On September 16, 1992, 10,000 protesters descended on City Hall. They blocked traffic for the better part of an hour, climbing over cars, buses, and police barricades. Some were violent and inebriated, and a few physically assaulted members of the press, as others hurled racist epithets at New York’s first African-American mayor, David Dinkins. They eventually burst through barricades into the City Hall parking lot, much to the indifference of the 300 uniformed police officers there to oversee the demonstration. The protesters were off-duty cops.
Bused in by police unions and egged on by would-be mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, they were indignant over that day’s heated hearing on a bill supported by Mayor Dinkins. The bill was designed to establish an independent civilian agency providing oversight of police, at a time not too different from today, when unrelenting police brutality was the subject of both weekly headlines and unyielding protests. The agency was pushed for by a “rainbow coalition” of community groups, civil-liberties agencies, and City Council representatives.
In the wake of the September 16 police riot, public opinion turned more vehemently against the police. The bill, which had been six votes shy of passing the day before the police stormed City Hall, was passed by a substantial majority the day after. It established an independent Civilian Complaint Review Board, which began its work a few months later. It was the first significant independent entity in the city to oversee civilian complaints against police. Supporters were euphoric.
But euphoria would turn to disappointment and the CCRB pass from a dream to a nightmare. For all the hope the board’s creation generated, supporters soon realized that “passing legislation [had been] relatively easy,” as Norman Siegel, the director of the NYCLU for 15 years and one of the key instigators behind the CCRB told The Nation: “The real challenge was implementation.”
Hope of civilian oversight soon withered with the 1994 election of Rudolph Giuliani, who had been so opposed to the board’s implementation. The board was firmly placed under mayoral control: All the CCRB’s decision-making powers lie with 13 persons, three members of which are appointed by the police commissioner, five by the mayor, and five by the City Council, putting the majority vote in the hands of the same city administration that is in charge of policing. Giuliani packed the board with former prosecutors, commonly believed to be sympathetic to the police. During Giuliani’s tenure, several CCRB employees and some board members resigned in protest of board decisions not to pursue incriminating investigations.
Four years into the Giuliani administration, the mayor’s staunch opposition to “any external check on police conduct,” as an NYCLU report emphasized in 1998, left the agency so understaffed and underfunded that it “virtually ensured it would not provide the oversight called for in the city charter.” While the city reeled from news of Abner Louima’s torture and sodomy at the hands of NYPD officers, the CCRB revealed a month after Giuliani’s reelection that it had previously undercounted the number of complaints against police filed in the aftermath of Louima’s case. Police accountability seemed far away. As recently as 2007, according to the latest NYCLU report on the CCRB, the CCRB had declined to investigate 55 percent of complaints filed in the preceding four years, and the investigations that did occur were so delayed and cursory that evidence disappeared and statutes of limitations expired.