The inside story of how NY's Bill de Blasio promised, then thwarted police accountability
New York Bill de Blasio walks off stage after speaking to police officers who were taking part in a graduation ceremony at Madison Square Garden in the Manhattan borough of New York o Dec. 29, 2015. (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

Years ago, before he was mayor, Bill de Blasio laid out the essence of any effort to reform the country's largest police department. New York City needed true civilian oversight.

Describing the city agency tasked with investigating police misconduct as “more of a lapdog than a watchdog," he proposed in 2009 to give it more independence, authority, and guaranteed funding. A few months later, he again pledged change, saying in a statement, “the NYPD cannot oversee itself."

Then, in 2013, he was elected mayor. And rather than create more independence for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, he ended up asserting ever-more control over the agency, intent on avoiding conflict with the Police Department, according to internal communications obtained by ProPublica and interviews with more than two dozen current and former officials.

The mayor's office edited reports and testimony to soften criticism of the NYPD and roll back proposals for more effective oversight. It maneuvered to block some of the same policies de Blasio had advocated for years before. And when the civilian officials were faced with obstruction by the NYPD, the mayor's office ignored their pleas for support.

When the CCRB in a draft report two years ago noted that police were withholding footage from body-worn cameras, an aide to the mayor ordered the CCRB to take out the direct reference to the department: “Let's simplify and remove the acronym 'NYPD.'"

New Yorkers and others have seen de Blasio's deference to the police play out on the public stage, perhaps most infamously when he defended NYPD's response to last summer's racial justice protests. But the internal accounts show how City Hall worked behind the scenes to protect the NYPD from scrutiny.

De Blasio will leave office at the end of the year, and his administration has defended his efforts to improve police oversight, telling ProPublica that while the CCRB “was left to languish under previous administrations, it's clear this mayor took a different approach." But his record is a warning to the field of candidates vying to succeed him.

They too are facing both calls for racial justice and concerns about crime, which has risen in New York over the past year as it has in other cities. Rather than seeking to slash the size of the police force, many candidates have echoed the promise de Blasio once made to institute genuine civilian oversight of a department that has long chafed at it.

Some of the leading candidates in this month's mayoral primary have seen that resistance up close, including Eric Adams, a former NYPD commander who often criticized the department; Scott Stringer, the city comptroller; and Maya Wiley, the onetime head of the CCRB under de Blasio.

Wiley, who was the mayor's chief legal adviser before joining the CCRB in July 2016, has made police reform a central part of her campaign platform. But after de Blasio chose her to chair the agency, the CCRB shifted toward tighter mayoral control. During Wiley's tenure, the office removed recommendations from a draft report that faulted the NYPD's use of Tasers after City Hall objected to the findings. After The New York Times revealed the changes, Wiley defended them.

City Hall's grip continued after Wiley left in the summer of 2017.

When her successor was scheduled to ask a city commission for more oversight power in late 2018, the mayor's office intervened and canceled the testimony. As one agency official informed a colleague in a text: “City Hall put the kibosh on it."

“Every testimony, every report, every hearing was completely controlled by what City Hall wanted or didn't want," said Nicole Napolitano, who was a senior policy analyst for the agency. The goal was to give a “veneer of accountability."

Napolitano and three others at the agency who pushed for more aggressive oversight were let go last November in what the mayor's office described as a reorganization and a “step forward." (In a lawsuit, Napolitano and the others argue they were fired in retaliation for raising concerns about the agency's independence, which they say was a violation of their free speech; the city is seeking to dismiss the case, arguing the concerns weren't protected speech.)

A statement provided by City Hall spokesperson Avery Cohen noted that a recent administration proposal would consolidate police oversight agencies under the CCRB, and said edits of reports and testimony were just part of the governing process.

“On matters of police accountability, as with any issue that requires the cooperation of multiple agencies, City Hall is always in dialogue with both the NYPD and CCRB," the statement said. “All our work with CCRB has been done to achieve our shared goal of greater police oversight and accountability."

In a statement to ProPublica, current CCRB chair Rev. Frederick Davie said that the agency has repeatedly advocated for strengthening oversight. “We will continue to work together — and disagree with — the NYPD and the Mayor's Office," Davie said. Wiley, through her campaign, declined to be interviewed; a spokesperson pointed to the candidate's recent defense of her tenure at the CCRB.

For decades, the NYPD has been the most powerful fiefdom in city government. With a $5.4 billion budget and a direct line to the mayor, the NYPD operates with far more independence than other city departments.

