Data suggests thousands of cases of New York police breaking department guidelines, but consequences are rare

·8 min read
A person stands, arms raised to the side, in front of a row of police.
A person stands between NYPD officers and protesters during a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Brooklyn in 2020. Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images
  • New York City police often face few consequences for violating use-of-force guidelines.

  • An analysis of lawsuits and police oversight data shows the requency of these violations, from stop-and-frisk to chokeholds to strip searches.

  • Ahead of New York's June 22 mayoral primary, crime reduction - rather than police reform - has largely taken center stage.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

In the early evening of January 17, 2014, Najee Garnett was leaving a friend's New York apartment, when a group of officers stopped and searched him, according to a lawsuit Garnett filed in 2015.

The lawsuit alleged that, despite failing to find contraband, the officers arrested Garnett and then beat him in the head, neck and face, resulting in a seizure that put him in a coma for five days. He stayed in the hospital until Jan. 25. The very day of his discharge, he was arraigned in criminal court, charged with criminal trespass, resisting arrest, and unlawful possession of marijuana. He had to appear in court five times before the charges were dropped, and his lawsuit was later settled for $45,000 with the city.

The seven officers involved are still employed by the NYPD, even though the police practice of stop-and-frisk had been declared unconstitutional five months before Garnett was stopped. In fact, since Manhattan federal court judge Shira Scheindlin ruled in 2013 that "suspicionless stops should never occur," there have been over 500 lawsuits alleging illegal stops and searches by New York police.

Eight years after Mayor Bill de Blasio's opposition to stop-and-frisk helped pave his election to City Hall, New Yorkers are about to choose his successor. Now, a year after Black Lives Matter protests catapulted the movement to defund the police into mainstream conversation, the winner of the June 22 Democratic primary is heavily favored to become the next mayor - leading the nation's largest police force and its massive $6 billion budget.

But a rise in shootings in the city has shifted the debate in favor of crime prevention, and a recent poll found that police reform was low on the list of priorities for most New Yorkers.

Eric Garner protest
People participate in a protest to mark the five year anniversary of the death of Eric Garner during a confrontation with a police officer in the borough of Staten Island on July 17, 2019 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Disagreements over police funding and bans on specific, controversial practices can obscure what the data reveals. If history is a guide, some officers will likely continue to use prohibited police practices, and often with no serious consequences.

Using lawsuit data from and recently published data from the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), Insider found thousands of cases where police allegedly broke department guidelines and the prohibitions around stop-and-frisk.

"Every single day. All the time," Scott Hechinger, a former public defender, who now runs a non-profit, said of illegal searches. "And then they lie about it. And get away with it."

"Under no conditions"

Data that's available on Capstat, as well as newly public CCRB complaints, paint the following picture: 21 percent of officers have had one CCRB complaint, 3 percent have had five, while 9 percent have more than six, with some having racked up dozens.

The New York Police Department did not respond to a request for comment about any of the cases examined by Insider.

Avery Cohen, a de Blasio spokeswoman, said in a statement to Insider that the administration has taken expanded the CCRB's investigatory powers, and "pushed the NYPD and CCRB to adopt transparent and fair police discipline guidelines, finally assigning clear penalties in every case of officer misconduct," among other reforms.

The new police commissioner smiles while the mayor, standing next to him, applauds.
Dermot Shea (left), with Mayor de Blasio, being sworn in as the new NYPD Police Commissioner in 2019. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

"There is no silver bullet for undoing centuries of biased overpolicing, but we're proud of the steps we have taken towards lasting reform," Cohen said.

According to CCRB data collected by the New York Civil Liberties Union, alleged stop-and-frisk violations either result in no discipline or, at most, docked vacation days. And it's not just stop-and-frisk where breaches to police protocol have been catalogued.

Even though police chokeholds were banned in New York in 1993, since 1997, there have been 1,746 complaints about chokeholds to the CCRB. Only two of the officers accused of using a chokehold were exonerated, while 84 cases were found to be unsubstantiated, meaning there was not sufficient proof to show misconduct.

Even when the CCRB suggests termination, the most common punishment meted out by the NYPD is docked vacation days or sensitivity training.

