New York policymakers have failed to hold the NYPD accountable for its numerous transgressions, despite the many horrific instances of police misconduct that have made local and national headlines for years. Even in cases where officers have repeatedly engaged in misconduct, and even while district attorneys keep lists of “bad cops” whose credibility is questionable, there have been nothing but inaction.
Despite taking important steps forward in reforming our criminal legal system, lawmakers have thus far failed during this legislative session to deliver changes that would hold accountable police forces in the state, and specifically the NYPD. Provisions that would substantially improve the transparency of the NYPD, such as the repeal of the “Section 50a” law that shields officer misconduct records from public disclosure, have stalled in Albany. This and other provisions can jump-start an era of police transparency and accountability.
The legislature’s failure to pass these or other measures to address police misconduct are especially glaring given the extent, pervasiveness and cost of police misconduct, as gleaned from data released by the NYPD under a New York City local law. This law requires the NYPD to post online information about civil actions alleging misconduct by its officers.
An analysis of this data from 2013 through 2018 reveals that the NYPD employs more than 4,000 officers involved in lawsuits, including more than 1,500 repeat offenders—officers named in two or more lawsuits. Specifically, 1,037 officers were involved in two lawsuits; 339 were involved in three lawsuits; 106 were involved in five lawsuits and 37 officers had eight or more lawsuits to their name.
The published data does not indicate whether each officer is still employed by the NYPD but information from the New York City salary database reveals that the 12 officers with the most lawsuits to their name—2 officers with 13 lawsuits, 3 officers with 12 lawsuits, 4 officers with 11 lawsuits and 3 officers with 10 lawsuits—had employment records with the NYPD in 2018.
The data also quantifies the enormous cost of these repeat offenders to the taxpayer. The average cost for the 4,091 officers involved in only one lawsuit was $28,600 per officer. But for the 1,760 officers with two or more lawsuits to their name, the average cost jumps to $106,514 per officer. The total cost to the taxpayer of these repeat offenders was $187.4 million—the equivalent of 3.35% of the NYPD budget in 2018, and more than half of the $304 million total cost to settle all lawsuits against the NYPD and its officers between 2013 and 2018. Officers with five or more lawsuits—a total of 210 “hardcore” repeat offenders—were responsible for payouts totaling $61.7 million, almost a third of the $187.4 million cost of repeat offender officers. The cost of these 210 hardcore offenders, over six years, amounts to 1% of the total NYPD budget in 2018.
As staggering as these numbers are, the true economic cost of officer misconduct is higher still. First, the data analyzed included only cases commenced and settled between 2013 and 2018; it is likely that including data from previous years would increase the number of repeat offender officers and their cost to the taxpayer.
Second, and more importantly, these settlement amounts do not capture the full costs of misconduct: the human costs, such as the costs of medical and therapeutic services for the individuals and families affected by police misconduct; costs associated with jobs lost and work days missed or lost productivity due to trauma; and costs associated in litigating these cases and the underlying criminal charges in the courts. When taken into account, the cost of the continued employment of these repeat-offender officers becomes an insupportable financial burden on taxpayers.
To be sure, settlements are not trials, and they result with no admission of misconduct by the officers. They are therefore an imperfect proxy for misconduct. But when the analysis focuses on officers who are repeat offenders, settlements serve as a much better proxy. Moreover, settlements highlight the economic costs of misconduct in a way that police disciplinary records cannot.
The economic costs and the sheer number of officers implicated demonstrate the urgency of reforming the system and holding the NYPD accountable for misconduct. Some of the NYPD’s failures are well known—such as the department’s continued employment of Eric Garner’s killer.
But the public is likely in the dark about many other failures. Limited transparency, as with the release of this data, highlights the systemic problems, but it does not solve them. The settlement data exposes the extent and cost of the problem, but real change cannot happen until the legislature enacts mechanisms that hold officers and their supervisors accountable. That “bad cops” lists in all five borough district attorney offices exist, but are inaccessible to the public and defense attorneys, underscores just how indifferent district attorneys and policymakers have been to the real concerns of police misconduct victims, their communities and the public at large.
New York Senate Democrats, now with a governing majority, have been given a mandate by New Yorkers to reform the criminal justice system. They have taken the first step. But they must take an additional step—to pass meaningful and real transparency and accountability laws. District attorneys, who hold elected positions, must follow suit and support these legislative initiatives as well as other measures. They must not fall short, or they too will bear responsibility for the misconduct and abuses that have become all too familiar to New Yorkers.
Oded Oren is an attorney with the Criminal Defense Practice at the Bronx Defenders.