External oversight has expanded in recent years, with the creation of an inspector general and the appointment of a court-mandated monitor. And prosecutors, working with the FBI and NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau, are responsible for investigating potential criminal conduct by officers. But it's the CCRB that thousands of people turn to every year to lodge complaints against officers for everything from offensive language to police brutality.

Under the city charter, it's an “independent" office charged with conducting “complete, thorough and impartial" investigations of police misconduct.

That mandate, though, belies the agency's limited powers. It is governed by a board that is effectively controlled by the mayor through his appointees and those of his police commissioner. And when the CCRB does substantiate a complaint, it can only recommend discipline to the NYPD. (In a statement to ProPublica, the NYPD said it is committed to oversight: “We fully support the CCRB.")

Through de Blasio's nearly eight years in office, even as public concern about police misconduct mounted, the CCRB has remained on the margins of efforts to investigate and reform policing in New York. While others in city and state government have issued stinging findings about the NYPD's conduct during last summer's protests, the agency tasked with investigating complaints about officers' misconduct has largely stayed silent.

Mina Malik served for two years as the agency's executive director, resigning five months into Wiley's tenure as board chair. She said that during her time there, “it became clear that City Hall has significant influence over the CCRB and its operations." That's not how she thinks it should work. “It is vital for any police oversight agency to be independent and free from political influence or police control."

For many of those who were drawn to a mayor whose campaign had taken off with an ad where his biracial son speaks about racial injustice, de Blasio's increasingly vocal defense of the NYPD has been mystifying.

But long before he was elected mayor, de Blasio had seen up close the political risks of being the boss of the Police Department. De Blasio first worked in City Hall about 30 years ago, under Mayor David Dinkins, who inherited soaring crime rates and deep distrust of the NYPD, especially among Black people.

After Dinkins moved the CCRB out from under the management of the NYPD, thousands of off-duty officers stormed Lower Manhattan, taking over the Brooklyn Bridge and deriding Dinkins, the city's first Black mayor, as a “washroom attendant."

“It was a formative experience" for de Blasio, recalled one former top aide who worked with the mayor over two terms, and who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing their continued connections to him. “I heard him talk about it many times."

Dinkins ended up brushing aside the police riot and implemented his plan to create stronger civilian oversight. But he also ended up a one-term mayor. The lesson de Blasio took from the experience was that a mayor should “keep conflict with cops to a minimum," the former aide said. “The orientation toward CCRB was, 'Don't have them cause problems for the Police Department.'"

After he was elected, de Blasio did deliver on a promise to drop the city's appeal of a federal court ruling against the NYPD over how it used stop-and-frisk" tactics in Black and Latino communities.

But De Blasio also sought to send a signal to those who worried his agenda would threaten the city's progress in reducing crime. The mayor enlisted the country's most well-known cop, William Bratton, to return to New York to lead the department, which he had done two decades earlier under Mayor Rudolph Gulliani.

While Bratton gave the new mayor a measure of credibility on policing, it came with a price, according to several of those who worked with both of them. Bratton ran the department “completely independently," said Richard Emery, who was de Blasio's first chair of the CCRB.

(Bratton, who retired from the NYPD in 2016, declined to be interviewed or to respond to questions from ProPublica. In a recently published memoir, he writes that de Blasio was supportive of the police and backed his efforts as commissioner.)

It was through Bratton that de Blasio picked Emery. He was a high-profile lawyer who routinely sued the city on behalf of people alleging civil rights violations by the NYPD. He was also friendly with Bratton.

When de Blasio held a press conference on July 17, 2014, announcing Emery as head of the board, the mayor underscored the need for change, just as he had a few years before. “This is a chance to get it right," he said. “This is the first time we're actually going to get to see a CCRB function properly. And I think it's going to be a breath of fresh air. "

That same day, NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo tried to arrest Eric Garner in Staten Island and ended up putting him in a chokehold. Garner's friend Ramsey Orta filmed the encounter, leading the world to hear Garner cry, “I can't breathe" 11 times before he died.

While the district attorney's office in Staten Island began to consider criminal charges against Pantaleo, the CCRB also began digging in, and it seemed like the agency might have a moment. “The CCRB had never done anything even remotely as important or high-profile" as the Garner case, Emery recalled. “It would bolster the integrity and reputation of the agency if it were done right."

The agency initially made progress. The NYPD allowed CCRB investigators complete access to internal records in the case, which they'd rarely had in other cases.

But after a grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo, de Blasio found himself once again in no-man's land, trying to address residents' pain and anger without losing his grip on the Police Department.