Thousands of people are seeing marching with signs calling for police reform.
A silent march in New York in 2012 to protest NYPD racial profiling and the Stop and Frisk program. Tony Savino/Corbis via Getty Images

When Eric Garner died after being placed in a chokehold in 2014, there were calls for Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who restrained him, to be fired. But even as Garner's last words, "I can't breathe," became a rallying cry at protests for police accountability, the case against Pantaleo languished. He was finally fired in 2019, five years after Garner's death, after a police administrative judge ruled that he had put Garner in a chokehold despite police guidelines. (In 2020, New York state passed the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act, which established the crime of "aggravated strangulation" for cases where a police chokehold causes serious injury or death.)

Meanwhile, as the New York Times reported in 2021, police unions oppose even minor reforms; major New York City unions sued after the city instituted a ban on chokeholds.

"The CCRB has no power to enforce discipline," Andrew Case, a former CCRB investigator, told Insider. "The NYPD commissioner is able to accept or reject any recommended discipline and the department has routinely rejected or downgraded discipline for years."

A row of police are seen wearing face shields and riot gear.
NYPD officers at a protest following the killing of George Floyd on May 31, 2020 in New York City. Justin Heiman/Getty Images

Case points out that although the police manual requires that any officer who lies during an investigation should be terminated, that virtually never happens. And the NYPD pay scale is such that an officer gets almost yearly raises, regardless of their performance on the job. Meanwhile, taxpayers are on the hook for lawsuit settlements which, in 2015 - the most recent year from which most lawsuits that were filed have been resolved - ran up to millions of dollars.

In lawsuits against the city and in complaints to the CCRB, the violence alleged is often gratuitous and pointless - or worse.

On the question of body cavity searches, the NYPD training manual does not hedge its position, switching to all caps to drive the point home: "UNDER NO CONDITIONS SHALL A BODY CAVITY SEARCH BE CONDUCTED BY ANY MEMBER OF THE SERVICE." But according to CCRB data, 18 officers have been accused of conducting a body cavity search since 2018, and only one of those officers faced disciplinary consequences.

Unlike cavity searches, strip searches-the removal of undergarments to look for contraband-are allowed in the NYPD manual, but with very strict limitations. Officers have to get the approval of a superior, and show that taking off a person's underwear would prevent the destruction of important evidence or risk to officers. Doing a strip search on site is strictly prohibited. If possible, an officer of the same sex must conduct the search, and it must be private.

Yet, multiple lawsuits allege that officers ignored these protocols, conducting strip searches on site, in front of other officers and civilians, and without meeting the standard for proving the invasive search was necessary. While some are pending, the ones that have been settled have collectively resulted in payments of almost half a million dollars to plaintiffs.

"Zero tolerance"

Among the seven major candidates running in the Democratic primary for mayor, all have promised to oust the current commissioner, Dermot Shea, who has the final word on disciplinary action for cops accused of misconduct by the CCRB.

For now, the political calculation by most candidates in the mayor's race appears to be that New Yorkers are more worried about a rise in shootings than the conduct of police.

Wiley stands in front of a cluster of press microphones while aides look on.
Mayoral candidate Maya Wiley campaigning in Brooklyn in 2021. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Several of the leading candidates - including Eric Adams, the Brooklyn Borough President, who has touted his experience as a former NYPD captain, and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang - have endorsed sending more police into the city's subways and other places to stem that increase.

The two leading candidates who have amassed endorsements from the progressive wing of the party - Maya Wiley, who once headed the CCRB, and Comptroller Scott Stringer - have called for more modest cuts to the police budget, along with other reforms.

Kathryn Garcia, who ran the city's sanitation department, has called for "zero tolerance for rule infractions by police officers" and docked pay for misconduct. "Keeping people safe in their communities is one of the first responsibilities of a mayor," she said at a candidates forum last year. "We can't throw the baby out with the bath water."

Yang stands at a podium in Times Square.
Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang holds a press conference in Times Square to address recent shootings. Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

But what happens when police officers are the ones committing the violent crimes?

One observer with an opinion on that is Frank Serpico, the legendary whistleblower who exposed widespread corruption in the NYPD and was portrayed by Al Pacino in Sidney Lumet's 1973 film Serpico. He said that, in his experience, cops are likely to obstruct meaningful reforms.

"Our laws and correctional institutions focus on reform, but police who unjustifiably assault and kill civilians seem never to be held accountable, making reform impossible," Serpico said.

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