Oversight Will Help, Not Hurt, the NYPD

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn recently announced her support of a bill to establish independent oversight for the Police Department. Our experience in city government has shown us, again and again, that independent oversight makes agencies better and stronger.

March 28, 2013

Originally published in the New York's Daily News.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn recently announced her support of a bill to establish independent oversight for the Police Department. As former corporation counsels to New York City — heads of the city’s law department — we strongly support this approach and commend the speaker.

Our experience in city government (and elsewhere) has shown us, again and again, that independent oversight makes agencies better and stronger. Independent scrutiny is bracing. It pushes bureaucracies to ask questions they don’t normally ask and can lead to more efficient programs.

And oversight that is aimed at ensuring legality is particularly critical for the police, who hold so much power and so often operate in secret.

Others have expressed concern that an independent monitor who reviews the NYPD’s policies and procedures would interfere with its work and jeopardize our safety.

Fortunately, we can point to the experience of law enforcement agencies around the country to reassure these critics. The FBI and the CIA have operated for decades with inspectors general, and there is no hint that they have hampered these agencies. When the inspector general covering the FBI retired in 2011 — after having served under three different Presidents of varying political persuasions — the attorney general couldn’t praise him enough.

Congress also recognizes the role that independent monitors play in allowing it to exercise its own oversight duties. It has repeatedly strengthened federal inspectors general, and made sure to establish one when it created the Department of Homeland Security.

Police departments around the country are using independent monitors to improve both performance and accountability. In Los Angeles, the police inspector general reports to an independent civilian police board. This arrangement has worked well over the last decade, with improved police-community relations and a plummeting crime rate.

So how is it that police monitors do their job and not interfere with law enforcement actions?

To start: An independent monitor does not interfere with the business of policing. He or she would only conduct retrospective reviews and audits, not greenlight programs or operations. Nor would a monitor have the authority to make decisions about police policies and practices.

An NYPD monitor’s job would be to make recommendations for improvements to the police commissioner, the mayor and the City Council. The police are not bound by these recommendations. If they don’t agree, they can say so and explain their reasons. The issue can then be debated publicly, as is appropriate in a democracy.

But even with these limitations, monitors can be immensely valuable in improving police performance and accountability. An NYPD monitor who reports regularly to the mayor and City Council would provide them with objective, unbiased information about policing issues. Our elected officials would not have to rely on information gleaned from media reports or presented by advocacy groups or the NYPD itself.

A police monitor would also provide a neutral forum for whistleblowers to bring information forward. He or she would be able to work with the police commissioner to correct any problems in the department. This would perhaps allow us to avoid cycles of scandals in the press and civil rights lawsuits and focus on improving policing. All of this would contribute to enhancing public trust in the police.

All of us want the NYPD to continue keeping New York safe. By creating a police monitor, our elected leaders can ensure that the police can do their job, but also feel secure that someone is watching the NYPD to make sure that it is doing its job well.

Schwarz served as the city’s corporation counsel from 1982 to 1986. Currently at the Brennan Center for Justice, he was chief counsel to the Church Committee, which investigated the FBI and CIA in the 1970s. Kovner served as the city’s corporation counsel from 1990 to 1991.