In an emotional address at a press conference about the grand jury's decision, de Blasio talked about how he and wife had had to “literally train" their teenage son Dante to “take special care" with officers.

The police unions excoriated the mayor's comments, which came amid protests following the killing of not only Garner but also Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. De Blasio had thrown officers “under the bus," said Patrick Lynch, the head of the city's largest police union.

Less than two weeks after the mayor's remarks, a 28-year-old man, who had traveled to Brooklyn from Maryland and posted on social media about police killings, walked up to an NYPD car, and shot and killed the two officers inside, and then killed himself minutes later.

“There's blood on many hands tonight," said Lynch.“That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor."

When the mayor later spoke at a memorial service for the two officers, hundreds of officers turned their backs on him. When de Blasio went to pay his respects at a funeral home, officers again turned their backs on him.

“It crushed him," recalled one of the aides who was often with him then. “I remember his whole demeanor changing. It also got to his worst fear. The Dinkins thing, looking like you have lost control."

Indeed, as the fallout from the Garner case intensified, Emery said he sensed that de Blasio had “far more fear of the Police Department."

When Legal Aid lawyers sued to obtain limited disciplinary records for the officer who killed Garner and a judge backed the request. Emery had wanted the CCRB to release at least some of the requested records, which were similar to records the agency had released about other officers. But the city appealed the ruling and prevailed in blocking release of the records.

It was the first of multiple moves under de Blasio in which the city and NYPD blocked access to disciplinary records that had long been available in the past.

De Blasio and others argued that they were simply following a state law, known as 50a, and that the solution lay in changing the statute, which has long been invoked to shield records about policeofficers.

But de Blasio opposed repealing the law. “He was a huge impediment on 50a," said the former aide who worked with de Blasio across two terms. “I don't know how many memos we wrote him about why 50a should be repealed. And we'd talk to him and he'd twist himself into a pretzel."

The summary of Pantaleo's record eventually did come out, after a CCRB staffer leaked it in 2017. The staffer was forced to resign that week.

At the time, Pantaleo was still on the force and had not faced any discipline. The U.S. Justice Department had launched its own investigation, and, as was standard practice, the CCRB put its investigation on hold.

Emery thought he had a workaround. If the CCRB were granted access to the minutes of the Staten Island grand jury, the testimony, which by law is secret, might allow the CCRB to move ahead without interfering with the federal investigation. When CCRB's motion for the minutes was rejected by a judge, Emery issued a statement calling the decision “plainly erroneous" and promising to appeal. Instead, the city's lawyers stepped in and stopped the CCRB from appealing.

As Emery continued to be outspoken, he drew the ire of police unions. When unions complained that he had a conflict of interest, Emery responded that they were “squealing like a stuck pig." That landed him on the cover of the New York Daily News and the editorial page of the New York Post, which called for his ouster: “Cop-hating CCRB Chief Must Go."

De Blasio ended up accepting Emery's resignation two months later, after Emery was sued by Malik and another staffer who alleged he had made sexist remarks. (He denied the allegations and the suit was dropped soon after he quit.)

With Emery gone, the mayor decided to turn to his own inner circle, appointing one of his closest aides, Wiley, to lead an agency whose independence the mayor had said was crucial.

The daughter of civil rights activists, Wiley had spent two and a half years as de Blasio's in-house legal counsel, advising him on what turned out to be controversial decisions regarding fundraising and other issues.

When Wiley had her first senior staff meeting at the CCRB in the summer of 2016, people there remember her as being friendly but far more circumspect than Emery.

“I asked Maya what her plan was on getting NYPD records, because Richard had finally gotten the CCRB to start getting them, and she wouldn't give a clear answer," recalled Winsome Thelwell, who at the time oversaw the agency's investigators. (Thelwell, who worked at the agency for 25 years, is one of the four former staffers suing after being let go in November.)

Wiley soon found herself dealing with a report that City Hall had already objected to.

In early 2016, the CCRB completed a draft report about officers' use of Tasers, which the NYPD was beginning to roll out more widely.

The original report documented a number of troubling findings: The CCRB found that in nearly a third of the roughly 150 cases it looked at, officers used Tasers on people already in custody; it found almost all of the Taser uses involved unarmed civilians, the majority of whom were Black.

As the CCRB was preparing to release the report in March of 2016, the agency followed its practice of sharing the draft with City Hall.

“They were upset right away," recalled Janos Marton, who was an analyst at the CCRB and the primary author of the report. “The mayor's office's response was to shelve it." (The mayor's office said that its review of CCRB's draft reports “in no way compromises the independence of the agency.")

