Layoffs at Police Watchdog Agency Prompt Claims of Retaliation

Layoffs at Police Watchdog Agency Prompt Claims of Retaliation

Four senior officials at the New York City agency that examines allegations of police misconduct were laid off abruptly on Thursday in what officials described as a restructuring meant to expand its investigative muscle.

But some employees of the agency, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, said the layoffs were retaliation for the officials’ roles in criticizing how the board responds when the Police Department refuses to cooperate with its investigations.

The layoffs came after several high-profile police killings of Black people, including George Floyd in Minneapolis, touched off huge protests against police brutality across the United States and led to a surge of complaints against officers in New York and other cites.

The protests focused new attention on the review board and its work as momentum built in the City Council and State Legislature to revamp New York’s criminal justice system and address systemic racism.

The Rev. Fred Davie, the board’s chairman, said in a statement on Thursday that the four senior positions were being eliminated to free up around $600,000 that would be used to hire 20 additional investigators over the next year. That was the sole reason for the layoffs, said Mr. Davie, who denied that the cuts were retaliatory.

“This was the result of the need to address redundancies at the managerial level and reallocate resources during a difficult time for our city,” he said in the statement.

Mr. Davie noted in his statement that the board had spoken out repeatedly about its lack of direct access to police body-camera video when investigating complaints against officers.

He previously split with Mayor Bill de Blasio by publicly supporting the repeal of a law used to keep police misconduct records secret. After state lawmakers repealed the law, known as 50-a, the review board released a database of civilian complaints going back decades.

Bill Neidhardt, a spokesman for Mr. de Blasio, said that the layoffs on Thursday would help the review board speed up its investigations at a time when the city has been forced to freeze most new spending. He said the mayor “supports that step forward.”

But current and former review board employees said that the four people who had been laid off — two chiefs of investigations, one deputy chief of investigations, and the director of policy and advocacy — had all pushed for the agency to take a more aggressive stance toward the Police Department.

“These are the people who fought back against police stonewalling against the agency, and it seems like the agency is capitulating to the N.Y.P.D.,” Andrew Case, a former board spokesman, said.

The officials — J. Christopher Duerr, Winsome Thelwell, Dane Buchanan and Nicole M. Napolitano — were let go after being summoned to meetings with human resources officials early Thursday, according to an agency employee with knowledge of the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

None of the four returned messages seeking comment on Thursday.

Mr. Buchanan helped write a memo obtained by ProPublica that outlined how the Police Department withheld crucial evidence, including body-camera video, from the review board and steps the agency could take — but did not — to fight back.

(A board spokesman said on Thursday that 4 percent of the agency’s open cases were waiting for body-camera video and that 12 cases were awaiting the outcome of internal police investigations into officers’ use of lethal force.)

Ms. Thelwell, who had been with the board for about 25 years, was one of the agency’s longest-serving employees. Ms. Napolitano had written several memos to agency executives detailing areas where it could improve.

The senior board employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity criticized the agency for laying off officials who collectively acted as an internal watchdog.

The employee also took issue with the timing of the cuts. The recent protests in the city, coupled with reports that spotlighted abuses in how the police responded to the demonstrations, underscored the board’s importance, said the employee, who also noted that voters in several cities had approved the creation or expansion of police oversight agencies.

“It should be a huge embarrassment and shame to the city when they hear about this,” the senior employee said.

The review board currently has 122 investigators and a budget of less than $20 million, according to a spokesman and the mayor’s management report.

Police have had fewer contacts with civilians than usual this year because of the pandemic, according to officials, and the review board has received fewer complaints so far this year than it did in 2019. Nearly half of 3,332 complaints filed this year were made during and after the protests, according to a monthly agency report.

The average time it takes investigators to complete an investigation has risen from about eight months in 2019 to more than nine months this year, which the review board has attributed to the growing role of video in examining complaints. Investigators must often find and watch hours of video, a task that has become more time-consuming since the protests.

The agency does not have the power to discipline officers. Instead, it makes recommendations to the Police Department and, in the most serious cases, prosecutes officers before an administrative judge. The police commissioner has the final say on discipline.

The board has 18 months to investigate cases and make recommendations, and delays can cause cases to be closed before inquiries are complete.

Over the summer, the board threatened to bring charges against officers who refused to show up for remote interviews with investigators after the Police Department declined for weeks to take action on the matter. The department eventually ordered the officers to comply.

Like Ms. Thelwell, Mr. Duerr was among the agency’s longest-serving employees and, like her, he was an expert on the Police Department and the disciplinary process, Mr. Case said.

“These are people who have deep institutional knowledge spanning multiple executive directors, multiple police commissioners, multiple mayors, on how to obtain and present evidence of police misconduct,” he said. “It doesn’t seem that there’s any reasonable reason to choose these people to terminate, except to retaliate against them for something.”

Published at Thu, 12 Nov 2020 19:31:00 +0000

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