The New York City Police Department is notorious for its culture of impunity. Officers face virtually no serious consequences for accusations of sexual assault and violent attacks that result in severe physical injury.
A review of lawsuits against the department as well as recently public civilian complaints reveal that the lack of accountability extends to accusations of shockingly racist, sexist, homophobic, and anti-trans behavior — the kind of offensive behavior that gets regular people fired and dragged online.
NYPD officers were accused of racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia in 70 lawsuits between January 2015 and June 2018, according to the database CAPstat, a website created by public defenders that collects information on the NYPD, including on federal civil rights lawsuits. (CAPstat’s organizers emphasize that the website “is a demonstration project and does not represent the universe of data of police misconduct in New York City.”)
A large majority of those lawsuits are still pending, but the 14 that have been settled have cost the city $508,001 in just four years.
Complaints filed with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, a regulatory body charged with investigating allegations of misconduct against the NYPD, reveal a similar pattern. The CCRB has received tens of thousands of claims of offensive language since 1985, according to records published by the New York Civil Liberties Union, which run through July 2020.
The CCRB defines an “offensive language” incident as one in which bias — racial, gender, LGBTQ+, religious, and a host of other categories — is evident. In many instances, the CCRB could not definitively prove that the incident happened or determined that the complaint was unfounded, but the board found that 554 claims were substantiated.
An Intercept analysis of the NYCLU’s CCRB data found that almost no officers faced serious consequences in the more than 500 substantiated claims of using offensive language, which took place across almost three decades. There’s been only one termination, one instance of a brief suspension, one resignation, and one incident after which the officer was put on probation. In all of the other cases, the officers received penalties ranging from docked vacation days to added training.
After investigating a complaint, the CCRB, an independent body, comes to a conclusion about whether a claim is substantiated. The board also determines the severity of the charge, and based on that conclusion, it recommends punishment, ranging from termination to trainings or docked vacation days. The CCRB’s recommendations are nonbinding, though, and in many of the claims reviewed by The Intercept, the NYPD deemed the officers “not guilty” despite the CCRB’s findings. Even when the CCRB recommends that an officer be retrained, it has no say in what type of training should be offered.
Christopher Dunn, the legal director of the NYCLU, told The Intercept that there’s a very limited set of disciplinary actions the department can take. For serious offenses, the deputy commissioner of trials oversees an administrative trial where an administrative law judge issues a ruling, and the NYPD commissioner makes the final decision as to what discipline to impose. Termination is virtually unheard of. Most cops who are found guilty of serious misconduct get sensitivity training or docked vacation days. “The question is, how come people aren’t getting disciplined at all, even with what’s available?” Dunn said. “The police department doesn’t take misconduct seriously and it needs to.” The NYPD did not respond to requests for comment.
Dunn said that while it’s important for individual officers to face consequences for their actions, the entire culture of the department needs to change, starting with drastic changes to the NYPD’s hiring and promotion processes. “The abusive language, that’s a function of the culture of the department, and it starts with the leadership,” he said. “There has to be a fundamental shift in the way NYPD and officers think about their behavior, inside and outside the department. If you’re a person of color in the police department or a woman, you are treated quite differently than white men. There’s rampant sexism and racism, not unrelated in what we see when they deal with the public.”
One lawsuit involving the use of racist language, which the city settled for $70,000, resulted from a May 2014 incident in which Charlene Jack heard a scream from the street below her Brooklyn apartment. She ran out and saw her sister, Patrice, struggling with three men, who were plainclothes detectives who had not identified themselves as police, according to a lawsuit the sisters filed in 2015. According to the lawsuit, when Charlene asked what was happening, a white officer insulted her and had her arrested. “I don’t give a fuck, cuff her, I am sick of her mouth,” the officer said to the other officers, before yelling, “Shut the fuck up, you Black bitch.” The three officers named in the lawsuit were active at least through 2018, according to CAPstat. All got raises in the years following the incident. The city settled this lawsuit, and all other settlements discussed in this article, without an admission of liability.