Marton had gotten another job offer and soon quit. But he said the report was “one of my babies," so he kept checking on its progress.

In mid-May, the CCRB's interim chair was asked at a board meeting why the report hadn't been published andreplied that it would be released “in the next couple of weeks." That didn't happen. Instead, a New York Daily News story in June revealed the existence of the report and quoted unnamed NYPD officials criticizing it.

When Wiley became chair of the board in July, the report was still under wraps. She was asked about it at board meetings in September and in October, according to the meeting transcripts.

It was finally published late in October, on a Sunday, and without an accompanying press release. The report also removed recommendations for the NYPD, including one proposal to ban officers from using Tasers on people in handcuffs.

Wiley later said she accepted “full responsibility" for the delay. In a board meeting, she said the report was of limited value because it included relatively few cases. She defended her edits: “I stand by the report that we finalized and got out there."

In response to questions, Julia Savel, a campaign spokesperson, referred ProPublica to Wiley's past defense of her role editing and overseeing the release of the Taser report, including her position that the report didn't contain enough data to justify its conclusions.

Savel also pointed to Wiley's 2017 role in pushing the agency's board to refer the case against Pantaleo, the officer who put Garner in a fatal chokehold, to the NYPD. Pantaleo eventually faced a departmental disciplinary hearing in 2019 and was fired from the force after an NYPD judge found he'd violated department rules.

Many staffers inside the CCRB perceived Wiley and her top aides as being too close to City Hall.

In late September 2016, Malik, a lawyer and the agency's executive director, wrote to board members that Wiley was seeking to hire her former chief of staff at City Hall in a manner that “could compromise the integrity of our agency."

Wiley wanted to hire her ex-aide to a newly created senior position that would give the aide effective day-to-day control of the agency — Malik's role — even though Wiley's former staffer had missed the window to apply, emails show.

Wiley prevailed. And two weeks later she emailed the agency's staff about the hiring. The email noted that Wiley and two other board members formed a subcommittee “to intervene and select the candidate." About a month later, Malik left the CCRB to teach at Harvard Law School.

Later on in Wiley's tenure, another agency staffer raised concerns about the agency's ties to City Hall.

In March 2017, a staffer who had filed a complaint about unrelated wrongdoing by other agency officials told investigators from the city's anti-corruption agency that Wiley and her top aides were taking direction from the mayor's office and improperly sharing media inquiries and public records requests, according to officials and records. The investigators, sent by the Department of Investigation's inspector general for the NYPD, looked into the allegations but ultimately couldn't confirm them, a spokesperson for the agency said.

Wiley left the CCRB after 13 months, explaining that she needed more time to focus on her work in The New School, where she had been teaching and leading a social justice office.

City Hall's influence continued.

Napolitano, the former CCRB policy expert, experienced it firsthand. She joined the agency in the fall of 2017 just a few months after Wiley left.

One of the first subjects she turned to was body-worn cameras. A federal judge had ordered the NYPD to use them as part of a landmark ruling in 2013 that found the department's stop-and-frisk tactics were discriminatory and unconstitutional.

The cameras have become a critical part of police oversight. If CCRB investigators have footage, they are more likely to get to the bottom of a case.

But Napolitano learned that though the NYPD was rolling out the cameras to patrol officers, it was slow to share the footage with the CCRB. Napolitano and others pushed for a solution that some other cities have adopted: civilian investigators should have direct access to recordings.

City Hall and the Police Department rejected the idea. The NYPD, in turn, became even worse at sharing footage.

In August 2019, CCRB officials proposed noting in an annual city report that its investigations were being delayed because the NYPD wasn't turning over body-worn camera footage. The report is meant to give status updates about all agencies. An introduction describes it as an opportunity to “hold ourselves accountable."

An assistant to the mayor kept a reference to the delay but cut out the explanation that the NYPD was the reason for it. She wrote that the report wasn't the place “for one agency to call out or point fingers at the slowness or inaction of other agencies," a policy the mayor's office told ProPublica “is universal to agencies across the board."

That same month, the CCRB finally prosecuted Officer Pantaleo in a departmental tribunal court, leading to his firing. The agency's chair by then was Davie. Like de Blasio's previous picks, he came with civil rights bona fides — and close ties to the mayor. He officiated at de Blasio's wedding.

Davie wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post lauding Pantaleo's firing, concluding that the ruling was “evidence that civilian oversight of police works."

