New York Police Department Tracking Officer Data on Suits, Complaints

By COLLEEN LONG | July 16, 2015

The New York Police Department is trying to root out its problem officers and monitor patterns of potential misbehavior by creating a database that combines information from several city agencies on lawsuits, misconduct complaints, internal probes and such seemingly mundane data as sick leave and overtime.

“We are the first and only city agency to take a systemic look at that, not just officer by officer, and not just for purposes of discipline, but to also look for patterns,” said Lawrence Byrne, deputy commissioner for legal matters.

The external data collected comes from the city’s law department, comptroller’s office and police watchdog group and the internal data also includes traffic accidents and internal affairs investigations. Officials are working on setting up triggers that would prompt superiors to flag an officer based on parameters like a certain number of misconduct complaints, or lawsuits coupled with internal reviews. The officer could face closer supervision or discipline, but the data could also be used to inform training and assess whether department policies are working.

“The goal is not discipline alone,” Byrne said. “The goal is to see whether there are things that need to be addressed through additional training, and whether we need to amend or change policy.”

It’s a massive shift in how the nation’s largest department uses available information about its officers, and it represents a more collaborative approach that did not previously exist. It comes as the department continues to reform its policies and image in the wake of a federal lawsuit, public outcry over how minority communities are policed and the death of Eric Garner in police custody nearly a year ago.

Richard Emery, the head of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the city watchdog agency that investigates claims of misconduct by police, praised the effort as forward-thinking.

“In the same way they want to do predictive policing for crime, they also want to predict the success or failure with their officers,” he said. “To train and guide people, give people the tools to be more successful than the current model might ascribe.”

Patrick Lynch, the head of the largest police union who represents about 24,000 rank-and-file officers, said the database would only lead to more unnecessary oversight.

“The sources of information mentioned are not any measurement of officers’ behavior,” he said. “Unsworn CCRB complaints measure arrestees’ retribution while baseless lawsuits are about a quick buck. Any conclusion drawn from bad source data would not be meaningful.”

Previously, some officers weren’t even aware a lawsuit had been filed against them, and were never interviewed on the incident, and yet the legal claims were settled, police officials said. During the past five years more than half of the $773 million paid out in legal claims against the NYPD came from settlements of $250,000 or less, according to NYPD data viewed by The Associated Press. Only a small percentage was lost at a civil trial.

That is changing.

“We’re looking to have more of these cases challenged,” Byrne said. A dedicated group now trolls lawsuits against police, helping the city’s law department investigate and prepare for litigation. “Where the cases have merit they should be settled and settled fairly, but not just because a complaint is filed and we have to get rid of it.”

Comptroller Scott Stringer, who created a tracking system in his office using notice of claim data, said he was committed to collaborating to improve transparency.

“My office works closely with Commissioner Bratton and the NYPD to drill down on claims information and spot problems before they become crises,” he said.

The tracking system falls within the department’s Risk Management Bureau, formed under Commissioner William Bratton. Other cities have similar units – Bratton created one in Los Angeles during his time as commissioner there – and wanted to bring the NYPD from behind the curve to ahead of it.

The bureau is tasked with collaborating with the federal monitor assigned to facilitate changes ordered by a judge who ruled in 2103 the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy sometimes violated the civil rights of minorities, and the office of Inspector General, a watchdog agency created in the same turbulent months during the end of the previous administration.

The inspector general’s office, which released a report in April on the topic of tracking lawsuit data, said the work is a positive step that will drive changes in the frequency of suits, how they’re resolved and, ultimately, improve policing.

Byrne said the department will have the law department data by the end of next month, and will begin synthesizing and refining the database and creating triggers.

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