On Tuesday, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a challenge from a coalition of police and other unions that sought to bar New York City agencies from releasing thousands of previously secret NYPD disciplinary records. The decision could usher in unprecedented public access to the NYPD’s closely-guarded disciplinary records.
While we wait for the unions to announce whether they will appeal the ruling, Gothamist/WNYC has gained access to a small trove of the NYPD’s misconduct findings and disciplinary decisions, giving us a unique window into what the larger release of NYPD records could reveal. The records were released by the Staten Island District Attorney’s Office, in response to a Freedom of Information Law request by the media organization. Prosecutors maintain records on NYPD misconduct because they are required by law to share information that could undermine the credibility of police witnesses with defendants.
The 824 misconduct findings from Staten Island reflect a department that frequently declines to issue the toughest punishments for offenses that the NYPD now says it takes seriously— including lying, excessive force, firearm misuse, domestic violence and driving under the influence. Around half of the officers who have committed those offenses suffered only lost vacation days, verbal instructions or written reprimands instead of more serious punishments like reassignments or termination.
Some former department officials and union representatives describe the NYPD’s disciplinary system as functioning properly, while others say it responds too harshly to officers who violate departmental policy.
But advocates of police accountability find the trends troubling.
“The lack of transparency around disciplinary records has for years prevented victims of police violence and harassment from knowing whether they are the first victim of that officer or the fiftieth,” said Corey Stoughton, attorney-in-charge of the Legal Aid Society’s Law Reform & Special Litigation Unit. “These records allow us to see the direct link between the failures in the NYPD’s disciplinary system, and the epidemic of police misconduct that communities have experienced.”
The NYPD did not respond to Gothamist/WNYC’s questions about the data in the Staten Island records, or to criticism about the disciplinary process from advocates. It referred inquiries regarding the Second Circuit’s decision to the law department. The Law Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The view these documents provide is limited. Most provide only short summaries of the misconduct incidents, and may lack references to mitigating factors that might have influenced disciplinary decisions. Furthermore, the 400 officers named in the documents are a small fraction of the total force of 36,000 uniformed officers in the NYPD. And because this is a sample of officers being called as potential witnesses, the dataset does not necessarily include officers who retired or were dismissed or who have misconduct findings but were not called as potential witnesses.
To make sense of the dozens of types of misconduct detailed in the documents, Gothamist/WNYC divided them into three categories of severity, modeled after NYPD’s new disciplinary guidelines which proscribe escalating consequences for more serious acts of misconduct.
Roughly half of the findings fell under the umbrella of minor misconduct, a broad category which includes shoddy paperwork, illegal parking, missed court appearances, loss of NYPD equipment, social media violations and tardiness. In approximately two-thirds of the cases where discipline was documented, these violations resulted in verbal warnings from commanders or, at most, lost vacation days. In numerous instances, the documents did not indicate what punishment, if any, resulted from a misconduct finding.
Another 18% constituted what the NYPD labels “rules violations”, which includes failures to activate body cameras, racial or bias-based policing, and failures to properly invoice seized evidence, such as drugs or cash. More than 96% of these officers suffered punishment no harsher than the removal of earned vacation time. And in no instance did an officer who failed to activate a body camera receive more than a minor discipline.
The remaining 30% of the disciplinary actions found in the documents would likely qualify for the most serious penalties under NYPD’s new guidelines. These behaviors include drunken driving, instances of domestic violence, lying and using excessive force while on duty.
When disciplinary actions were detailed in these documents, the harshest penalties— suspensions, transfers, changes in assignment or probations— occurred in about a quarter of cases.
Mike Perry, a Staten Island community anti-violence activist with the group True2Life, said he was not surprised by the numbers. “We don’t have the stories of many officers being indicted and put in prison behind vile acts that they’ve done,” he said. “All we see growing up is them beating the case all the time, vacation days taken, slaps on the wrist.”
