The first steps towards creating what is now the Civilian Complaint Review Board were taken in 1950, when a coalition of 18 organizations formed the “Permanent Coordination Committee on Police and Minority Groups” to lobby the city to deal with police misconduct in general, and “police misconduct in their relations with Puerto Ricans and Negros specifically.” In response to their demands, the New York City Police Department established the Civilian Complaint Review Board in 1953 as a committee of three deputy police commissioners to investigate civilian complaints. While the board was granted wider authority under Mayor Robert Wagner in 1955, it remained an organization within the police department—police officers conducted the investigations and the decision on whether or not to recommend discipline was made by the deputy commissioners.
The Lindsay Plan
After his election in 1965, Mayor John Lindsay appointed former federal judge Lawrence E. Walsh to investigate the operation of the police department and make suggestions for improvement. While the bulk of Walsh’s report focused on modernization, the report also argued that the Board itself should have civilian representation, in order to instill public confidence that investigations of civilian complaints would be handled fairly.
Opposition to Lindsay
Lindsay formed a search committee, chaired by former Attorney General Herbert Brownell, to find civilians to serve on the board. John Cassese, the president of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association (PBA), rigorously opposed a civilian presence on the board, stating, “I’m sick and tired of giving in to minority groups with their whims and their gripes and shouting.” The mayor’s search committee found four candidates, whom the mayor appointed, and for the first time in the city’s history, people outside the department oversaw the investigations of complaints against police officers.
A Crucial Vote
Lindsay’s board did not last long. Cassese and the PBA collected signatures to force a ballot measure to bar civilians from having any oversight of police complaints. The ensuing campaign was bitter on all sides; the PBA made appeals to safety and fear, stating that with civilian oversight, the police would not be able to do their job properly, and the forces in favor of civilian participation painted their opponents as bigots and racists. The ballot measure won overwhelmingly, and the board returned to its previous all-police makeup.
Civilian Board Members
In 1987, in accordance with legislation passed in 1986 by the city council, the board was restructured as one where private citizens served alongside non-uniformed police officers; the mayor (with the advice and consent of city council) appointed six members and the police commissioner appointed six. At this time, the Civilian Complaint Investigations Bureau began to hire civilians to investigate complaints, though these civilians served alongside police department investigators and were supervised by department employees.
Tompkins Square Park Incident
In 1988, an event helped sway public opinion in favor of more civilian control over the investigation of complaints made against NYPD officers. In response to complaints of drug trafficking and disorderly groups in Tompkins Square Park, the department chose to enforce an existing 1:00 a.m. curfew that had previously not been enforced. A rally protesting the curfew on July 31 turned into a confrontation with police in which four people were arrested and four officers were injured. On August 6, demonstrators were forced from the park in a series of violent incidents between the police, demonstrators, and bystanders. Video footage showed police officers striking people with nightsticks, kicking people who were on the ground, and covering their shields to hide their identity.
The CCRB commissioned a special report on the incident, concluding that “there is no evidence that any effort was made to limit the use of force . . . Force was used for its own sake.” Even though the report was extremely critical of the NYPD, the event itself galvanized support for an all-civilian review board.
All Civilian Agency
In 1993, after extensive debate and public comment, Mayor David Dinkins and the New York City Council created the Civilian Complaint Review Board in its current, all-civilian form. The agency was granted subpoena power (one issue cited in the Tompkins Square Park report by the police department’s CCRB was that without subpoena power, it could not obtain filmed footage from local media outlets) and authority to recommend discipline in cases that the board substantiated. However, the agency was underfunded at its inception, leaving it unable to cope with the large number of complaints it received.
After the Abner Louima incident in 1997, the CCRB’s budget was steadily increased, allowing the agency to hire dozens more investigators and experienced managers who oversee investigations. This has led to dramatic improvement in the agency performance.
Now the largest civilian oversight agency in the country, the CCRB has investigated tens of thousands of complaints, leading to discipline for thousands of police officers.