An independent panel of three former federal prosecutors drafted to review the disciplinary process for the nation’s largest police force is wrapping up its work and expected to deliver the findings to NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill, BuzzFeed News has learned.
“The independent panel of outside experts is concluding its review of the NYPD disciplinary system, and is expected to share its findings with the NYPD by next week,” NYPD spokesperson Phil Walzak said. “The panel is expected to make its report public by the end of January.”
The independent review of how the NYPD is policing its own was announced last year following a BuzzFeed News investigation that found the department allowed about 300 employees to keep their jobs despite committing fireable offenses, like physically attacking New Yorkers and lying in court. Instead of termination, BuzzFeed News found, each of these officers and civilians were put on dismissal probation for one year and told that if they committed more misconduct during that time period, they risked automatic firing.
Following this report, BuzzFeed News published a searchable database containing disciplinary findings for cases involving about 1,800 NYPD employees.
“Police Commissioner O’Neill created the panel to perform a comprehensive review and identify proposals to further strengthen the NYPD disciplinary system, and he looks forward to its findings,” Walzak said.
In June 2018, O’Neill and the department announced the creation of the panel to conduct a comprehensive review of its secretive disciplinary process. The review was initially slated for four months and was to wrap up last fall, but the group extended its work for 90 days and will meet the new deadline when it delivers the findings next week.
To lead the review, the NYPD selected three former federal prosecutors. Former United States attorney Mary Jo White prosecuted those responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and Osama Bin Laden after the 1998 East African Embassy bombing. Former US attorney Robert Capers brought cases against drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and nearly 30 FIFA officials before he left Brooklyn’s federal prosecutor’s office. Barbara Jones, a former judge, also served as the chief of the Organized Crime Strike Force unit in Manhattan’s federal prosecutor’s office.
“This respected independent panel is comprised of leaders with unassailable credibility and experience, and devout devotion to fair and effective policing,” O’Neill said when announcing the group. “They will provide critical insight on how to strengthen further our discipline system.”
In the days after BuzzFeed News published its investigation, which relied on records provided by a source who requested anonymity, O’Neill and other New York City officials spoke out against the strict secrecy surrounding police misconduct.
“This is an issue of trust. Our disciplinary system has to become more transparent,” O’Neill said at a March news conference. “There are many things we do well at the NYPD. We fight crime well, neighborhood policing is going well. Letting people know about our internal disciplinary process — that’s not something that we do very well at all.”
On the other hand, the department abruptly stopped releasing the penalties handed out to officers in 2016 and has argued in court that a state civil rights law, known colloquially as “50-a,” prevents it from disclosing officers’ disciplinary records. To date, courts have, for the most part, sided with the department and kept the records secret.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has called it “a bad law,” while O’Neill and others have said they would like to see changes that allow the department to share more details from disciplinary cases with the public.
Activists in New York and families of those affected by police misconduct have also continued to push for changes to the law. Earlier this month, a group of more than 100 organizations and families called for the state legislature to repeal 50-a during the upcoming legislative session.
Following the BuzzFeed News report last year, the NYPD floated a possible plan to release some information on how it was disciplining its officers that would redact the officers’ names and any other identifying information. That plan was abruptly put on hold when the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the largest police union representing about 24,000 NYPD officers, sued the department to halt the proposed release.
During their review, the panel met with multiple families of people who were killed in officer-involved shootings and victims of excessive force by police.
The report is expected to include several recommendations for how the department can improve its disciplinary procedure.
The panel is delivering its findings on the NYPD as it faces additional media attention surrounding its biggest department disciplinary procedure in years, with the pending internal trial of officer Daniel Pantaleo, who over four years ago placed Eric Garner in a chokehold on a Staten Island street.
In the years since Garner’s death, Pantaleo has remained on the job. His department trial is scheduled to start in May.