The New York City Police Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation both pursue potential national security threats, but in many ways the two organizations are vastly different. The NYPD has more than 34,000 uniformed officers. The FBI has just under 36,000 total staff, secretaries and mailroom clerks included. It has fewer than half the number of agents as the NYPD has officers. And the FBI has an independent overseer, the Department of Justice Inspector General, to help ensure the organization’s effectiveness and its ability to do its job efficiently and with respect to civil liberties. The NYPD came close to such oversight, when the City Council overwhelmingly passed a bill to create an FBI-style overseer, but Mayor Bloomberg vetoed the inspector general bill last month.
In his veto message, Bloomberg accused the City Council of making New York City “less safe” by passing such a “dangerous and irresponsible bill.” The Mayor’s allegation that 40 out of 51 council members were harming public safety by passing the NYPD oversight bill begs a serious question: Where’s the beef?
Under the bill, the NYPD would be brought under the City’s Department of Investigation (DOI), which already keeps check on other city agencies. The DOI officer would help the City’s leaders by investigating and auditing the NYPD’s policies and practices and reporting its findings and recommendations to the City Council, Police Chief, and Mayor. Mayor Bloomberg, however, apparently has all the information he needs.
The Mayor is ignoring experience that shows inspectors general improve police efficiency and performance. The Los Angeles Police Department has been operating with an Inspector General for more than a decade, during which major crime and use of force incidents have dropped and public confidence in police has risen. According to two of New York City’s own former Corporation Counsel, having outside oversight for the NYPD would “improve police performance” and increase accountability, as Inspectors General have done at the federal level. And the Inspector General who oversees the FBI has been described as “essential” to “critical operations and practices” in the entire Justice Department.
Even during the Bush Administration when former Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine probed the FBI’s counterterrorism activity and issued a scathing report that the agency wrongly and perhaps illegally used special subpoenas to obtain personal information about Americans, then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez touted the role of an independent overseer: “While I am confident that the FBI is able to aggressively police itself, the Inspector General found that in this area the FBI did not do that as aggressively as it should have.”
Mayor Bloomberg, too, is confident that the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau is “sizeable and robust” enough to ensure New Yorkers are rights are not trampled upon. But, the fact is, the NYPD is not exactly a run-of-the-mill town cop operation. Its budget is in the $4 billion range. The Department has officers on duty around the world. Its intelligence and counterterrorism operations are widespread. And in the past couple of years, the Department has come under fire for spying on minority communities and religious institutions. Some of those spied upon have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City and the NYPD.
Then there is the City’s stop-question-and-frisk program, which a federal court found unconstitutionally violates the Constitution. Independent researchers have found the program disproportionately affects minorities: Around 41 percent of the half million stops last year were of young black and Latino men, even though they are only 4.7 percent of New York City’s population. And more than 90 percent of them were innocent. The federal judge relied on many of these statistics to determine that the stop-question-and-frisk program is unconstitutional. Mayor Bloomberg, however, says “math” indicates “the reverse” and that the NYPD “disproportionately stops whites too much.” Resolving the apparent discrepancy between statistical analysis by outside groups and the Mayor’s math is precisely the role for a Department of Investigation Commissioner for the NYPD.
Effective policing is dependent upon mutual trust between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. Both federal and local law enforcement agencies have recognized this. But according to a U.S. Department of Justice paper, when communities are targeted—or even perceive that they are targeted—in racially disproportionate numbers, people lose their trust in police and may think twice before reporting crimes or helping law enforcement solve problems.
A Department of Investigation overseer will not solve all the NYPD’s problems, but it will most definitely not make New York City less safe. Rather, having independent oversight will better inform public officials, invigorate community trust in the NYPD, increase police efficiency, and better balance civil liberties with public safety. The City Council must override the Mayor’s veto.
R. Kyle Alagood is a researcher, writer, law student, and former Research Associate at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. His research spans law enforcement accountability, oversight of U.S. intelligence agencies, and government transparency. Alagood received a Master of Science in Democracy and Democratisation from University College London, is a graduate of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, and attends the LSU Law Center.