If You Dare Complain
About Police Abuse...

The record of New York's Civilian Complaint Review Board

Revolutionary Worker #982, November 15, 1998

A small story made its way into the New York City media toward the end of this summer. The story involved the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB)--the main city agency handling complaints against cops. Between 1993-95, the CCRB "lost" the records of at least 87 cases of police abuse that it had "substantiated"--in other words, determined to be real according to their standards. The story barely made a ripple in the media. According to the authorities, it was just a "clerical error." From their point of view, the people who had tried to get some kind of justice against abusive and brutal cops through this official channel were just plain out of luck.

What kind of agency is the CCRB? For the ruling class, the CCRB is like a lightning rod that serves to draw the outrage of many who are harassed and brutalized by the NYPD into safer ground. When thousands of people took to the streets after cops beat and raped Abner Louima in August 1997, one of the first things Mayor Giuliani did was to beef up the CCRB. He announced a 20 percent expansion of the CCRB and increased its budget. A couple months later--on October 22, 1997, the Second National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality--Giuliani issued a press release calling on the CCRB to "establish standards to speed the handling of civilian complaints."

The mayor's focus on the CCRB in the face of growing outcry against police brutality is telling. Giuliani actually has a long record of opposing "civilian" participation in the CCRB. But faced with mass protest, he turned to the CCRB as a way to deflect the people's anger in a direction safer for the system.

A Toothless Agency

The CCRB is supposed to investigate complaints involving excessive force, abuse of authority, discourtesy, and offensive language (including slurs against a person's sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, gender or disability). It can also investigate deaths if the district attorney has not initiated a case. In 1995, the breakdown of 8,767 complaints filed with the agency according to category was: use of force--3,521; abuse of authority--2,302; discourtesy--2,322; offensive language--622.

In reality, the CCRB is a toothless agency. They cannot discipline cops. All they are authorized to do is investigate complaints and determine whether or not they think they are real--in their words, they decide if the complaint is "substantiated" or "unsubstantiated." The record of the CCRB is revealing. According to the NY Times, between July 1993 and December 1996 the CCRB handled 16,327 complaints --and substantiated only 690. In other words, only about 4 in 100 complaints are not dismissed outright by the CCRB.

If the CCRB substantiates a case, they send it to the Police Commissioner for possible disciplinary measures. But the Police Commissioner routinely dismisses many of these cases. In 1997, the Police Commissioner dismissed half of the cases sent to him by the CCRB. Finally, of the small number of cases that actually end up in disciplinary action against cops, the overwhelming majority result in light slaps on the wrist. Of the 52 NYC cops disciplined in 1996, only one cop was dismissed. Four cops were suspended, one was placed on probation, three lost more than 10 vacation days. Seventy percent received only verbal warnings or a loss of one vacation day.

Given the fact that most of the complaints are simply dismissed, it is especially outrageous that the CCRB "lost" 87 of the cases that they actually substantiated. The CCRB only has 18 months to review a case--after that period they can't pursue it. So these "lost" cases are now no longer considered valid.

Meanwhile thousands of people continue to file reports each year. In the first six months of 1998 civilian complaints against police rose 21 percent--by almost 500 cases--compared with the same period last year.

Not surprisingly, cops who rack up a high number of civilian complaints are also among the most murderous. Frances Livoti, who choked Anthony Baez to death, had at least 11 brutality complaints against him. Michael Davitt, who shot and killed William Whitfield in a Brooklyn supermarket, had 12 "unsubstantiated" complaints against him. Paolo Colecchia, who shot Nathaniel Gaines in the back and killed him, had three excessive force complaints in 1994 alone--none of which were substantiated. Then there is the case of Patrick Brosnan, one of the cops who shot Hilton Vega and Anthony Rosario 8 and 14 times respectively. The CCRB substantiated charges of excessive force in this case, but the Police Commissioner did not pursue any action. In fact, Brosnan was allowed to retire with full benefits, without facing any department charges. He was even given a disability pension because he claimed to have suffered hearing damage during the shooting.

