July 26, 2021 11:56

Who Should Investigate Police Sexual Misconduct?

New York’s Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) is weighing a proposal that would give it the power to probe sexual misconduct complaints against police ranging from verbal harassment to rape.

Lawyers and other advocates say an outside watchdog is needed to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct by officers of the New York Police Department (NYPD because the department isn’t equipped to hold officers accountable.

The critics made their argument in testimony submitted to the board this week.

The proposed new rules come three years after the board first attempted to police NYPD sexual misconduct, only to be set back by a lawsuit from police unions.

In other testimony, leaders of the Police Benevolent Association (PBA) and other unions called the new rules a power grab by the CCRB, and charged that the board is violating the law by failing to spell out why it’s taking action.

A dozen individuals and organizations have already submitted written comments to the board on whether investigating sexual misconduct complaints against cops should fall under the CCRB’s jurisdiction.

Those pushing the rule change say that the NYPD’s internal investigations are shrouded in secrecy and provide little accountability.

“Without independent oversight, police perpetrators often evade accountability,” the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault and the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault wrote in testimony to the oversight board.

“Internal reporting systems that represent law enforcement value internal, political and reputational protection and close cases above safeguarding the fundamental human rights of survivors,”

A lack of transparency over how the NYPD investigates complaints through its Internal Affairs Bureau “has a devastating effect on survivors of officer abuse and erodes public trust in policing,” wrote Jennvine Wong, the staff attorney with the Cop Accountability Project at the Legal Aid Society.

The NYPD did not respond to a request from THE CITY for comment ahead of the hearing.

Years-Long Quest

In 2018, the CCRB announced to fanfare that it would begin investigating police sexual misconduct.

But the CCRB’s quest to investigate claims of inappropriate comments, sexual  propositions, sexual humiliation, assault and rape had to start anew last May, after a state appeals court ruled that the board couldn’t simply greenlight sexual misconduct  investigations without going through public review.

The decision immediately halted investigations already underway and hampered the CCRB’s work to prepare staff to handle serious sexual misconduct allegations against officers, according to staff at the independent agency.

In written testimony to the board, the Police Benevolent Association and other unions representing the city’s law enforcement chided the CCRB for a “unilateral determination to grab for itself power over sexual misconduct complaints.”

The unions argue that the CCRB is “not the proper agency to handle such stigmatizing allegations against police officers,” pointing to the large share of CCRB cases where complainants don’t cooperate or the board is unable to promptly show misconduct took place.

“Simply the filing of a complaint with CCRB — even unsubstantiated or entirely false complaints — has immediate and permanent effects on police officers’ reputations and careers,” the unions wrote.

Instead, investigating such claims should “remain the job of trained, experienced investigators who are specifically focused on these types of complaints,” said John Nuthall, a spokesperson for the PBA.

Hundreds of Accusations

Calls for more police accountability came to a crescendo following the death of George Floyd, a Black Minnesota man killed by a white police officer in late May.

Amid widespread protests over Floyd’s death, New York’s Legislature repealed the longstanding 50-a law that shielded police personnel records from public view.

What followed was a first glimpse at hundreds of thousands of accusations leveled against members of the NYPD through the CCRB, though the release of full disciplinary records has since been halted by a pending lawsuit from the police unions.

Since the CCRB began tracking sexual misconduct complaints in 2016, it fielded some 217 accusations as of May 2020, according to CCRB data previously provided to THE CITY and Gothamist.

Of those, about 37 percent of those claims were for verbal sexual harassment, 25 percent for sexual humiliation and 23 percent over a sexual or romantic proposition, the figures show.

More serious sexual assault allegations have been referred to local district attorneys and the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau.

As of November, the CCRB had made 299 referrals to other law enforcement authorities since 2016.

Between February 2018 and May 2020 alone, the CCRB made 158 referrals. Of them, 19 went to Bronx DA Darcel Clark; 23 to Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez; 15 to Manhattan DA Cy Vance; eight to the Queens DA, currently Melinda Katz; and three to Staten Island DA Michael McMahon, according to the CCRB.

Two of the referrals went to the Westchester County DA.

The remaining 88 were sent to the IAB, where the outcomes remain a mystery. A spokesperson for the NYPD declined to disclose in November how many sexual misconduct cases IAB has received annually overall, saying in an email that the department does “not track data to that level of specificity.”

The lack of public information means “the extent of sexual misconduct within the NYPD is difficult to ascertain,” Wong noted in her testimony.

“Moreover, any data on this subject is likely to understate the full extent of the problem. Victims reasonably fear retribution and retaliation backed by the power and authority of a badge,” she added.

“They also reasonably fear their complaints will not be taken seriously when the perpetrator of sexual violence is an officer employed by the very agency entrusted to investigate the abuse.”

See also: Predators Behind the Badge, by Isidoro Rodriguez, The Crime Report, March 12, 2020.

This is a slightly edited version of a story published this week in THE CITY and reproduced with permission. The complete version is available here.

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