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Amid Calls to Reform Police, New York Activists and Lawmakers Demand An Elected Civilian Complaint Review Board

A representative board is needed to check the power of the NYPD and appropriately discipline officers for misconduct, they argue.

NYPD officers stand in line near a demonstration denouncing systemic racism in law enforcement and the May 25.Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images.

As the demand for defunding police departments gains national momentum, a New York City council member is renewing her push for an elected Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent body that investigates allegations of abuse or excessive force by NYPD officers, and recommends disciplinary actions. 

During a packed press conference outside One Police Plaza, New York City Councilmember Inez Barron announced on June 8 that she would introduce legislation that would abolish the existing CCRB and replace it with an elected CCRB that would also have enhanced power.  

“This bill fits perfectly into calls for defunding the police,” Barron told The Appeal in a phone interview. “Until such time we have the mechanisms to replace what’s going on in terms of the police department and the domination and the abuse that they are subjecting people to, until such time that it ends, we’re going to need this kind of legislation.”

The CCRB board consists of five members appointed by the mayor, three law enforcement officials appointed by the NYPD commissioner, and five members appointed by the city council. Per a change in the city charter, on July 6, the board will expand to 15 members with one member appointed by the public advocate and another member jointly appointed by the mayor and city council speaker. Any disciplinary recommendations it makes are not binding and are superseded by the police commissioner. The CCRB has a $19.5 million budget; the NYPD has a $6 billion budget. 

Barron’s district encompasses the neighborhoods of Brownsville and East New York, which have some of the highest rates of police misconduct suits—and highest settlement costs—of the entire city. Her legislation would, unlike the current CCRB, empower the board to issue binding rulings on disciplinary actions against police officers as well as pursue investigations of criminal misconduct through an independent special prosecutor. Additionally, the board would become a fully elected body of 21 representatives throughout the five boroughs; four of its members would serve from communities with the highest number of misconduct complaints. Cities such as Chicago and Rochester are also debating elected or empowered CCRBs. In Chicago, activists have been pushing the city to establish a Civilian Police Accountability Commission that would have the power to investigate and fire police officers found guilty of misconduct, but the bill has been stalled in the city council and lacks the support of Mayor Lori Lightfoot. 

Pamela Monroe, an organizer with the Campaign for an Elected Civilian Review Board, believes that the board’s close ties with the police department and mayor is what makes the CCRB so ineffective. Monroe points to the CCRB’s own data, which shows that, in 2018, the last year for which statistics have been published, the CCRB substantiated 226 complaints against 326 officers. Of the 51 cases closed by the CCRB’s Administrative Prosecution Unit in 2018, only 39 resulted in any discipline for the officers, and no officer was terminated. The most severe punishment was for one officer who received probation or a suspension or loss of vacation days for more than 31 days.

The same data also shows that the next most severe action—command discipline—was found by the CCRB to be warranted in 39 percent of cases, but was carried out for only 23 percent of them. Sixteen percent of substantiated complaints referred to the NYPD for discipline by the CCRB resulted in no action against the officer. The CCRB only substantiated 10 percent of the complaints they received, meaning over 90 percent of all complaints adjudicated by CCRB resulted in no action against the officers. A 2007 New York Civil Liberties Union report on the effectiveness of the CCRB concluded that the “civilian oversight system has failed,” and that “there is little accountability for acts of police misconduct, for inadequate training, for flawed and dangerous police practices.” Representatives from the CCRB declined to comment to The Appeal on their views of the bill. 

“The CCRB says it’s an independent agency—it’s not,” said Monroe. “Not when you have people on the board appointed by the police commissioner and the mayor.”

Barron agreed. “I think the current CCRB is manipulated and controlled by the police department. Even in those rare instances that they have found the officers guilty of the offenses they are charged with, the commissioner can dismiss their findings and decide what it is the officer is subjected to. Most often, the case is the loss of vacation days or maybe a little bit of retraining.”

The CCRB had progressive beginnings. Its origins date back to 1950, when a group of 18 civil-rights and community organizations, responding to rising police hostility against Black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers, formed the Permanent Coordination Committee on Police and Minority Groups. After a three-year study, the CCRB was formed as a check against the police. However, the police commissioner had the power to appoint members of the CCRB board. In 1965, during the Civil Rights Movement, Mayor John Lindsay briefly placed the board under civilian control until the city’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the police union, successfully undid the change a year later during a public referendum it spearheaded. 

In 1988, footage of police brutality during the Tompkins Square Park Uprising renewed police reform activists’ demand for a civilian-controlled board. In 1993, Mayor David Dinkins, the city’s first Black mayor, successfully converted the CCRB into a civilian-controlled agency with subpoena power, but at a cost to his mayoralty. 

Outraged by the prospect of any sort of oversight, however limited, police officers rioted outside City Hall, at the behest of Dinkins’s political rival Rudy Giuliani. A year later, Giuliani catapulted to victory over Dinkins, with the crucial backing of the police. Since then, the agency has languished, perpetually underfunded and with little oversight.  

Given its history, activists like Monroe view the demand for an elected CCRB as less of a radical concept and more of a return to the CCRB’s original form. 

“We want to go back to what the CCRB was intended to be: a review board of civilians, of community members holding their police department accountable. It’s taxpayers who contribute to these police departments, so we feel taxpayers should be on these review boards,” she said.

Regardless of how progressive an elected CCRB might sound to some, not all activists are sold on the idea, believing that an elected CCRBs won’t fundamentally change the nature of policing. Jason Wu, a prison abolitionist and trustee with the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys-UAW Local 2325, would rather see resources shifted from policing into community services such as healthcare and housing. 

“An elected civilian complaint review board doesn’t necessarily get to the vision for abolition,” he said. “Our focus has to be on the abolition of policing. There are many reforms and proposals out there, but we have to fundamentally prioritize demands that reduce policing and end incarceration.”

Wu adds that he is not entirely opposed to the idea of an elected CCRB, but questions its effectiveness for confronting systemic racism within the NYPD. 

“We have to understand that police brutality and misconduct are not aberrations or just as simple as a few bad apples. Police violence is endemic to the practice of the system of policing. So if we can understand that racism in the NYPD is systemic, the question regarding the role of a CCRB is whether it would be prepared to fire essentially thousands of NYPD officers.” 

Still, Barron is optimistic about her bill’s chances of passing, given the current political climate. Members of the city council are proposing to slash $1 billion from the NYPD’s bloated budget, and the state passed a package of policing reforms in June, including the repeal of 50-a, a law that shielded police disciplinary records. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office declined to comment on whether the mayor would support the legislation, but did tell The Appeal that he would review it once it was introduced. 

“Now, with all of the tumultuousness and the awareness we see exhibited from common people, the average person here in the state of New York, this is an opportune time,” Barron said.