The tape may not tell the whole story, but it certainly upset a number of people.
Alfred Burns, 16, is sandwiched between two cops on the ground in Marble Hill. His left hand is near the bottom officer’s throat at the beginning of the video, and the cop on top delivers more than a dozen blows to Burns’ head.
Whether the use of force was justified or not is up to the New York Police Department’s internal affairs unit. But short of that, the October arrest is part of a string of recent high-profile incidents between people and cops straining police-community relations in the Bronx.
But concerned residents don’t have to remain silent. The Civilian Complaint Review Board is an outlet where they can express their concerns directly to elected officials, NYPD officers and the board itself. And they can find out how police performance in their precinct stacks up against others in the city.
The board is the nation’s largest independent police oversight entity, tasking itself with investigating, mediating and prosecuting complaints of misconduct against police officers, according to the group’s website. It receives nearly 5,000 complaints each year on everything from alleged use of excessive force, to abuse of authority, to offensive language.
The tension was palpable at a recent board meeting held at Bronx Community College.
“Police accountability is a hot button issue,” said Jonathan Darche, the agency’s executive director. “People are obviously emotional. We treat every case seriously, and conduct a fair and impartial investigation.”
Just knowing one’s rights can deescalate an encounter with a police officer, said Yojaira Alvarez, the review board’s outreach supervisor. Many aren’t aware CCRB exists, however, so the organization goes into communities throughout the city informing people of their rights and responsibilities when interacting with a law enforcement officer.
More complaints come from the Bronx than virtually any other borough, Alvarez said, with nearly a quarter of them coming from here in 2016. Six Bronx precincts made the agency’s list of top-ten precincts with the most complaints.
Not on that list, however, was the 50th Precinct, where the Burns arrest occurred. In fact, it’s one of the least troublesome precincts in the Bronx, according to the CCRB, while the 44th and 40th precincts are among the worst.
Yet, when it comes to complaints per 1,000 people, the 50th is second in the borough with 1.3, behind only the 41st with 1.4, according to the review board.
People often assume there’s a correlation between how much crime takes place in a given precinct and its level of complaint activity, Darche said. But there are some high-crime precincts with low complaint rates — and the reverse also is true.
Not surprisingly, the 50th has a relatively low crime rate — 8.09 crimes per 1,000 residents between January and October — compared to the 40th serving Mott Haven and Port Morris, where the rate was 22.28.
“What that might indicate to us is there are some complaints that might not be getting to us, and we could really use the community’s help,” said Nicole Napolitano, the agency’s policy and advocacy director.
More than one CCRB board member stressed video evidence helps significantly when investigating misconduct complaints against police officers.
“If there’s videotape, if there’s reporting, it makes it much easier to substantiate a claim,” Angela Fernández said.
Indeed, CCRB data shows video evidence helped the agency issue definitive recommendations in 33 percent of complaints compared to just 11 percent of complaints lacking video.
That has led to a push by people like Darche to implement body-cameras for NYPD officers.
“Having access to that footage is going to make our agency a stronger force for improving police-community relations and guaranteeing that when misconduct occurs, we’re able to identify it and recommend discipline be taken,” he said.
To be fair, CCRB has appointed itself no small task. But many community members who showed up to the recent meeting questioned the board’s ability to understand the struggles they face in the Bronx.
But they do, according to board member Frederick Davie.
“I don’t spend all my days in a necktie and suit,” he said. “I get stopped by police officers. I’ve come through Harlem and been pulled over and told my front headlight was out, when it wasn’t. So I know the experience.”
Davie said he brings that experience to bear every time he and his CCRB colleagues investigate a misconduct complaint against an officer.
“We can’t continue as a society to have this animosity between these two communities, and I’m committed — because I think we need police — to improving these relations,” he said.
By no means is CCRB without critics.
Last September, the board recommended the NYPD discipline an officer who used a banned chokehold in the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island three years ago. Afterward, Patrick Lynch — president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association union —issued a statement accusing the agency of “illegal leaks” and calling on city leaders “to rein in the biased and grossly unprofessional CCRB,” which he said has “routinely demonstrated that its sole aim is to advance a politicized anti-cop agenda.”
PBA spokesman Joseph Mancini refused to speak with The Riverdale Press. Other representatives from unions like the Sergeants Benevolent Association and the Detectives’ Endowment Association also did not respond to multiple requests for comment.