changed. If you look at what's happened over the past year, you had the startup of the new IG's office—I'm here!—and there are about 20 people in my office that have joined me since we started up. You have the federal monitor in the Floyd v. New York City [stop-and-frisk] case, Peter Zimroth, starting up as well. They're going to be specifically looking at stop-and-frisk incidents, and we know the number of stops have gone down. You have changes to the Civilian Complaints Review Board (CCRB) that have happened.

So I would say there are changes that are afoot, and reform isn't always quick and easy. If people just look around and see the changes in the police accountability, which I've just listed for you, I think the infrastructure is there to bring about change. And we'll have to look at the numbers when inspecting any one of these particular issues to see what real progress is being made.

So what were your thoughts, then, when Eric Garner died?
I saw the video like anyone else. It was sad for the family, of course. Ferguson hadn't happened yet, but there had been heightened scrutiny of police-citizen encounters around the country, I would say, predating the Garner incident. So when we saw that, we instantly knew that the authorities would address that incident. There was a hope that it'd be done responsibly, but we knew that IAB would do the investigation, the Staten Island DA would look into it, and the CCRB as well. So we knew that was not a case we'd need to investigate ourselves for a couple of reasons.

The whole focus of this office is systematic issues, not investigating individual cases; we're not here to replicate the work of the IAB and CCRB. Having said that, we're obviously concerned about that incident, the impact on police-community relations in New York City, and so we wanted to contribute to the discussion here about choke holds. The work, the report we released this month, is the product of that: a way for us to contribute to the discussion in a very meaningful way that would help the city and the police department draw lessons from that experience and other choke hold cases.

Going to that report, it's clear that these police oversight agencies have issues in the way they run—how prone they are to outside influences. As the report says, former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly completely dropped a few of their recommendations to discipline officers involved in choke hold cases without explanation. I also think there's something wrong when relatives of police brutality victims say "internal investigation" is a sign nothing is going to happen. I'm wondering if that's a major concern to you as well.
I think, over time, this office will be looking at the quality of those investigations performed by whomever, whether it's CCRB or the IAB, who has a much more narrow focus in our report. Obviously we're looking at deficiency gaps in the disciplinary process, and just based on that small size of ten cases, we were able to reach troubling questions and come up with preliminary recommendations on how to make improvements in the process. The report indicates we'll be doing future studies; choke holds are just a subset of use of force, generally, so I suspect there will be additional lessons for the city, for the NYPD, to learn from forthcoming reports.

On Tuesday night, in President Obama's State of the Union, he said to take into account the lives of both police officers and young black men. What's that space, then, for this balancing act of sorts, where you don't infringe upon the police officers, nor the community groups?
I don't think they're necessarily opposite interests. It's a fair question of how do you find that space. I go back to what I said earlier: I think the space that we operate in is the one of fact-driven, data-driven analysis. "OK, let's look at the numbers, whether it's stop-and-frisk numbers, arrests for misdemeanor offenses, or quantifying in some measure officers' interaction with the mentally ill." The space that is created, that we operate within, is to look at those interactions, look at the impact on citizens, and look at the effects on officers, be it talking to the mentally ill, where officers' safety concerns obviously arise. We will bring a dispassionate, objective approach to whatever issue it is before us that we're going to be looking at. I'd push back at the notion that somehow officers' concerns are inconsistent with community concerns.

At the end of the day, there are a lot of common interests. If the goal of the whole city is to promote greater public safety, what that means is that officers want to have the trust and the confidence of citizens. If the citizens don't trust officers, they're not going to report crimes, not going to call their local precinct, not going to cooperate with officers when they're investigating crimes. So ultimately, citizens and the police department have the same interest in having a strong, effective, and respectful department that people can trust, so that the overall goal of public safety is served, all the while protecting peoples' civil rights and civil liberties. It does require some balancing: While we've been having this conversation in the city over community relations, I think there's a lot of space for common interest or even divergent interests to be expressed and analyzed, to result in very positive, forward-looking recommendations from this office to help improve the Police Department.

If the citizens don't trust officers, they're not going to report crimes, not going to call their local precinct, not going to cooperate with officers when they're investigating crimes.

I've met police reform groups that actually said they have agreed with some things Patrick Lynch, the head of the Patrolmen's' Benevolent Association, has said, like safer policing and not putting officers in the line of fire. But do you think it makes sense that these protests have lasted this long? We were out on Monday for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and they're still attracting hundreds, if not thousands, of people.
This is America. Everyone believes strongly in the First Amendment. It's the largest city in the country. In some cases, a lot of people have pent up grievances with respect to the police department, perceptions of unfairness—actual unfairness. And so people are taking to the streets in a way that they want to express themselves. We've got a police department that's helping them express their First Amendment rights, too. That's the beauty of it; I wouldn't say it's the irony of it. That's the way the system is designed to work. As long as people are protesting peacefully, the hope is that we're going to have a police department that is going to support the right of protest and protesters and counter-protesters, as well.

And you've said that you've met with the Mayor's Office, 1 Police Plaza, and the police union, as well. How did those conversations go?
Great! I've met several times with the mayor, and several times with Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. With Bratton, he's not new to an environment where there's an inspector general. When he was in Los Angeles, he worked with someone I know who's now a federal judge but was the IG at the time, Andre Birotte, and had a very good relationship with him. He knew what the IG's world would entail. I've met Pat Lynch between the time my selection was made in March and when I moved to New York in May. I made several trips up to New York to meet various representatives of different groups, including Lynch. We had a very good discussion, and the goal for me was to make him understand this IG's office was going to be something very different than the other types of oversight that his organization had been dealing with in NYC. It wasn't going to be like the CCRB, and investigating individual cases. I let him know in that meeting that over time, the PBA and him would bring to our attention issues that they were concerned about, like training issues and supervisory issues.

