Three former New York City corporation counsels have come out in support of a proposal to create an independent inspector general to review the New York Police Department’s policies and practices.
"We would have welcomed this review when we served as Corporation Counsel, and we strongly support the creation of a review function," they wrote in a letter to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn released by Quinn’s office yesterday.
The March 28 letter was signed by Frederick A.O. Schwarz Jr. of the Brennan Center for Justice; Victor Kovner of Davis Wright Tremaine and Peter Zimroth of Arnold & Porter.
Quinn and others have backed a proposal to establish the new office as the city defends itself in a bench trial before Southern District Judge Shira Scheindlin (See Profile) against allegations that officers have stopped, searched and frisked hundreds of thousands of citizens because they are black or Hispanic.
Opponents of the inspector general proposal, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, insist the NYPD is already monitored by several agencies and argue that adding a new layer of bureaucracy would jeopardize the safety of residents.
"We respectfully disagree with the former corp counsels," John McCarthy, a Bloomberg spokesman, said in an email. "Just as the mayor appoints a corporation counsel to lead the Law Department, he appoints a police commissioner to set the direction for the police department—and neither of these officials needs an unelected and unaccountable official to supervise their policy decisions as the proposed bill does. The city has enjoyed record low crime levels over the past decade, in part, because of the unmistakable line of accountability that goes directly to the mayor."
While the letter from the former corporation counsels credits Kelly and the NYPD for bringing crime to "record low levels," it states that "residents in many communities need reassurance that they are being treated fairly and respectfully by the police."
So while the NYPD’s existing command structure should not be disturbed, the trio said it is "vital to have an external mechanism to review, analyze and provide advice on police practices, policies and procedures."
The letter acknowledged that police action is already subject to the department’s internal affairs bureau, the Civilian Complaint Review Board and the district attorney offices throughout the five boroughs. But those offices target "individual misconduct and corruption" and not the "full range" of NYPD policies, the letter argued.
The three credited the work of other law enforcement inspectors general and asserted that a new one would "strengthen our security, improve the NYPD’s relations with communities throughout the City, and improve the work of the NYPD."
Kovner and Schwarz amplified their support in a March 28 New York Daily News column that said "independent oversight makes agencies better and stronger."
Both the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigations have inspectors general, "and there is no hint that they have hampered these agencies," the editorial said.
Furthermore, the editorial pointed out that the inspector general as proposed would only be able to make recommendations to the mayor, police commissioner and City Council and undertake "retrospective reviews and audits" versus "greenlight[ing]" current operations and programs.
Quinn, a Democratic mayoral candidate, has said city lawmakers have reached a deal to establish the office. And while Bloomberg has pledged to veto the measure, Quinn claims she has enough votes to override a veto.
Other Democratic, Republican and independent mayoral candidates are split on the idea. One, Republican Joseph Lhota, held a news conference yesterday to denounce the proposal as a "dangerous" intrusion on the police commissioner’s authority to set policy.
In an interview, Schwarz noted that the Brennan Center had been advocating the creation of independent police oversight for about a year. He said he met with Quinn about eight months ago to discuss the idea.
Schwarz served in 1975 as chief counsel of a Senate committee chaired by Frank Church, D-Idaho, that studied federal intelligence gathering agencies in the wake of the Watergate scandal. One of its recommendations was the naming of an inspector general for the agencies.
"One of the things I learned in that work is lack of oversight is not only bad for the public interest, but is bad for agencies as well," said Schwarz, who served as corporation counsel under Mayor Edward Koch from 1982 to 1986.
"Nobody likes to be told they could be doing better when they are doing very well already… It’s natural and a matter of human nature. The arguments that are made [against it] are really awfully weak, like this will upset how the police department works." Instead, Schwarz said "raising questions" is "healthy" for democracy.
"We have great respect for Ray Kelly and his program," said Kovner, who was corporation counsel from 1990 to 1991 under Mayor David Dinkins. "This is not intended as criticism of his department or the mayor. It’s a proposal we think will make the police department stronger and more effective."
Zimroth, who served as Koch’s corporation counsel from 1987 to 1989, said the important message in the letter was to "express the view that a lot of people who appreciate what the New York Police Department is doing" think that something like this strengthens the NYPD’s relationships with communities and its effectiveness.
@|Andrew Keshner can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Associated Press contributed to this report.