Abused for Filing Complaints

What happens when someone wants to file a complaint against cops through official channels? In August, the NBC news magazine Dateline ran a story on how the NYPD handles complaints. The program opened by pointing out that Abner Louima's family bravely went to the 70th precinct to file a complaint. They were told by the sergeant, "You can't make a complaint here." This is the precinct where the cops told Abner Louima that they would kill him if he yelled out or made any noise while they pushed a toilet plunger up his rectum.

Dateline hired a Florida-based group, the Police Complaint Center, which uses hidden cameras to monitor and expose abusive cops. They went in to some NYC police precincts to see how complaints were handled. The group tested 15 precincts in the five boroughs of the city in October 1997. According to Dateline, "Eight out of the 15 precincts followed procedure and behaved properly. In seven precincts we tested, there was either incorrect information, incorrect procedures, rudeness or all three."

Dateline later went back and tested 17 more precincts--three months after Police Commissioner Howard Safir claimed he reissued his guidelines on dealing with civilian complaints. This time 8 out of 17 precincts didn't follow the official procedures.

According to NYPD policy a complaint can be filed at a police precinct by calling the 800 number for the CCRB or by mailing in a complaint form. The majority of complaints are filed directly with the CCRB, but hundreds are filed in precincts every year.

The Dateline investigator, Paul Parker, went into precincts mainly trying to find out how to file a complaint and seeing if he could get a form. Parker, an African-American, was repeatedly given a hard time and grilled by cops at the front desk. When he asked for a complaint form at one precinct he was told, "You don't fill the form out. We fill the form out." When he asked cops at the 47th Precinct in the Bronx for a form, they told him, "Yeah, you have to tell me about it first, all right?" When he insisted, they said, "You think about it and come back." In the 71st precinct in Brooklyn, Parker was cursed at by a cop. When he refused to give his name at the 40th Precinct, he was told to "Get out of my station." All this was caught on video camera.

Some History of Review Boards

New York City has had some kind of civilian complaint boards since 1953. Until 1987 the board was made up entirely of cops. From 1987 until 1993, the CCRB was made up of six cops and six "private citizens." According to Amnesty International, this board substantiated only about 7 percent of the complaints it received every year.

In 1992, the administration of David Dinkins, (the city's first Black mayor), attempted to create a review board that was not as directly under the control of the police. This was in the midst of mass outrage at a number of racist attacks and police murders as well as people's rebellions in Crown Heights and Washington Heights. Dinkins' attempt to cool things out was met by sharp opposition by cops and other forces in the ruling class. The mere suggestion that the cops should be restrained in any way from beating, insulting and brutalizing was enough to drive them into a frothing rage. In September 1992, 10,000 cops rallied on the steps of City Hall. Giuliani, then a candidate running against Dinkins, addressed the rally and said that Dinkins' idea for the board was "bullshit." The rally was ugly and openly racist.

In the end the rulers decided that the new CCRB would be made up of 13 members appointed by the Mayor, the City Council and the Police Commissioner. While officially labelled "civilian," the CCRB is headed by Frank Wohl, a former federal prosecutor who worked under Giuliani when he was U.S. Attorney in the 1980s. Wohl's predecessor was Mel Barkan, who also worked under Giuliani when he was U.S. Attorney. Also on the CCRB is Tosano Simmonetti, who was deputy police commissioner during Giuliani's first term as mayor.

Police Retribution

In addition to the intimidation of people who try to file complaints, the cops also engage in retribution against those who dare to challenge them. A recent article in Newsday exposed how NYPD cops take revenge on people who lodge complaints. The following examples cited in the article began with relatively minor traffic incidents--which gives a chilling idea of how viciously cops act in even more serious confrontations.

  • Albert Zihenni, a 24-year-old engineering student, had a run-in with NYPD cop George Mellina in midtown Manhattan in January 1997. While Mellina ticketed Zihenni for a traffic violation, a cab hit Zihenni's car. Zihenni said, "I wanted to file an insurance report, but [Melinna] tried to dissuade me. I called other cops and he got upset at me." Zihenni filed a civilian complaint later that day.

