Police Records, No Longer Secret, Shed Light on Misconduct

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More than 323,900 complaints, naming more than 81,500 police officers, spanning more than three decades.

The volume of records published online by the New York Civil Liberties Union last week, after state lawmakers in July repealed a law that had kept them secret, was a huge development in a long-running battle over access to information about police discipline.

Police unions and politicians have fiercely fought against disclosure of the records, and the legal confrontation will likely continue. But the records that have been released provide new insight into cases of misconduct.

I talked to my colleague Ashley Southall, police bureau chief for the Metro desk at The New York Times, to try to make sense of what the development means.

[The records offer the broadest look to date at how officers are investigated and punished.]

A. The biggest takeaway is that police discipline in New York City is no longer secret. For almost 45 years, longer than I have been alive, there was a law in New York State that allowed the police to keep these records secret. And that’s no longer the case.

People who filed the complaints with the Civilian Complaint Review Board can now learn the outcome, whereas it was near impossible before. Additionally, we now have a broad-enough data set to discern what some of the norms are for police discipline.

When Daniel Pantaleo, the officer that put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold — when his disciplinary records were leaked, there was no way to tell if he was a bad guy who had just been a cowboy uncontrolled all these years, or if his activity was relatively normal. Now we can look at the data and see what the norms are and what the range of behavior is.

Anything you do with this data is going to require further reporting. There are lots of questions about what the data is; there’s some missing pieces.

Generally, people are going to be interested in, who are the officers with the most complaints? What precincts have the most trouble?

I think the big question that everybody wants to answer is, how effective is the police disciplinary process? I think we can kind of assume the answer is “not very.” But why it isn’t, I think that question is a lot harder to answer.

It’s now something that you can fold into any story: This officer has X amount of complaints.

It’s a quick way to have a fuller picture of an officer’s history on the job. Not to say that complaints are evidence of guilt — a lot of times they are not. I think a lot of people are going to find out just how much authority police have.

There will be cases where an officer did in fact do a thing that is alleged but that is fully in the police’s power. I think that is jarring to a lot of people.

The sounds of New York City have changed. A recent project by The Times’s Dan Barry and Todd Heisler lets you listen for yourself.

“We once measured our days to New York City’s rhythms, keeping to its idiosyncratic beat,” Mr. Barry wrote. “But now the faint strains of Alicia Keys professing her empire state of mind come from some indefinable distance; wisps of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ float past in the evening breeze.”

He continued: “We are living in the echo — in the almost quite — of what had been our city life. It can be unsettling, melancholic.

“We ache for what was.”

In the multimedia project, The Times shared sounds recorded in pre-pandemic New York: a parade in the streets, the roar of fans at a ballgame, the bustle of the subway.

Those sounds accompany Mr. Heisler’s photographs, like the one above of a boy flying a kite. Some of the images are unsettling and yet also reassuring, reminding us of the New York we hope will return.

Dear Diary:

I was on the M104 going south on Broadway. As I got off at my stop, a woman waiting to get on told me that my shoe was untied.

I thanked her and said that I would tie it when I got onto the sidewalk.

Before I had a chance, the driver got up from his seat, climbed down the steps, knelt on the pavement and tied the lace for me.

— Ardell Borodach

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