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The Problem With Mayor de Blasio’s Policing Reform Plan

A proposal to merge three oversight agencies would dilute their effectiveness and further empower the New York City Police Department.

April 5, 2021

This origin­ally appeared in City & State.

Last week, the New York City Coun­cil passed a number of poli­cing reform bills, includ­ing a resol­u­tion approv­ing an amended version of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s long-delayed poli­cing reform plan. It was approved in order to comply with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s exec­ut­ive order requir­ing all muni­cip­al­it­ies to adopt a poli­cing reform plan by April 1, 2021. Among the mayor’s propos­als is a plan to merge the three agen­cies tasked with over­sight of the New York City Police Depart­ment: the Civil­ian Complaint Review Board, the NYPD Inspector General, and the Commis­sion to Combat Police Corrup­tion.

The plan does not explain how consol­id­at­ing agen­cies with drastic­ally differ­ent track records, budgets and inde­pend­ence into “a new, stronger entity to estab­lish itself as a trus­ted and robust over­sight voice” will do anything other than dilute the effect­ive­ness of all three under the guise of reform­ing them. After a year of historic protests were met with a brutal and repress­ive response by the NYPD, community advoc­ates are call­ing for a signi­fic­ant reduc­tion in the NYPD’s budget, scope, size and power. The City Coun­cil should be wary of imple­ment­ing any proposal to expand NYPD’s influ­ence by muddy­ing the inde­pend­ence of police over­sight, as it will only further enable the police to oper­ate with impun­ity.

Under the mayor’s scheme, the autonomy and success of the inspector gener­al’s office are the most threatened. The posi­tion was estab­lished by the City Coun­cil in 2013, over­com­ing a veto from then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg and oppos­i­tion from the police commis­sioner. The inspector gener­al’s role is to monitor police prac­tices and ensure the NYPD is follow­ing civil rights and civil liber­ties. The inspector general sits within the Depart­ment of Invest­ig­a­tion and is appoin­ted by the commis­sioner of invest­ig­a­tion. In prac­tice, this separ­a­tion ensures the NYPD commis­sioner does not have the author­ity to control what the NYPD IG invest­ig­ates, influ­ence its budget, or determ­ine who can be subpoenaed.

Over the years, the IG has docu­mented systemic issues within NYPD, includ­ing a report docu­ment­ing the inef­fect­ive­ness of broken-windows poli­cing, a report find­ing that NYPD under­re­por­ted use of force by officers and their latest report docu­ment­ing the NYPD’s abus­ive response to last year’s racial justice protests. The inspector general had consid­er­able access to NYPD officers and lead­er­ship, conduct­ing inter­views in each instance.

By contrast, created nearly 70 years ago, the CCRB is tasked with invest­ig­at­ing and making recom­mend­a­tions regard­ing complaints against indi­vidual NYPD officers, but the police commis­sioner main­tains influ­ence over the makeup of the CCRB’s lead­er­ship. The commis­sioner directly appoints three members to the CCRB, and the mayor gets to appoint five, with a sixth appoin­ted jointly by the mayor and the City Coun­cil speaker. That means that the mayor and the police commis­sioner appoint a major­ity of the board. This outsized influ­ence can limit the inde­pend­ence and effect­ive­ness of the CCRB, partic­u­larly when its invest­ig­a­tions clash with a united front between the mayor and police commis­sioner. Mean­while, the Commis­sion to Combat Police Corrup­tion, created in 1995, is currently composed of three volun­teer members appoin­ted by the mayor to “assess the qual­ity of the Police Depart­ment’s systems for combat­ing corrup­tion,” but its power and author­ity to impact NYPD reform is minimal.

The inef­fect­ive­ness of police over­sight can be further exacer­bated by fund­ing issues and a lack of cooper­a­tion by the NYPD. The CCRB has a budget of around $20 million but is chron­ic­ally under­staffed – most recently laying off two senior staffers allegedly to save money. The Commis­sion to Combat Police Corrup­tion’s budget is diffi­cult to pin down, as it is not repor­ted as part of the mayor’s Manage­ment Report. Both it and the CCRB are regu­larly obstruc­ted by the NYPD, declin­ing to make their officers avail­able for inter­views, refus­ing to hand over relev­ant inform­a­tion and videos and narrowly inter­pret­ing agency mandates. For example, the CCRB’s invest­ig­a­tion into widely docu­mented abuse by the NYPD over last summer’s protests are being stone­walled by NYPD, and internal lead­er­ship at the CCRB is discour­aging employ­ees from confront­ing the police over their reluct­ance to cooper­ate.

The NYPD Inspector Gener­al’s office oper­ates with consid­er­ably more free­dom, as the Depart­ment of Invest­ig­a­tion’s budget is more than double the CCRB’s. While the NYPD IG’s recom­mend­a­tions could be signi­fic­antly strengthened to go after long­stand­ing struc­tural issues at the NYPD, the abil­ity to dig deep into depart­ment prac­tices, issue public reports and conduct follow-up invest­ig­a­tions is valu­able and should not be under­es­tim­ated. For example, a federal judge used the inspector gener­al’s report invest­ig­at­ing the NYPD’s surveil­lance of consti­tu­tion­ally-protec­ted activ­ity to force a stronger settle­ment over the NYPD’s post-9/11 surveil­lance program of Muslim New York­ers.

The mayor’s ongo­ing inab­il­ity to stand up to the police depart­ment and hold it account­able makes it increas­ingly unlikely that this consol­id­a­tion would do more than ensure the NYPD can obstruct all over­sight. If imple­men­ted, the mayor’s hurried reform plan will further entrench NYPD power. It is now up to the City Coun­cil to avoid execut­ing the mayor’s propos­als without adequate consid­er­a­tion of the long-term consequences of a police depart­ment that polices itself.