Did NYC Police Complaints Disappear or Not
At the outset of the pandemic, complaints to the New York City Police Department collected by the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB)—the independent organization tasked with managing NYC police department misconduct—disappeared.
But as the city has come back, those complaints have yet to return even as arrests return to their pre-pandemic levels. The data comes from an April 2021 export of CCRB data and does not include “pending complaints for which the CCRB has not completed an investigation as of April 2021.”
Even during the pandemic crime didn't come to a complete halt and arrests were still occurring, just at a lower rate. What had been about 15,000-20,000 arrests per month dropped below 8,000 in 2020.
Arrests have been in steady decline over the past decade as crime in New York has declined. But the post-pandemic period, late 2021 to 2022, is the first time they leveled off.
Based on the CCRB data, complaints disappeared as arrests continued. The year prior, 2019, the department was receiving on the order of 1,000 complaints a month. In 2020, it was 157 on average. In August of 2020, it was 80 in total. In February of 2021, it was 1.
The rate of complaints to arrests, which had been at an historic high of over 5 percent at points in 2018 and 2019, has since collapsed to less than one percent.
CCRB Annual Reports Data Differs
CCRB annual report data on the other hand, paints a different picture. Those reports show a lower number of complaints on average—on the order of 4,000 to 6,000 a year rather than 7,000 to 10,000. The rate of complaints to arrests is also lower—between 1 to 3 percent.
More importantly, the disappearance of complaints during the pandemic doesn't exist in the annual report data. Despite the sudden disappearance of arrests during the pandemic, CCRB annual report data shows just a slight decline.
The New York Civil Liberties Union, which published the CCRB database, did not respond to a request to comment on the discrepancy in data.
As a result of continuing arrests without a substantial decline in complaints, the ratio of complaints to arrests was the highest it has ever been—2.6 percent—based on annual report data during 2020.
Complaints During Stop-and-Frisk
Counterintuitive to what one might think about the public perception of stop-and-frisk policy, it didn’t seem to inspire a lot of complaints.
Both data sets show a steady increase in complaints to arrests since 2014—which is when NYC ended the contentious stop-and-frisk that began around 2003. Before that, during the heyday of stop-and-frisk, complaints per arrest were in steady decline.
CCRB's complaint process feeds into a disciplinary process for substantiated incidents, which can lead to penalties and admonishment for the officers involved as well as potential financial settlement to the complainants. Misconduct cases are handled by the police department, but since 2012 the CCRB obtained the power to prosecute more serious cases.
Since March of 2021, NYC eliminated qualified immunity for police officers. Qualified immunity shielded the individual officer form financial repercussions of disciplinary actions. Previously, if someone sued the police department and the courts found in favor of their claim, it was the police department that paid the fines.
Without qualified immunity, a recent case where an officer was found guilty for misconduct after shoving a protestor near the Barclay's Center meant that the officer was required to pay $3,000 out of their own pocket. The city paid the claimant $387,000.
Settlements over police misconduct at times were costing the city over $325 million a year according to data from the city comptroller's office. The vast majority of those are for “abuse of authority.” About a third of the total being for excess force. Both the number of cases and the amounts awarded have been in steady decline, with fewer and fewer torts filed since 2014.
Prior to qualified immunity, which was enacted by the Supreme Court in 1982, police complaints were few and far between. Based on the CCRB database, which goes back to the 1960s, complaints went from at most 200 a year to 5,000-12,000 a year after qualified immunity became law.