This goes back to your question before: How do you create the space of work? There are common interests among many of the stakeholder groups themselves, and issues we'll be looking at that would be of interest to many of these different groups, in a way that we might be proposing reforms that will serve to improve the police department and police some of these groups. We're not here to please all of these groups all of the time—that's not the purpose of the IG's office. But I think Pat Lynch understands that this office could potentially benefit his rank-and-file officers. You could look at the comments after we issued our first report. I urge you to study his comments very closely.

I've read op-eds by Lynch where he rails against the quota system, too. And that's another integral issue at the heart of police reform advocacy: this obsession with numbers apparent in policing. How do you respond to the statement that the problems with the NYPD are so much more core than one thinks, as in a quota system, if it does exist, or that this is an agency that cannot be changed?
I think the stars aligned in a way that we can offer some real change. We have a police commissioner who understands the challenges, which is not to say I'm going to agree with his office or that we'll issue reports the police commissioner will gladly embrace. But he's very smart and I think he understands the challenges of policing the largest city in the country. That factor cannot be underestimated.

You have a mayor who's sensitive to police-community relations. You have this new office, which is sort of on the cutting edge with hiring this huge team of investigators, lawyers, and analysts. It's not really replicated anywhere else in the country on this level. I'm hopeful that many of the important conditions are in place to bring about change that New Yorkers want or need.

Do you think then that the mayor's reforms so far—promising to retrain the police force, a call for body cameras, and a change in marijuana policy—**are significant steps in the right direction?** Well, we're going to be looking at it. I've gone on record with the last report issued from my old office in DC in May of last year, in which we embraced Washington, DC's efforts to implement a body camera program. I studied the issue before I came here; we're receptive to it. We're going to be looking at it in a unique context in which New York is unveiling its plans, on two fronts: the volunteer program that NYPD has started up in December, and the body camera program set up in the Floyd case, which the federal monitor will be looking at. We'll be looking at how the city plans to implement the body camera program. We've already started to look at the best practices around the country. I think you can expect that we'll be weighing in in a constructive way as that program is implemented.

I wouldn't have accepted the job if I didn't think we were going to be successful.

It seems as if there's this sort of wall between legal reforms that you cannot touch and actually fixing the police. You can train officers and go after choke holds, but a lot of this work may be more geared toward, say, the appointment of a special prosecutor or release of grand jury proceedings**, which, of course, is not under your office's authority. It's a barrier; like, you can lead up to this point, but once the officers go into court, it's a whole different ballgame that usually ends pretty well for them. So how do you deal with hitting that wall?** We're focusing here on a big slice of that problem, if you will. Ideally, if you have officers properly trained, fewer bad things happen. When fewer bad things happen to people, peoples' rights are not being abridged; they're being arrested under proper circumstances, and that will hopefully facilitate the handling of those matters in the justice system in a fairer way. They get off to a good start, and things could go wrong in the court with jury selection process and other aspects of it, but ultimately we are focusing in on a big part of the criminal justice system here.

The other thing I would say is that whenever one thinks of the outcome of the grand jury decision in Staten Island, I think what that does is it points out the need for an effective, outside review of those cases, not touched by the CCRB or the IAB or the IG's office, and calls for a strong, robust, vigorous, external review. You can take any jurisdiction, even my old one in DC, and look at the very small number of excessive force cases against officers that were prosecuted by US Attorney's office. Oversight has always been seen as a way to address those issues, which would otherwise not properly or completely addressed by other parts of the criminal justice system.

It goes without saying at this point that the NYPD is the most famous police force in the country, and among the more notorious. So, coming from DC, I have to ask: Why'd you take the job?
It was obviously a new challenge. DC was a very different agency. Because New York City has the biggest police force in the country, I'd be following—even though I've never lived here before—policing here, and have known people in policing here over the years. And because of my involvement in oversight circles and a national organization that I was the president of for several years, I got to know many people from New York and around the country. I saw this as an opportunity to apply what I had learned in DC on a bigger scale in New York. We issued policy recommendations there, on some of the same topics that we'll be looking at here: body cameras, mental health, and so forth. And so it was an opportunity to bring my experience and background to bear on a larger stage, if you will. I wouldn't have accepted the job if I didn't think we were going to be successful.

Yes, there are big challenges and we talked about some of them. But I really do believe many of the conditions are in place to bring about real change, so I was honored to be selected for this position. I feel more honored every time a new hire comes on board. I've got this incredible staff; they're a talented people, some from law enforcement backgrounds, civil rights backgrounds, civilian backgrounds. It's an incredibly talented and diverse staff of people that reinforces my belief that this office will bring about some real changes.

My final question is this: The movement itself revolves around "Black Lives Matter." That has put a lot of pressure on black leaders. President Obama has been criticized for sidestepping the Ferguson and Staten Island incidents, while others are saying he's doing what he can. There's this divide between pragmatism and associating with racial identity. I'm wondering, as an African American, if you ever feel that personal division within yourself?
I don't have a division. Certainly, as an African American who has experienced certain things, I've had my opinions about those experiences, but at the end of the day, I think it helps to bring insight into this job in ways that are different than perhaps if someone else was selected for the job. It doesn't affect how this agency will go about this work. Perhaps it brings a better sensitivity to me, in terms of understanding some of these issues, but, in terms of the actual work this office is going to do, we are bringing on board top people, Ph.D types who have more years of schooling than I have or will ever have, helping us make sense of these policies and procedure.

My identity as an African-American male doesn't change how we're going to do our work. If anything, it allows me to have more sensitivity with respect to how I view these issues, but it doesn't change the dispassionate, objective approach.

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