The Police Who Engaged in Abuse During the 2020 Protests Against Unaccountable Police Abuse Are Not Being Held Accountable
A 590-page CCRB report shows many police are evading consequences for what they did during the protests
10:16 AM EST on February 7, 2023
As we approach the three-year anniversary of the George Floyd protests that rocked New York City in May and June of 2020, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the body tasked with providing oversight for police misconduct, has finally produced a massive 590-page report documenting the status of the many complaints of police violence and other misconduct that arose out of the NYPD's response to the protests.
What's become of all those complaints? The short answer is, in an overwhelming number of cases, not much.
To read the report's statistical breakdown of what happened to the complaints lodged against police, is to witness the obstacles to police accountability operating in real-time.
The board received 321 complaints about police conduct during the protests that fell under its jurisdiction, but it was only able to fully investigate 70 percent of them. No small part of the problem with investigating these cases, according to the CCRB report, is that the NYPD itself made doing so very difficult. Civilian officials tasked with police oversight don't have independent access to police camera footage, and so they have to plead with the NYPD to provide relevant evidence. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't. In some instances, the police department turned over body-worn-camera video evidence that wasn't relevant. In others, it told CCRB investigators there was no relevant video, only for video evidence to be discovered later.
Of the remaining 226 complaints that were fully investigated, more than a quarter had to be abandoned because the police involved couldn't be identified. That's partly because lots of cops went to great lengths to hide their identities throughout the protest. Obscuring shield numbers was widespread at the protests, and at the bloody Mott Haven kettle, police were wearing numbered riot helmets that belonged to other officers, stationed in other parts of the city.
Take the case of NYPD officers playing the song "Ni**er Love a Watermelon" through their patrol car's loudspeakers, after a group of cops beat protesters with batons in Crown Heights on June 3, 2020. The CCRB confirmed through video and eyewitness accounts that the incident happened, and was able to pinpoint the NYPD vehicle, and the cops assigned to it. "The Board determined that both officers made untruthful statements regarding the whereabouts of the vehicle but was unable to identify the officers involved in this incident because NYPD records did not accurately reflect which officers made use of the vehicle," the report states.
In 5 percent of fully-investigated cases, the police were found not to have done what they were accused of. In another 8 percent of cases, what the officers were accused of turned out to be within the accepted guidelines of the NYPD. In 22 percent of cases, investigators couldn't determine whether the police had engaged in misconduct or not. And in 39 percent of fully investigated cases, the board found that police had engaged in misconduct.
For instance, the CCRB found that Officer Brian Mahon unlawfully beat a woman with his baton in Union Square on May 30, 2020, and lied about it. ("During his CCRB interview, PO Mahon acknowledged pushing the Victim with his baton, but denied hitting the Victim with his baton, stating that had he done so, he would have broken the Victim’s bones.") Departmental charges are still pending against Mahon, who earned $132,000 last year, and is named in at least nine lawsuits with settlements totaling close to $500,000.
That amounts to 86 substantiated complaints. But as each complaint can contain multiple allegations, there were actually 269 substantiated allegations against 146 cops. More than half of those were for excessive force, while another quarter were for abuse of authority, including officers' refusal to give their name or shield number when requested. Another 24 substantiated allegations were for lying, mostly in official statements.
But the charges recommended against 146 cops by the CCRB are just that: recommendations. Final disciplinary authority rests with the police commissioner, who can ignore and overturn the recommendations of the CCRB at will.
If this sounds like a Bearcat-armored-SWAT-vehicle-sized hole in our city's ostensible regime of civilian police oversight… it is. For the 57 cops the CCRB recommended for command discipline—charges that can result in anything from a reprimand to the loss of vacation days—the police commissioner imposed the CCRB-recommended penalty less than half the time.
Three cops were allowed to resign or retire without facing discipline. Another 18 wound up with no discipline whatsoever, like Inspector Steven Ortiz, who was found to have unlawfully arrested a delivery worker for being out past curfew on the Upper West Side on June 4, 2020. "Video footage showed that the Victim tried to inform officers that he had proof of employment as an essential worker on his phone, but he was ignored," the report states. The NYPD overruled the CCRB and imposed no discipline on Ortiz, who made $224,000 in 2022, and has been named in at least seven lawsuits over his career, totaling more than $1 million in settlements.
The NYPD and CCRB use a mutually agreed disciplinary matrix that lays out a schedule of disciplinary consequences for given types of misconduct. Under a memorandum of understanding between the NYPD and CCRB, when the Commissioner deviates from discipline recommended by the CCRB in line with the matrix, she has to write a letter explaining why. The CCRB report reproduces each of these letters in their entirety. They are generally very brief. The operative paragraph of one representative letter reads like this: "A review of significant evidence which portrayed the extremely dangerous situation in which Officers Vanbrakle and Patane found themselves on May 30, 2020, provided sufficient context to conclude that the use of OC Spray to deter further actions of violence against these officers and other officers alongside them was warranted."
For another 89 officers, the board recommended Charges and Specifications, which can carry more serious disciplinary penalties, including termination. Nearly three years after the protests, 70 percent of those cases are still pending. In another 15 percent of cases involving officers facing Charges and Specifications, the police Commissioner "retained" the cases, meaning that the CCRB cannot prosecute the officers in an administrative trial and the NYPD alone will determine punishment. In most of the cases the NYPD took over, the officers received no discipline at all. All told, the CCRB's prosecuting arm negotiated guilty pleas from three officers. A fourth officer negotiated a plea deal, but the police commissioner rejected the deal and imposed lesser discipline.
The NYPD released a strident response to the CCRB's report, touting the low substantiation rate as evidence of exemplary behavior rather than officer subterfuge and evidentiary obstruction. "A key element missing from this report is any acknowledgement that officers were performing their utmost duty, protecting the city and its people, under what were often sustained, dangerous conditions," the NYPD asserts. (The authors of the NYPD response appear not to have made it to page 5 of the report, which acknowledges that "members of service were facing unprecedented challenges.")
All told, the CCRB report paints a picture of a state of affairs in which police caught red-handed beating civilians and lying to cover it up are not only keeping their jobs, but suffering no consequences for doing so.
Sergeant Daniel Nicoletti was caught on video on June 2, 2020 using his nightstick to beat the calves of a person already being held face-down on the ground by several other officers. Identified and interviewed by the CCRB, Nicoletti said he didn't recall hitting anyone with his baton. Shown the video, Nicolletti said that it did not refresh his memory about beating anyone with his baton. The CCRB substantiated one use-of-force violation and one untruthful-statement violation against Nicoletti, and sent the charges to the NYPD.
In May of last year, the NYPD wrote back to the CCRB: "After careful consideration, the Police Commissioner has determined that the Police Department will retain jurisdiction over this matter and not pursue Charges/Specifications against Sergeant Nicoletti and take no disciplinary matter against him."
This past June, Nicoletti was promoted to Lieutenant.
Nick Pinto served two tours as staff writer at the Village Voice. His reporting has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Gothamist, The New Republic, Rolling Stone, The Intercept, and elsewhere.
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