    Three months later, Zihenni was waiting to pay a parking ticket when he was arrested on charges of reckless endangerment, reckless driving and resisting arrest for an alleged traffic incident in February. He faced seven years in prison if convicted. In court Zihenni proved that at the time of the alleged incident, he was about 10 miles away in a classroom. The whole incident was fabricated by Mellina. Charges against Zihenni were dismissed. As for Zihenni's complaint, the CCRB sent it to the Police Commissioner, who said his account was inconsistent and no action would be taken.

  • James Schillaci was ticketed for running a red light in the Bronx in May 1997. Schillaci noticed that cops had set up a ticket trap by rolling their patrol cars over a sensor to trigger a red light. He saw dozens of people receive tickets this way. Schillaci videotaped what he saw and complained to the CCRB, the Internal Affairs Bureau, the city Department of Transportation, the Office of Public Advocate and on the air during Giuliani's weekly call-in radio show. The Mayor said he would look into the matter. Several hours later two cops came to Schillaci's house, interviewed him and looked at his videotape. About two weeks later the NYPD wrote to say that the police conduct was not "unlawful or improper." Schillaci then took his story to the press. The next day, he was arrested on a 13-year-old warrant for traffic violations. The traffic charges were later dismissed.

    In the course of all this Giuliani and NYPD spokeswoman Marilyn Mode publicly claimed that Schillaci was once convicted of sodomy and burglary. Mode was later forced to admit that this was a blatant lie. Typically, Giuliani's response was to criticize the press for bashing the police.

  • Laura Baird spotted two cops, Joseph Perez and Charles Pulci, ticketing her car in a street cleaning zone in Brooklyn in September 1997. Baird argued about the ticket, and the cops threatened to lock her up because they didn't like her "attitude." Baird was not arrested, but the cops cursed at her and kept her from getting in the car. Witnesses supported her account.

    Baird went to the 84th Precinct to file a complaint. The sergeant on duty, Jeffrey Lachman, tried to talk her out of filing the complaint, but she filed it anyway. Two days later Lachman called her home and spoke with her 13-year-old son, who said the cop made obscene comments. Baird reported the call and Internal Affairs detectives opened an investigation. But this only resulted in a worse nightmare for Baird and her son. Internal Affairs detectives convinced Baird to allow her son to talk to Lachman six more times so the telephone conversations could be tape recorded. During the taped conversations, Lachman made further lewd comments to Baird's son. And Baird's cooperation with Internal Affairs did not prevent further police abuse. Two weeks after Baird filed the complaint, she was stopped by Perez and Pulci for a supposed traffic violation. "They obviously recognized me," Baird said. "They dragged me out, kicked the backs of my legs and kicked my glasses down the sidewalk. I am 5-foot-2, 120 pounds, and I did not resist." One person who was nearby tried to intervene and was arrested. Baird says the cops swore at her and threw her against a storefront window. They handcuffed her and drove her to the 84th Precinct--where she was brought in front of Lachman. Baird was charged with assault on a police officer, resisting arrest, escape and disorderly conduct. At the pre-arraignment holding pens in Brooklyn, she was strip-searched and photographed. Several weeks later, the case was dismissed on insufficient evidence. "They were fake charges manufactured to cover up police misconduct," said her attorney Ron Kuby.

    Lachman was later arrested on child endangerment charges and fired from the NYPD. The Internal Affairs Bureau is said to be still "investigating" Perez and Pulci, who remain on duty. As for Baird's original complaint with the CCRB, Baird says her case was shuttled to various investigators and declared to be "unsubstantiated."

  • *****

    The work of the CCRB comes down to this: The many thousands of people each year who are subjected to police harassment, cursing, insults, racial slurs, beatings, trumped-up charges and false arrests are told to file official complaints. Often the police try to intimidate or talk people out of filing complaints. When complaints are filed, they are usually officially dismissed. The cases that do not get immediately dropped by the CCRB are dismissed by the Police Commissioner, with a very few exceptions. And these few exceptions almost always end up with token "punishment" of the cops.

    This is a process that serves to cover up the systematic brutality of the NYPD, rather than helping the victims of police abuse. The workings of the CCRB actually shed more light on the ugly epidemic of police brutality raging in New York City.

    This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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