The op-ed prompted a sharp email from the mayor's then press secretary, Freddi Goldstein, with the subject header, “What is this?"

“Don't remember ever giving approval for this let alone being asked," Goldstein wrote. (Goldstein mistakenly CC'd a reporter at the Gotham Gazette, who shared the email with ProPublica.)

Asked about the email, Goldstein, who left City Hall last year, told ProPublica she was surprised to see the op-ed in print since it was standard practice for all city agencies to discuss upcoming stories with the mayor's office.

“I do think that we tried to be sensitive" to the agency's independence, she said. “But I do think we expected them to give us a heads-up when things were happening."

A month later, Davie again ran afoul of the mayor's office. He was set to testify before the state senate, where a bill to finally repeal the 50a secrecy law was being considered.

As chair of the CCRB, Davie was going to call for an end to the law. “If New York is indeed sincere about our commitment to transparency in policing, we must repeal 50-a," Davie planned to say, according to his draft testimony.

But the mayor's office objected. “City Hall was adamantly against it," recalled Napolitano, who worked on the draft. She said Davie's testimony, along with planned remarks from an NYPD official, were canceled just minutes before the hearing. A spokesperson told ProPublica the mayor was “not involved."

After the New York Post reported that the mayor's office had scuttled the testimony, Davie did testify a week later, softening his call for repeal and explaining it was just his opinion.

A few months later, Davie organized a letter signed by other CCRB board members calling for repeal. A City Hall spokesperson at the time disavowed the letter, saying it didn't represent the agency's official position.

Last summer, state legislators repealed the law.

When de Blasio first pushed for stronger oversight for the NYPD more than a decade ago, he recognized the importance of independent funding. He proposed that the CCRB's budget be set to a fixed percentage of the NYPD's, so the agency would “never be subject to politically charged budget negotiations."

Two years ago, there was an opportunity to make that reality. A commission had been convened to propose reforms to the city's charter, including rules on police oversight.

Like other agencies, the CCRB prepared recommendations in the fall of 2018, including the idea de Blasio had once advanced about the budget. But as one agency official had texted a colleague, the proposals prompted a “fight" with the mayor's office and City Hall “put the kibosh" on the planned testimony.

After pushback from police-reform advocates, the CCRB did offer its proposals to the commission the next spring. But the agency struggled to find support, including from the mayor's appointees to the commission.

One commission member who pushed for independent CCRB budgeting recalled having to drop the idea to secure support for another proposal to bolster the agency. It was “baffling," said Sateesh Nori, who had been appointed by the city's elected public advocate.

The commission ended up endorsing a proposal that linked the CCRB's head count to the size of the NYPD, but did not guarantee a budget. It also allowed the mayor to ignore the head count provision based on “fiscal necessity." Voters approved the proposal in November 2019.

Four months later, the CCRB prepared testimony to the City Council requesting money for a “public education campaign" so more New Yorkers would know where to go with complaints about police. City Hall cut the request, arguing that a unit within the agency dedicated to outreach was already sufficiently funded. (Here is the final testimony.) Currently, the CCRB has a roughly $20 million budget and about 200 employees.

By that summer, there was a push inside the agency to swiftly complete investigations into the Police Department's aggressive response to the racial justice protests that had swept the city after George Floyd's killing. But investigators were overwhelmed by hundreds of complaints and stymied by a lack of cooperation by the NYPD under Commissioner Dermot Shea, who had been appointed to the top job by de Blasio in December 2019. As of Wednesday, the CCRB had brought charges against 11 officers.

Last September, the CCRB was going to note in a report another reason for the delays. Some officers had covered their badge numbers, making it hard to identify them. City Hall softened the wording to say there had just been allegations of badges being covered.

When Napolitano objected, CCRB general counsel Matthew Kadushin replied: “Nicole – Please make the changes that City Hall recommended." (Kadushin did not reply to a request for comment.)

Two months later, Napolitano and three other senior CCRB staffers were called for video meetings with two agency officials. Napolitano and the others were told they were being let go and that their access to agency emails and records was being cut off. When Napolitano asked why, one official said they couldn't discuss it but that the agency was “restructuring." In a statement at the time, board chair Davie said the moves were made to “address redundancies."

Napolitano had voted for de Blasio multiple times, including as her local council member. She had joined city government soon after he was elected, believing in his message that building trust in the NYPD was critical and could lead to more effective policing. “I was hopeful," she recalled.

Despite everything, Napolitano said she still has hope. For real change to happen, people “need to understand how the system really works."