Why It’s Impossible to Indict a Cop

The lethal use of police force typically sets off an internal police investigation to determine if departmental regulations were violated. The regs and the law are not the same thing. Case in point: the chokehold that NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo used to strangle Eric Garner, suspected of selling loose cigarettes, on Staten Island last July. (The grand jury bill on that case has still not been decided.) The chokehold is not prohibited by law, but it is by departmental rules. The violation might earn a departmental censure of some kind, from loss of vacation days to getting fired, but they tend to be radically mild, when not nonexistent.

What about internal affairs investigations? On television they are aggressive, dogged, uncompromising. In real life they tend to insulate the police from serious external sanction. “I stopped cooperating with the IAB ten years ago,” says Jason Leventhal, a former Assistant District Attorney in Richmond County, Staten Island who now works as a civil rights litigator, often suing the police. “IA will never, ever credit the claim of police abuse. They hide witnesses, they push witnesses around. The only time I cooperate with them is when I know I have their hands tied behind their back.”

Are there any effective civilian oversight systems at any major police department in the US? Nobody I interviewed for this article could name one. New York’s Civilian Complaint Review Board occasionally docks vacation days from police officers but the Board has no real teeth. Even staffers at the New York Civil Liberties Union have candidly told me that it’s more or less worthless. “I don’t have any faith in the CCRB or the Internal Affairs Bureau or any other internal mechanism,” says Ron Kuby, a civil rights and criminal defense lawyer in New York. Civilian complaints rarely even get in the way of an individual officer’s career. In New York, CCRB complaints don’t even go in a police officer’s file, says Kuby. “The PBA just says that the more aggressive officers will get excessive force complaints.”

Firing a police officer with a record of abusive behavior (or worse) is often extremely difficult and can carry a heavy political cost. Patrolmen Benevolent Associations, which have escaped the kind of resentment directed at other public-sector unions, tend to be powerful players in local politics able to inflict pain on any politico who would cross them. (Remember when Sarah Palin struggled to fire a state trooper and ex-brother-in-law who had allegedly acted like a thug towards her sister?)