October 08, 2016 - 6:22 AM
NEW YORK - Each day in a drab set of courtrooms, anybody can sit and watch New York City police officers face administrative trials accusing them of misconduct ranging from disobeying orders to aggressive arrests resulting in a suspect's death.
But most outcomes of such trials — whether an officer is reprimanded, docked pay or put on probation — are not disclosed.
The secrecy is the result of a state law protecting the privacy of officer disciplinary records, and a recent city decision to adhere to the confidentiality rules more closely — a move that puts America's largest police force at odds with a national movement to make law enforcement more transparent to the public.
"It's striking to have a system where the hearings are open and the decisions are secret, but that's exactly what we have at the NYPD," said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director at the New York Civil Liberties Union, who has fought for full disclosure of the penalties.
Two high-profile alleged abuse cases involving white officers and black men could thrust the tribunals' incongruities into the spotlight: the slaying of unarmed teenager Ramarley Graham in a Bronx home in 2012 and the roughing up of former professional tennis player James Blake last year. Both officers are expected to face administrative hearings before the end of the year.
Concerns over transparency of the NYPD's disciplinary system took hold in recent months after the city appealed a decision by a state court judge ordering the release of the records of Daniel Pantaleo, the officer accused of putting Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold in 2014. A grand jury declined to indict the officer on criminal charges, but he's still the subject of an administrative case that could end his police career.
Around the time the city filed its appeal, the NYPD stopped providing the outcomes of administrative proceedings to the media, which it had previously done for decades. Department lawyers justified both moves by saying they needed stricter compliance with a state law meant to protect the privacy of police officers, jail guards and firefighters — a position strongly backed by police unions.
In response to an outcry by politicians and police reform advocates, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city had to follow the law, but also said he'd favour changes that would allow more openness.
That response didn't satisfy Graham's mother, Constance Malcolm, who accused the mayor of not doing enough to keep victims' families informed. At a recent rally, she complained that she knew that the department was preparing a case against the shooter only because of news reports.
"How would anybody in my neighbourhood find out about this information?" Malcolm said.
In high-profile cases such as fatal shootings, police officials regularly name officers accused of wrongdoing, announce if they have been placed on desk duty or suspended pending the outcome of criminal or administrative charges, and confirm if they've been fired — a practice that's not expected to change. What's not available is records of punishment for misbehaviour in an officer's past.
Proceedings in the "trial room" at NYPD headquarters are open, but attendance isn't encouraged. The department doesn't publicly release trial calendars, making them available only to reporters if they ask for them at police headquarters.
A police oversight panel that handles some cases, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, posts a calendar of its cases on its website. But the list doesn't name the officers.
Last week's docket was filled with typical fare. It included an officer accused of being absent for five hours and 48 minutes without authorization, another accused of being discourteous to a superior, and a lieutenant accused of giving an order to doctor crime statistics by reducing a grand larceny to a petty larceny.
The cases go forward in a way that looks like any other trial. There's no jury, but department prosecutors — called "advocates" — and defence lawyers make arguments and objections, present evidence and grill witnesses.
In-house administrative judges who hear the cases later draft rulings recommending a punishment ranging from reprimands to firings — all subject to final approval, reversal or change by the police commissioner.
On two trial days last week, the public galleries were empty except for an Associated Press reporter.
On the first day, a reporter was warned not to record the proceeding. Midway through the hearing for the AWOL officer, the NYPD public information office sent a representative who sat with a reporter until it ended.
In that case, the advocate told the judge that security and subway card scanner records proved that Officer Jeffrey Broner had ducked out of work. The officer testified that he had all the permission from his superiors and claimed his security card malfunctioned.
Union lawyer Stuart London argued the case was trivial and likely the result of someone in the department's animosity for his client.
"It's almost like this department has a bull's-eye on his back," he said, calling the penalty sought by the department — forfeiture of 25 vacation days — excessive.
Another case with 15 days of vacation time at stake had nothing to do with the accused's police work. It was alleged Detective James Rosado roughed up his wife during a domestic dispute over their children's late-night use of electronic devices.
The trial featured a tape of a frantic 911 call from his wife and the testimony of four officers who investigated the case and concluded his conduct, though not a crime, violated the department codes. There was one problem for the advocate: Rosado's wife had recanted her accusation that he had smacked her.
The detective fidgeted at the defence table as the case unfolded. When the judge suggested a lunch break, he asked to press on.
"I want to get this over with," he said.
News from © The Associated Press, 2016