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NYPD in 'Dark Ages' About Handling Officers Who Use Force, DOI Says

By Rosa Goldensohn | October 1, 2015 10:34am
 Eric Garner died after an officer used a chokehold on him while trying to arrest him in Staten Island.
Eric Garner died after an officer used a chokehold on him while trying to arrest him in Staten Island.
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New York Daily News

CIVIC CENTER — The NYPD is living in the "dark ages" when it comes to recording the use of force by its officers, the department's Inspector General said as part of a new report.

The Inspector General for the police department, who works under the umbrella of the Department of Investigation, said that the NYPD does not keep comprehensive records of times officers use force on civilians, and often overlooks proven cases in which police officers took things too far.

"NYPD was living a little bit in the dark ages with respect to its use of force policies,” NYPD Inspector General Philip Eure said following a report that called the NYPD’s current use-of-force policy “vague and imprecise” and blasted the department for failing to track the incidents or discipline the officers responsible.

Just before Eure's report was released Thursday, the NYPD announced a change in protocol requiring officers to chronicle all instances in which force is used — not just when it's part of an arrest, but also when it takes place during any run-ins with the public, such as the incident with retired tennis star James Blake three weeks ago, according to The New York Times.

The DOI investigation into cases where police use physical force on civilians was sparked by the 2014 death of Eric Garner, according to the report.

Police often do not report having used physical force on civilians in arrest records, the investigation found, in part because of fuzzy rules and lack of protocol.

"The NYPD Patrol Guide contains no definition of 'force,'" the report says.

Unlike in other cities, New York's police department “does not have a separate, centralized, and mandatory use‐of‐force form for documenting when physical force has been used,” the report said.

“In some instances, there is no obligation to document force at all,” the report says.

The Department of Investigation study looked at 179 cases, closed between 2010 and 2014, in which complaints to the Civilian Complaint Review Board about police officers using excessive force had been substantiated.

Cases included those of a 45-year-old man who was slammed to the ground by an officer who did not believe his story that he had been locked out of his apartment, as well as a 15-year-old who was threatened and pushed by an officer who ultimately received no discipline.

One NYPD officer has yet to be disciplined after stopping a 26-year-old man for riding his bike on the sidewalk in Queens and then punching him four times in the face. The officer then bent him down and pulled his legs out from under him so he crashed backwards onto the sidewalk, and then punched him twice again when he was on the ground, the DOI found. Another officer stood idly by while his coworker delivered the beating, DOI said.

In another, a police officer pulled a gun on a man who was videotaping him interacting with two other men. After swinging violently at the man’s phone, the officer hurled racial epithets at the man while “aggressively commanding him” to put his phone away, DOI said.

In most cases, police did not use instruments during their altercations, but 16 incidents involved nightsticks or other instruments, 15 involved pepper spray and in ten incidents, guns were used. Eleven involved chokeholds, DOI said.

When filling out records after an arrest, officers are supposed to make a note if they used force, the report said.

But in half of the arrests in which police were found to have used excessive force, officers had not indicated in their records that they used any force, excessive or otherwise.

There is no mechanism for police to report use of force unless the individual against whom force was used was arrested, according to DOI.

Even when police officers were found to have used excessive force after victims complained, NYPD "frequently failed to impose discipline," the investigation found.

In more than a third of cases where excessive use of force was found to have been used, NYPD imposed no discipline on the offending officers. In two-thirds of cases, they imposed less punishment than the CCRB recommended.

“Historically, NYPD has frequently failed to discipline officers who use force without justification,” the report says. "In a number of cases, the department has failed to meet its fundamental obligation to police itself."

The report found that black civilians were disproportionately likely to be subject to excessive force. White people accounted for less than 8 percent of targets, 58 percent of whom were black and 30 percent of whom were Hispanic. Just under 13 percent were women. The officers implicated were predominantly white, the investigation found.

Among its recommendations, the Department of Investigation said police officers need to be taught to de-escalate situations, pointing out that there is “little to no focus” on the tactic in the department’s training programs.

The NYPD did not immediately respond to requests for comment.