NYPD's New "Discipline Matrix" Would Recommend, For The First Time, Specific Penalties For Misconduct

August 31, 2020

Following the lead of police departments across the country, the NYPD has issued its own "discipline penalty matrix" that outlines specific punishments for instances of police misconduct.

The document comes at the recommendation of an independent panel convened by the NYPD in 2018 to improve the department's tangled and opaque disciplinary system. While both the Civilian Complaint Review Board and the NYPD itself conduct investigations into police misconduct, the NYPD Commissioner alone has the sole authority to punish or fire an officer.

The panel, which issued its recommendations in January of 2019, advocated for the elimination of civil rights law 50-a (which was repealed in June), and suggested that the NYPD consider adopting a matrix "to help guide the Commissioner in exercising his broad discretion and to address public perceptions and misgivings about the disposition of cases and the imposition of appropriate penalties."

For instance, an officer found to have purposefully failed to record an incident with their body camera should be given 20 "penalty days," according to the matrix ("penalty days" meaning suspension and/or loss of vacation time). If done unintentionally, it's a three-day penalty.

An officer found to have performed a chokehold resulting in death or serious physical injury would be fired; if the chokehold resulted in no injuries, the officer would be docked 30 penalty days and put on probation.

The Commissioner would still retain the authority to ignore the disciplinary recommendations, and the listed punishments are "presumptive."

The public will have 30 days to comment on the matrix and make suggestions.

Michael Sisitzky, the lead policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the matrix was "important," but "no reason to celebrate without evidence of a culture change in policing."

"Disciplinary guidelines must reflect the perspectives of communities impacted by police violence and misconduct, but they're only useful to the extent that they are enforced by the department," Sisitzky told Gothamist in a statement. "As we learned from the release of police misconduct data this month where only 12 officers were dismissed after misconduct complaints were made, the NYPD has rarely taken it upon themselves to enforce discipline for misconduct in the past."

CCRB chair Fred Davie said he was "encouraged" by the standards the matrix sets.

"By raising standards for discipline in law enforcement and establishing a transparent procedure that will make the NYPD more responsive to independent civilian oversight, the proposed disciplinary matrix serves as a significant first step to achieving greater accountability."

One crucial aspect of police misconduct not immediately addressed by the matrix: the difficulty of punishing police officers who intentionally lie. While in theory the NYPD is supposed to punish lying with termination, in practice this rarely happens because intent must be proved. From the panel's report:

Several stakeholders told the Panel that the Department does not charge officers with making false statements at all when the facts would support such a charge. Proving this negative is difficult, but the concern was raised often enough to at least warrant more study by the Department. Relatedly, the Panel learned that the Department seems reluctant to collect evidence from other law enforcement agencies that might provide the basis for false statement charges. For example, historically, the Department did not appear to consistently gather and analyze information about arrests that prosecutors decline to charge because of officer credibility concerns or cases in which judges make adverse findings about officer credibility.

One stakeholder told the Panel that certain historic practices may contribute to a culture in which false statements are condoned. The specific practice that the stakeholder cited was the “handing off” of arrests, in which the actual arresting officer allows a colleague to prepare the arrest report, become the “arresting officer,” and earn the overtime that often comes with that designation. Many stakeholders reported that supervisors tolerate this practice and that their tolerance promotes a culture in which more egregious falsehoods occur.

At a press conference on Monday morning, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Commissioner Dermot Shea were asked whether these new standards would result in more NYPD officers getting fired for lying.

"When you think about intentional false statements versus accidental fast statements...I would be careful there," de Blasio said. "I think sometimes people believe they have been given accurate information, they repeat it, it turns out not to be accurate, "de Blasio said.

Commissioner Shea added, "There are occurrences where something is said that was believed at one point in time, but I wouldn't want to fall on that...I think we're in a good place here but we want to hear what others think because we don't have all the answers."

You can submit comments on the matrix here; the deadline is September 30th.

"What happens over the next 30 days in terms of community input will be important, but will be meaningless if the NYPD's fairy tale isn't dismantled to ensure that officers are fired — not 'presumptively terminated,'" said Mark Winston Griffith, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform. "This is fancy talk for the NYPD will continue to keep abusive officers on the force whenever it wants to, and history has shown is the vast majority of cases where New Yorkers are harmed by police violence."