In another case that resulted in a $60,000 payment, an NYPD officer was accused of grotesque misogyny. The complaint filed in 2015 made these allegations: On a January morning in 2013, Stephanie Torres was getting her 5-year-old son ready for school when two Staten Island officers came into her home and said they would arrest her, without giving her a reason or showing a warrant. When she asked why she was being arrested, the three officers allegedly threw her on the floor in front of her son and started beating her in the face and body. When she asked why they were hitting her in front of her child, an officer said, “Shut the fuck up, you dirty little whore.” Officers handcuffed her and brought her and her son to the 120th Precinct on drug charges that were later dismissed. Two officers involved were still active in 2018, according to CAPstat, and got raises following the incident. Because the third officer was undercover, his current status is not available.
A still-pending lawsuit stemming from a 2012 arrest alleges that police officers unlawfully entered someone’s home, intimidated the people inside, and asked the plaintiff in the lawsuit if the woman in the apartment was good at giving blow jobs. When the officer questioned her, according to the complaint, he asked if she would perform a sex act on him; she declined. Both officers named in the lawsuit were still active as of 2018, according to CAPstat.
In a 2016 lawsuit that was settled for $15,000, a man with multiple mental illnesses alleged that after he was taken into custody, he wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom. When he protested that he was being treated like an animal, he claimed in his lawsuit, officers made horse noises at him. The officer named in the lawsuit remained active at least through 2018, according to CAPstat.
In another case that was settled for $12,501, the plaintiff was arrested after trying to record his friend’s arrest. According to the lawsuit, he was strip-searched and called “a monkey.” All five officers named in the lawsuit were active at least through 2018, according to CAPstat.
Allegations in another lawsuit that’s currently pending show how officers’ prejudices can lead them to minimize the harm facing someone they’re supposed to protect. According to the lawsuit, a New York trans man called the police in May 2015 after days of death threats from his neighbor’s boyfriend, who had vowed to cut off the trans man’s head. When the boyfriend showed up outside the trans man’s home, several people called the police. Two officers showed up. When the cops realized that the victim was trans, they allegedly refused to take a crime report or restrain the harasser in any way. When a witness asked, “So you guys are going to stand here and not take a crime report from anyone?” one of the officers retorted that they’d prefer to wait until someone was dead. Five of the six officers named were active as of 2018, according to CAPstat; the sixth one left the NYPD two years after the alleged incident.
In the settled lawsuits reviewed by The Intercept, the allegations of coarse language are coupled with allegations of wrongful and often violent arrest. That’s frequently the case with complaints filed with the CCRB as well, said Andrew Case, who worked as an investigator with the CCRB until 2008. “Often when an officer is using that language, they’re doing something as well,” Case said. (Over the summer, police unions mounted a legal challenge to keep the CCRB complaints sealed, but the NYCLU was able to publish a trove of data).
All incoming NYPD cops undergo “sensitivity presentations,” preemptive trainings for rookie cops meant to address racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. But they have been ineffective, Case said. “If they’re racist, they’re going to continue behaving this way. When officers are using slurs alongside force, they can’t really be trained out of it.”
Case, who presented about the CCRB during the NYPD’s “Building Community Trust” program for graduates of the police academy in 2007 and 2008, described the trainings as akin to “what you’d see with corporate HR: role-playing, being presented with people who are unable to speak English, etc.” He noted that celebrities, such as Wyclef Jean, have been brought in to talk to police. “For some people that might be helpful, to learn that people who are different are human beings. But when someone is a racist, implicit bias training is not going to help. They sit there and nod, but other things are going on in their heads.”
Those are separate from punitive trainings, which occur when a cop has been accused of misconduct. “The ‘instructions’ training — which is a kind of punishment — involves an officer sitting down with a higher-ranking officer who walks through what happens and ‘instructs’ the officer on what he or she should have done instead,” Case said. “There are a lot of complaints from advocates that the ‘instructions’ are meaningless, and I wouldn’t disagree.”