The New York City Police Department could be the first in the country to be simultaneously overseen by two separate federal court monitors if state Attorney General Letitia James is successful in her lawsuit over how the agency handles large protests.
But experts warn that won’t be a panacea for everything critics say is wrong with the 36,000-officer force, which James argues is guilty of widespread brutality and violating the rights of protesters during Black Lives Matter demonstrations in summer 2020.
“I certainly cannot think of a single instance in which a police department has had more than one federal monitor at the same time,” said Corey Stoughton, attorney-in-charge of the Law Reform Practice at the Legal Aid Society. “I think it's fair to say that that would be very unusual and possibly unprecedented.”
Stoughton, who has also worked with other police departments under consent decrees at the U.S. Department of Justice, said that a monitor is no “magic wand” for enacting change. But she said the monitor and that person’s team would provide important oversight and have expertise in reforms the police department undertakes — whether they are changes negotiated in court or adopted from a recent report on the protests by the city’s Department of Investigation, a division under the independent Inspector General.
“Having a monitor is really necessary to achieve the kind of deep change that goes beyond merely a new training program or a policy change, but really gets that cultural and structural change in the police department,” Stoughton said.
But deep cultural change in the NYPD is slow work. The current court-appointed monitor, an attorney named Peter Zimroth, has been working with the NYPD since 2014.
That monitorship started after a federal court found that the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tactic was unconstitutional and racially discriminatory because officers targeted people of color. Those actions violated the 4th Amendment, which prohibits illegal searches and seizures, the court found, and in the ruling ordered various remedies, including a monitor.
The first several years of that monitorship focused on issues like rewriting policies and patrol guide sections, then training members of the department on them. It took several years for the monitor’s team to develop implicit bias training and for the NYPD to begin to train officers in how to spot their unconscious racial or socioeconomic biases.
Only at the end of 2019 did Zimroth outline a full list of tasks ordered by the court and how he would deem the NYPD to be in compliance with them.
At the heart of the ongoing monitorship over stop-and-frisk reforms is race. Christopher Dunn, the legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said race is central to James’s case, too.
“The gravest concerns we have about policing here in New York is the role of race in policing and the differential treatment when it comes to Black protesters and white protesters, or Black causes and white causes,” Dunn said. “And that is something that we have to take on because we cannot have a legitimate policing system where race is what defines how you were treated.”
The attorney general has not yet specified what kinds of changes she hopes a monitor would help implement. A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office said it was premature to outline changes that could be negotiated in court.
Dunn said an outside monitor could oversee things like new training programs or to assign more supervisors to work protests. The court could require — and the monitor could help implement — more dramatic changes, such as banning tactics like kettling in which officers enclose protesters to prevent them from moving. Kettling has been widely criticized because it often results in the detention of bystanders, limits legal protests, and can provoke panic and violence.
“One of the big benefits of having a monitor is that that guarantees the police department is going to have to pay more attention to this problem, Dunn said. “It guarantees that other people are going to be watching the police department, but it doesn't go far enough.”
On Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the police department was committed to reform, but he said “the court process and the bureaucracy would not speed up that work.”
The lawsuit is also getting pushback from the NYPD’s largest union, the Police Benevolent Association, which said it submitted testimony to the AG’s inquiry about the injuries officers suffered during the protests.
Mark Winston-Griffiths, who leads the Brooklyn Movement Center and is a spokesman for the coalition Communities United for Police Reform, said a monitor alone would not lead to real reform, though he lauded the attorney general for bringing the lawsuit.
“Given our long experience suing the NYPD and organizing against police violence in this city, we know that lasting change from this litigation will require that organizations like ours — that are led by Black, Latinx and other communities of color who regularly experience police violence at protests and in our communities — are able to act as an independent counterweight to any monitor appointed by the court,” Winston-Griffiths said in a statement.
“Nothing can replace the expertise and leadership of our communities when it comes to combating NYPD violence."