But Charles Campisi, who headed the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau from 1996 to 2014, said sanctions like lost vacation days are more serious than they may appear. “There is a financial detriment to the officer in that the officer now comes to work and works those many days for free,” he said. “It is not a light penalty.”
The small number of serious violations also shows that the vast majority of NYPD officers do a professional job, Campisi said. “When you look at the number of corruption, serious misconduct cases, there are very few of them. We’re talking about a very small percentage of officers,” he said
John D’Alessandro, an attorney who serves as counsel to the New York City Sergeants Benevolent Association, said the findings describe a system that is excessively punitive of officers.
“Contrary to what people believe, NYPD cops are the most overly disciplined police officers on the planet,” said John D’Alessandro. “They think nothing of taking a year’s worth of hard-earned vacation for minor departmental infractions. This goes on every single day.”
Some of the previously secret misconduct findings echo allegations civilians have made against officers.
Last year, NYPD Officer Greggory Gingo was accused in a lawsuit of falsely arresting a Brooklyn man for driving while intoxicated in East Flatbush. The man refused two plea offers, and the case was dropped soon after it was published by Gothamist/WNYC that Gingo was on a list of officers that Brooklyn prosecutors did not trust as witnesses.
Why exactly Gingo was placed on the Brooklyn District Attorney’s list is unclear. The DA spokesman said he was included for multiple reasons in the spring of 2019 shortly before Oliver’s arrest. But by that time, documents show, Gingo already had at least one internal NYPD misconduct finding that may have undermined his credibility.
In 2011, a supervisor found that the Gingo’s paperwork contained significantly fewer entries for summonses and stop, question & frisk reports than he had claimed to have completed in his monthly summary report. As a result, the NYPD substantiated an investigation into Gingo for false record keeping. He received a “Command Discipline B,” a minor sanction that can result in a maximum removal of 10 vacation days.
Even with that penalty, Gingo remained on the streets. In the years that followed he made over 100 arrests, according to records reviewed by public defenders at The Legal Aid Society and the Brooklyn Defenders.
In October 2019, the NYPD gave Gingo another so-called “Command Discipline,” this time for allegedly failing to activate his body camera, according to the Staten Island files. By the end of that year, the NYPD had transferred him to Staten Island, city payroll records show.
Gingo did not respond to Gothamist/WNYC’s repeated requests for comment.
In January, the NYPD rolled out new disciplinary guidelines to address concerns about inconsistent discipline and accountability. “Our goal is to always strive to ensure that our discipline system is as clear and fair as it can be, and we believe that this product is another important step toward achieving that goal,” Commissioner Dermot Shea said at the time.
The Brooklyn man, who says that Gingo falsely arrested him for DWI, lost his job as a truck driver as a result of Gingo’s accusation. That man is currently unemployed and is still waiting to have his driver’s license restored, according to his attorney.
NYPD did not respond to Gothamist/WNYC’s inquiry about whether Gingo is still on the force.
Editor’s Note: In publishing the Freedom of Information Law documents from the Staten Island District Attorney’s Office, Gothamist/WNYC relied on pro-bono technical assistance from the Human Rights Data Analysis Group in making redactions. “At HRDAG, we seek to promote accountability for human rights violations, and we believe truth and transparency are required for accountability,” said Tarak Shah, a data scientist with the organization. “Document collections like this one are an important tool in the quest for truth and accountability, but require rigorous processing to make them suitable for those purposes. For this project, we built a named-entity extractor to index each document by officer name, and an automatic redaction tool to protect the sensitive information of private citizens.”
George Joseph and Luca Powell reported this story for Gothamist/WNYC’s Race & Justice Unit.
If you have a tip about a prosecutor’s office, a law enforcement agency or the courts, email reporter George Joseph at [email protected]. He is also on Facebook, Twitter @georgejoseph94, and Instagram @georgejoseph81. You can also text or call him with tips at (929) 486-4865. He is also on the encrypted phone app Signal with the same phone number.