By: Matt Sledge | June 17, 2014
NEW YORK — When clients encounter police misconduct, civil rights lawyer Richard Emery often does not recommend filing a complaint with the official New York City agency charged with investigating officers.
“We don’t believe that they will get speedy, fair justice,” he said.
Now, Emery will be tasked with fixing that very agency: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Thursday that Emery will be the new chair of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates civilian concerns about officer actions and then refers substantiated complaints to the police. The announcement ended months of delay in appointing a new board leader.
The NYPD’s new commissioner, Bill Bratton, has spoken frequently of improving police-community relations, and Philip Eure has taken office as the first-ever NYPD inspector general. But the front-line agency charged with investigating police shoves, curses and other minor bad behavior has languished without a chair since January, causing its investigations to stall.
“The missing link has been CCRB,” the mayor said Thursday. “This is the first time we’re actually going to get to see the CCRB functioning properly, and I think it’s going to be a breath of fresh air.”
Emery will be charged with the same delicate balancing act that has defined de Blasio’s public safety strategy so far: responding to community complaints while maintaining morale among officers who enforce the law.
A self-described “child of the ’60s” and frequent police foil, Emery also maintains a personal friendship with department leaders. He worked as Bratton’s lawyer in the early 2000s. Later in the decade, he successfully sued the city for $33 million for strip searches at Rikers Island.
During the announcement of Emery’s chairmanship, City Hall’s Blue Room was symbolically flanked by NYPD Deputy Commissioner John Miller on one side and New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman on the other. Praise for Emery from other community groups was quickly forthcoming.
“One, it’s good for the CCRB to finally have some leadership, and two, Richard Emery is the real deal,” said Sean Barry, executive director of the HIV/AIDS and criminal justice reform group VOCAL-NY.
The CCRB was established in 1993, but almost from its beginning was criticized by outside groups like NYCLU for being ineffective. Running for public advocate in 2009, de Blasio added his voice to the chorus: Some 40 percent of the cases the CCRB referred to the NYPD for internal prosecution were being declined.
“For decades there was a fight to have the CCRB, and now over the last 20 years the fight to have an effective CCRB,” said de Blasio. “We’ve really never seen that work in a consistent manner, so we’re really almost starting from scratch in a lot of ways.”
Both civilians and police officers have complained about the quality of police oversight. Morale inside the agency, meanwhile, has sagged in the face of an apparent Department of Investigation inquiry into a leaked memo about stop-and-frisk.
“I don’t know anyone in the process right now that feels the kind of confidence they should in the CCRB, which means we have to do things very, very differently,” said de Blasio.
In recent months in particular, CCRB board meetings have been plagued by absenteeism. The number of substantiated claims the agency refers to the NYPD has slipped, and the number of cases it declines to prosecute has spiked.
Emery said he would focus on separating “the wheat from the chaff,” focusing on serious misconduct allegations while quickly dispensing with frivolous claims.
“It’s daunting and flattering at the same time,” to be appointed to chair the agency, he said. The challenges in his new job, he noted, “are not going to be small.”