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The Cops

The Police Budget Prospers As the Police Watchdog Budget Starves

While the NYPD is already $100 million over budget on overtime alone, the City's police watchdog says its own skeletal budget "does not allow the CCRB to function properly."

NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell testified before City Council Monday. (NYC Council)

It's budget season in New York City, which means the City Council is working its way through each City agency to assess how it's spending taxpayer money. On Monday, the Council's eye turned to the NYPD, which currently commands a $5.5 billion budget. (That figure doesn't even count the pensions and other fringe costs, which take total police spending closer to $11 billion.)

At a time when the Adams administration is seeking to cut funding to education, libraries, sanitation, and other key services, the NYPD budget is set to increase from last year—even as the NYPD is on track to spend nearly twice as much on overtime this fiscal year than the $453 million budgeted. Not everyone thinks this makes sense—the Council's Progressive Caucus recently tore itself apart over the question of whether it might ever be permissible to reduce the police budget—but the overwhelming consensus on the City Council remains that when it comes to the budget, what the NYPD wants, the NYPD gets. 

This secure position may have something to do with the police department's recent repeated refusals to attend City Council oversight hearings on its Strategic Response Group, a 500-person NYPD unit often deployed to demonstrations. Spurred by a New York Civil Liberties Union campaign to disband the SRG over its disproportionate share of misconduct complaints, the City Council has scheduled several oversight hearings on the group, only to learn the NYPD would not cooperate by attending the hearings. Most recently, the NYPD justified its absence by citing a judicial gag order which does not exist.

The NYPD did show up for Monday's budget hearing, though it continued to refuse to discuss the SRG, citing, in the words of Carrie Telansky, the acting head of the NYPD's in-house legal team, "pending litigation and the confidentiality agreement that is in place." Councilmembers shouldn't be offended by the brush-off, though, NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell said on Monday: "It is never the intention of this police department to disrespect this body."

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams did not appear convinced. "We have definitely a differing of opinion when it came to whether or not this department was able to appear on that day," she said.

This discussion of the SRG was interrupted by a chorus of squeals from the audience, emanating from toy squeaky pigs operated by a group calling itself the Squeaky Pig Orchestra, along with shouted calls to "Shut down the SRG." This squeaking and shouting did not go over well with Councilmember Kamillah Hanks, the chair of the Public Safety Commitee. "Sergeant at arms, please remove anyone speaking," Hanks said. "You will respect this body. You will respect this hearing. The use of squeaky toys—you will be removed."

Councilmembers' questions for the NYPD focused in large part on the department's ongoing unwillingness to bring its overtime spending in line with the amount budgeted. Other City agencies all have less staff availability than the police, yet they all manage to get by without profligate overtime spending, Speaker Adams noted. Why can't the NYPD?

Christine Ryan, the NYPD's budget director, explained that the $453 million overtime budget the NYPD is currently overspending is an artifact of the previous administration's efforts to cut costs during the COVID-19 pandemic. "We're not operating that level anymore," Ryan said. "What we're seeing is really a return to the historical practice."

Councilmember Tiffany Cabán, a member of the Progressive Caucus, pressed the NYPD leadership on its failure to deliver a quarterly spending report on time, the $121 million that lawsuits against police cost New York City last year, and the department's failure so far to proceed with disciplinary action against the police officer who killed Kawaski Trawick in 2019.

Councilmember Bob Holden took a different approach in his questions, saying police officers need a raise and less criticism. "To hear criticism of the men and women that protect us is disgraceful, and I'm sick of it," Holden said. "We need to have the backs of our officers—they keep us safe. Anybody saying that they don't is delusional."

Perhaps the most striking conflict during the hearing concerned the NYPD's disciplinary practices, and the frequency with which Commissioner Sewell, who has ultimate authority over officer discipline, disregards and overrides the disciplinary recommendations of the Civilian Complaint Review Board. A review by the Legal Aid Society found that Sewell followed the disciplinary recommendations of the CCRB in fewer than half of cases last year.

Sewell defended her record on Monday. "To run a police department, officers have to be willing to take action and believe that they are being treated fairly when they are making boots on the ground decisions," she said.

Amy Litwin, head of the NYPD's in-house disciplinary trial bureau, disputed the Legal Aid report, saying that the NYPD deviates only rarely from the disciplinary matrix hammered out between the NYPD and the CCRB in 2021, which is meant to govern what disciplinary consequences pertain to different types of misconduct. Since the matrix was adopted, she said, "The department has reviewed and concluded over 4,000 disciplinary matters." Of those cases, Litwin said, "We have agreed with the penalties within the matrix 99.7 percent of the time." Here, the NYPD is counting not only cases brought by the CCRB, which opens and investigates cases independently of the NYPD, but also the NYPD's own internal disciplinary process. 

"Of the cases that we've seen from the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the police commissioner has agreed on 85 percent of the cases in this year," Litwin noted.

Under the terms of the memorandum of understanding with the CCRB, the NYPD is supposed to publicly post letters explaining each instance in which the police commissioner deviates from the discipline of the matrix. To date, Sewell has only published 10 letters, Litwin said. 

The NYPD's numbers differ starkly from the Legal Aid Society's analysis, which found that Sewell departed from the CCRB's disciplinary recommendations in 425 out of 754 cases.

At a separate hearing on the CCRB's budget that was also held on Monday, the CCRB's Executive Director Jonathan Darche told councilmembers that the Legal Aid Society's statistics are "a correct assessment."

The discrepancy between the two agency's accounting mostly stems from some 346 cases in which the NYPD decided that the CCRB's disciplinary recommendation came too close to the end of the statute of limitations for the offenses charged.

"We cannot determine what discipline will be administered if we do not have the amount of time necessary to give them the thorough review that they deserve," Sewell testified. "It takes months for us to process the cases." This long processing time is due, in part, to the fact that the department conducts multiple levels of independent review on every recommendation received from the CCRB before the commissioner makes a final determination.

CCRB officials don't dispute that they have faced a long backlog of cases and that it's taken them a long time to get some cases to the NYPD. This has many causes, they said: an explosion of complaints against officers stemming from the protests of 2020; the refusal of the police to take part in virtual interviews during the height of the pandemic, which ground many cases to a standstill; and frequent delays on the part of the NYPD in providing access to body-worn camera evidence, which CCRB investigators do not have independent access to. (A bill pending in the City Council would give the CCRB direct access to body-worn camera footage, something civilian oversight bodies in Chicago and Washington, D.C. already have.)

But the key issue appears to be more fundamental: New York City doesn't fund its civilian police watchdog at a level that allows it to do its job. The CCRB's official budget headcount is currently at 259 staff, but that number will fall even lower, to 237 staffers, under Mayor Adam's proposed budget for the coming year; meanwhile, the NYPD has some 34,000 members. "While this number comports with the minimum funding level established in the city charter," Interim CCRB Chair Arva Rice testified on Monday, "it does not allow the CCRB to function properly," 

The CCRB's mandate has expanded in recent years to include accusations of racial profiling, bias-based policing, untruthful statements, and sexual misconduct, but the board's funding has not kept pace. The average CCRB prosecutor is managing 71 cases at any one time.

Other cities, Rice testified, peg funding for their police watchdogs at one percent of the police budget. "If New York were to adopt the same rule," she said, "the CCRB's projected budget for fiscal year '24 would be over $51 million—more than double what the proposed budget is." 

The upshot, Rice testified, is that police accountability in New York isn't living up to its reputation. "While we are often looked to as a national leader in police oversight, we fall starkly behind when it comes to direct access and budget," she said. "We need more budget and headcount to fulfill our mandate."

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