NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill announced Thursday the creation of an independent panel that will review how the nation’s largest police department disciplines its officers.
The review board will scrutinize every aspect of the disciplinary process — from how investigations into officer misconduct are initiated to how penalties are determined and ultimately doled out by the commissioner.
The announcement follows a BuzzFeed News investigation in March that revealed the department allowed hundreds of officers who committed fireable offenses — like lying in court and physically attacking New Yorkers — to keep their jobs.
The NYPD selected three accomplished former federal prosecutors for the panel. 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 in a press release announcing the new review body. “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 press 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.
Earlier this 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.
Following the announcement, NYC council member Donovan Richards called the creation of the panel "an important step in ensuring the NYPD’s internal disciplinary process is held to the highest standards."
“As the NYPD makes a concerted effort to improve police-community relations we must have a department that truly is transparent and holds officers accountable for bad behavior,” Richards said in a statement.
Advocates said the panel was a long overdue step toward fixing the department's flawed and opaque system.
“An independent and aggressive review of the NYPD’s disciplinary system is desperately needed both to restore police accountability but also to restore public confidence in the nation’s largest police department," said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director for the New York Civil Liberties Union. "But whether this panel will provide that type of review remains to be seen, and we will be closely scrutinizing its work."
The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association said the process is already heavily monitored and the additional oversight is unnecessary. "This new panel will undoubtedly increase the pressure on the NYPD to mete out unjustly heavy-handed discipline, further damaging police officers’ morale and due process rights," said PBA president Patrick Lynch in a statement.
NYPD officials said that O'Neill has asked the panelists to consult with outside stakeholders, advocates, and the police unions during its review.
A spokesperson for the department said that the new panel is will be given four months to conduct its review. At its conclusion, the group is expected to publish a report and recommendations that the NYPD intends to make public.