Police Oversight Board Ratifies New Prosecution Powers, but Critics Have Doubts

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The Civilian Complaint Review Board unanimously ratified an agreement with the City Council, mayor and police department on Monday to allow it to prosecute all cases of police misconduct that its investigators substantiate. 

However, police critics still have lingering concerns about the arrangement, which leaves Police Commissioner Ray Kelly with the authority to refuse prosecution in certain cases and to reject the recommendations of trial judges. And the mayor, the City Council and the police commissioner can undo the entire agreement at any time.

“One of the potential serious problems with this agreement is that it’s an agreement between the CCRB and the police department. It’s not legislation, and under this agreement, the police department can pull the plug any time it wants,” said Chris Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “That gives the police department a lot of leverage.  To do this right, it should be done by legislation.”

Under the agreement, Kelly would retain ultimate control authority over the final punishment of officers found guilty. He can also oppose the CCRB's decision to prosecute certain cases if they are related to criminal investigations or if the officer has no disciplinary history or prior substantiated CCRB complaints.

Finally, Kelly can accept, reject or modify any recommendation by a trial judge presiding over an administrative trial, as long as he explains his rationale in writing to the board.

To some police watchdog groups, the agreement is encouraging, but only a start.

“What we really need is a culture change within the NYPD for transparency and accountability,” said Sunita Patel of the Center for Constitutional Rights when addressing CCRB commissioners during the public comment portion of the meeting. “We really hope that the Board can stay vigilant and stay active.”

Ratification of the Memorandum of Understanding authorizing the new prosecution powers was considered a done deal when the agreement was announced by the city last week. No debate transpired during Monday’s CCRB board meeting, which lasted barely 20 minutes.

Powers Approved, But Start Date Pending

When the CCRB’s prosecution unit will actually begin work is another question.  Currently, no prosecution team exists. In 2011, CCRB launched a pilot program called the Administrative Prosecution Unit, which allowed CCRB lawyers to prosecute and plea bargain cases. Only three cases were prosecuted by this unit before funding was cut, and the lawyer appointed to the unit transferred to another job.

“I still think that we have a long road ahead of us in terms of the actual implementation,” said Daniel Chu, chair of the CCRB, during the board meeting. “We are obviously going to need pretty extensive resources in building this prosecution unit.”

Specific requests for more funding have been submitted to the city and are still pending, according to CCRB spokeswoman Linda Sachs, adding she could not yet make public what amounts have been requested, but that they hope to get funding approved for the new fiscal year that begins this July.

Sachs said the prosecutorial unit will not commence work until the city’s administrative code is amended to reflect the CCRB’s new powers. That is expected to take a few months. But she said the board will be hiring and training new attorneys and other staff during the interim.

The CCRB, created in 1993, is composed of 13 members.  Five are chosen by the City Council to represent each borough; five are chosen by the mayor and the rest are chosen by the police commissioner. Only the commissioner’s designees can have prior law enforcement background.