Presumption Against Police
The New York Civil Liberties Union publishes a supposedly damning new report on the NYPD—but the actual data refute its conclusions.
Last month, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) published “Cop Out,” which it proclaimed to be a damning data analysis of 180,700 New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) complaints registered against police over the last 20 years. The report’s snappy title and its conclusion—that the New York City Police Department can’t be trusted to discipline itself—are not supported by the actual data, however. Policymakers and conscientious citizens should read the report critically.
The NYCLU trumpeted that less than 1 percent of CCRB complaints result in serious police discipline. This figure becomes far less remarkable when you consider that only 7 percent of all the complaints—and only 3 percent of the improper use-of-force complaints—were substantiated when scrutinized by the CCRB’s own independent, non-NYPD investigators. Does the NYCLU expect the NYPD to discipline police officers for the 93 percent of unsubstantiated allegations?
More specifically, in 56 percent of the cases, either the complainant withdrew charges, refused to cooperate, or could not be found, or not enough evidence existed to determine whether misconduct even occurred. An additional 34 percent of CCRB investigations either exonerated officers or proved the charges unfounded. That’s over 60,000 certifiably false allegations among the 180,000 filed.
For more perspective, over the same 20-year span, a very conservative estimate (from NYPD complaint data) is that almost 12.5 million crimes were committed in New York City and that the NYPD made nearly 7 million arrests. Indeed, in just one year, 2019, the department responded to 6.4 million calls for assistance. With this breadth of police interaction with civilians, it’s not surprising that 180,700 complaints, associated with 59,244 separate incidents and roughly 35,435 current or former officers, were logged. Yet in all those tens of millions of arrests and calls for assistance, there were just 12,980 substantiated complaints of police misconduct. Put another way: 99.81 percent of the arrests over the last 20 years generated no CCRB-substantiated complaint. In fact, less than 1 percent of arrests resulted in any CCRB complaint at all, whether substantiated or not.
The NYCLU also points out that minorities make up 87 percent of the complainants against police officers but only 68 percent of the city’s population. The report attributes this discrepancy to police racism. But nonwhites made up approximately 86 percent of arrestees from 2006 to 2019—so the near identical rates between arrestees and complainants suggests an absence of bias. White New Yorkers comprise approximately 12 percent of arrestees; they constitute 13 percent of the complainants in CCRB cases.
The NYCLU further muddles conclusions by confounding and discounting data. Its report does not separate the charges by seriousness, instead lumping all allegations together. Statistically, a complaint relating to chokeholds is weighted identically to a complaint of a police officer refusing to give his shield number. The report doesn’t disaggregate the punishments by charge category—for example, how many substantiated reports of improper force resulted in “serious discipline.” Nor does the report differentiate the complaints by year. In other words, complaints made in 2000 are lumped together with complaints made in 2019. There have been many changes in the CCRB since 2000; it would be instructive to see if those changes made a difference. The NYCLU has had all this data for seven months but chose not to use it.
The report’s authors also suggest physical harm by misleadingly calling the complainants “injured parties,” where the only injury may be officers allegedly using offensive language. The CCRB does not use the term “injured party” to refer to complainants, but the NYCLU report uses it 32 times. “Alleged” is used just twice in the 23-page report. So much for the presumption of innocence for police officers.
The NYCLU even more deceptively calculates the number of cases where the police imposed discipline by eliminating what it refers to as “informal discipline”: outcomes such as “instruction,” “command level instruction,” “reprimand,” “formalized training,” and “warned and admonished.” If these 3,965 “informal discipline” cases are included in the discipline category, the NYPD imposed discipline in almost 76 percent of the substantiated cases where the CCRB recommended discipline. The CCRB itself recommended “No Discipline” in 2,175, or 17 percent, of the cases. Further, 160 cases where the officer had retired, 260 cases where the discipline had not yet been determined, and any cases where the discipline field was left blank were also lumped into the “No Discipline” category.
The NYCLU used every possible presumption against the police in arriving at these numbers. The report provides dubious talking points to support a political agenda. Effective police reform requires accurate, contextualized, and neutral reading of available data. Policymakers and citizens should not count on the NYCLU to provide it.
Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
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