35 Years of Racist Abuse by NYPD
While there is no way of knowing exactly what will be found in those records once they are released, the NYPD review board complaint data leaked to ProPublica last year gives us some idea. Representing more than 25,000 civilian complaints against NYPD by New Yorkers since 1985, these data show a pattern of racial discrimination in abuses by NYPD, in decisions made by the review board, and especially, in raw number of complaints issued by nonwhite New Yorkers compared to their white counterparts.
The full dataset can be found (and searched) here. My analysis and breakdown (including demographic adjustments to reflect when most complaints were issued, sums of distinct but related fields, etc) can be accessed here.
The complaints can be filtered by age, race of complainant, department, gender, hearing outcome, and complaint type.* Though there are dozens of useful metrics that can (and should) be gleaned from these complaints, let’s run through a handful of graphs which show a pattern of racist misconduct by the NYPD.
Categories of race and gender in the dataset may not be entirely accurate; it is unclear whether these categories were self-identified, determined by the bureaucrats filing the complaints, or possibly even by the officers.
To begin: civilian complaints made against NYPD are brought to a review board (the CCRB), which reaches one of three “dispositions” — namely: substantiated, unsubstantiated, or exonerated. ProPublica describes them as follows:
- The alleged conduct occurred and it violated the rules. (A breakdown of the types of discipline the CCRB can recommend is here) The NYPD can choose to ignore those recommendations. It has discretion over what, if any, discipline is imposed.)
- The alleged conduct occurred but did not violate the NYPD’s rules, which often give officers significant discretion over use of force.
- The CCRB has fully investigated but could not affirmatively conclude both that the conduct occurred and that it broke the rules.
Taking those ~25,000 complaints and sorting them by outcomes, we can build the following chart:
To summarize briefly — more than 3 in 4 complaints made against NYPD between 1985 and 2019 were rejected by the Review Board, and no action was taken against the officer involved. Even among the complaints which were “substantiated,” there is no guarantee that any disciplinary action was taken. In more than half of cases where the alleged behavior was substantiated (determined to have happened), the officer involved was exonerated by the board. Most accusations are left “unsubstantiated.”
Considering that some officers on this list had 75 complaints issued against them, it appears that the CCRB has little ability or desire to hold repeat offenders accountable or alter their behavior.
Disconcertingly, once we add the dimension of race, NYPD’s pattern of abuse (and CCRB’s ineptitude) becomes even more malicious.
Here, we can see that complaints made by black New Yorkers were more than 10% more likely to result in the exoneration of the officers involved and 15% less likely to result in even the possibility of action taken against the officers by the review board — a figure which only becomes more grim when you consider the kinds of abuses which black New Yorkers filed official complaints about.
Among all complaints against the NYPD for using excessive physical force, nearly 60% of them were issued by black New Yorkers — a group which makes up just 26% of NYC by population*.
*all numbers which reference population (per capita, etc) are using demographics numbers taken from NYC censuses between 1985 and 2020, weighted by the number of complaints issued each year (to reflect biases in the data), and averaged.
Adjusting for population (weighted by complaints per decade to get a representative demographic comparison), we can see that black New Yorkers are 12x more likely to complain about excessive physical force by NYPD than their white peers. Similarly, nonwhite & nonblack New Yorkers are, as a group, 4x more likely to complain about excessive force than their white peers. All of this is shown below:
Of course, not all complaints are about physical force. There is an incredible amount of detail in the leaked data — some of which makes it difficult to find numbers like the above. However, digging into these specifics can also reveal some startling figures.
In total, ~4,000 complaints against NYPD in this time period alleged inappropriate language (“word” in the dataset). More than half of those complaints were issued by black New Yorkers — an over-representation of 200%. Although this dataset provides no detail as to which word(s) inspired these complaints, given that black New Yorkers are twice as likely to issue these complaints, we can surmise that the NYPD is regularly using targeting racial slurs (and, returning the charts above, facing little to no consequences.)
The echoes of Bloomberg’s infamous and unconstitutional “stop and frisk” policy can also be heard in these records. Of the 1,926 “frisk” complaints in the dataset, an incredible and horrifying 1,145 of them were issued by black New Yorkers. Between 1985 and 2020, a black New Yorker was 250% more likely to complain about being frisked by NYPD — and don’t forget, their complaints were more likely to be ignored.
I could go on —
50% of all complaints of sexual misconduct against NYPD were issued by black New Yorkers. 62% of all complaints of vehicle searchers against NYPD were issued by black New Yorkers.
60% of all complaints that medical attention was denied by NYPD were issued by black New Yorkers.
60% of all complaints of retaliatory arrests by NYPD were issued by black New Yorkers.
That said, perhaps, the most startling statistic to come from ProPublica’s data can be found by looking at the sheer quantity of complaints issued by nonwhite New Yorkers compared to white New Yorkers.
17,114 of the 26,853 complaints issued against NYPD between 1985 and 2020 were made by black New Yorkers. 6,424 were issued by Hispanic or Latino New Yorkers. And just 2,784 (that’s 10%) were made by their white peers.
Once we adjust for demographic sizes, that means a nonwhite New Yorker was ~5x more likely than a white New Yorker to complain about NYPD. Splitting this group further, between 1985 and 2020 a black New Yorker was more than 8x more likely to complain about police misconduct than a white New Yorker.
And, as we’ve seen above, those complaints were more likely to be about physical force, more likely to be dismissed by the review board, and ultimately, are more likely to result in steep punishments against the complainants even when adjusting for criminal records and alleged crimes.
Given the sheer amount of data at hand, it is tempting to believe that even the most skeptical conservatives might acknowledge the deep injustices of American policing. However, in my efforts to post these conclusions around the internet, I have found that there is no level of mental gymnastics which conservatives and pro-policing liberals won’t endure if it allows them to ignore the racist rot which infects criminal justice in the United States.
The reality — whether you are Joe Biden or Donald Trump — is that no amount of civilian review boards will fix the problem of a racist, unaccountable police force. NYPD has been “reviewed” for decades, and the results, seen above, are all too clear. To assert, as President Biden has, that more funding and more oversight is the solution is to ignore all the data we do have.
If the Biden administration is serious about “listening to the science” (a new Democratic Party slogan), it is clear that they can no longer pretend that better training, more funding, or even civilian review is the answer.
For 35 years New Yorkers have been complaining about the racism and abuse they are enduring from police. For 35 years, their complaints have been ignored. And now, for the first time, we can see how completely the Civilian Complaint Review Board has failed to mitigate the ongoing crisis that is American policing.
Even as we wait for NYPD’s full disciplinary records to be released, it is already apparent that only change on the scale of police abolition can hope to end the suffering which thousands of unaccountable, abusive police departments are wreaking; not only in New York City, but across the United States as a whole.