An Inspector General for the Police
In the Press
Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York is firmly opposed to a bill pending in the City Council that would make the nation’s largest police department subject to oversight by an inspector general with broad powers to review departmental policies — including controversial policies that involve stop-and-frisk tactics. Inspectors general are a common feature in other city divisions, in federal agencies like the F.B.I. and C.I.A., and in police departments in Los Angeles and elsewhere. But the mayor says there is no need for such an office in New York because crime is at an all-time low and the department is working well under its current leadership.
Even if we accepted that appraisal — and we do not — there is no guarantee that the department will continue to function well under the next police commissioner or the one after that. In fact, the department has a long history of episodic misconduct, dating back many decades, that erupts every time the leadership falls down on the job.
The last time that happened, as documented by the Mollen Commission Report in 1994, the department’s leadership and Internal Affairs Bureau were found to be looking the other way while the police trafficked weapons and sold protection to drug dealers. The commission’s central recommendation — that the city create a strong independent body to monitor the police — remains as relevant today as it was during that scandal nearly 20 years ago.
The Mollen investigation was mainly concerned with criminal acts by rogue cops. But, in recent years, the department’s broader policies have themselves led to illegal stops and unjustified surveillance, underscoring the need for stronger oversight.
Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the department, with 34,500 officers, has grown into one of the largest intelligence-gathering operations in the world, with powers that extend into neighboring states and virtually no outside check on this aspect of its work. Another concern is the increasingly unpopular stop-and-frisk program, under which mainly black and Hispanic New Yorkers, nearly all of them innocent, are stopped and searched on the street. This happened nearly 700,000 times last year. Three lawsuits against the stop-and-frisk system are pending in a federal court that has already criticized the department for its indifference to constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
The two external police oversight offices are not equipped to deal with these and other broader policy issues. The Civilian Complaint Review Board, established in 1993, is narrowly focused and deals mainly with individual cases of officer misconduct. The Commission to Combat Police Corruption, created by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the wake of the Mollen revelations, lacks subpoena power. In 2005, when the commission tried to determine whether officials were deliberately downgrading crime to make the publicly reported numbers look good, the department simply stonewalled the inquiry.
Creating an inspector general’s office could help address these shortcomings. Under a bill that 30 of the City Council’s 51 members have signed, the Council would forward a list of candidates to the mayor, who would then have the authority to name an inspector general of his own choosing. The appointee should be a person of stature with a demonstrated commitment to civil rights. The inspector would serve a seven-year term. He or she would review and report to the public on policies and practices and make periodic recommendations on how to improve them. Because the inspector would have subpoena power, the police department could no longer just say no when asked to produce information.
An inspector general is not a foolproof answer. But the mechanism has worked well elsewhere and could only strengthen oversight in a police department that clearly needs it.