'How civil wars start': Expert explains how America’s democracy is 'ripe to be exploited'

Voters in Sweden last month gave a leading role to a far-right party with neo-Nazi roots. Italy is also on the cusp of putting a party in power that has fascist origins. And of course, in the United States, one party has increasingly embraced election denialism and attempted to undermine the legitimacy of the electoral process.

To try to understand what, exactly, is happening, I talked with Barbara Walter, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego who studies democracies across the world. Her book “How Civil Wars Start” has become a bestseller. Rather than talk about the prospects for political violence, we discussed why many democracies are retrenching and how the U.S. stands alone — and not in a good way.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you walk through the vital signs of democracy that you and other political scientists have been tracking and that are trending the wrong way in the U.S. and elsewhere?

So there are probably five big data sets that measure the quality of democracy and countries around the world. They all measure democracy slightly differently. But every single one of them has shown that democracies around the world are in decline. And not just the fledgling democracies, but sacrosanct liberal democracies in Sweden, the U.K. and the United States.

These indices are like vital signs, but instead of for your body, it’s for our body politic. What are the most important ones?

So, empirically, we can’t rank order them. But we know what the good things are, and if you start attacking them, you’re attacking the vital organs.

One is constraints on executive power. You want lots of checks and balances on the executive branch. Here in the United States, you want to make sure that the legislative branch is strong and independent and willing to check presidential power. You want to know that the judicial branch is the same. Another one would be rule of law. Is the rule of law actually respected? Is it uncorrupted? You don’t want a system where certain individuals are above the law. If you want to become, say, Orban 2.0, you place loyalists in the Justice Department who are beholden to you and not to the rule of law.

You also want a free and open press, so that your citizens get high-quality information and they can make good decisions. Another one is you really want a competitive political environment, so that there’s a level playing field for people who are competing for power. You could make a very uneven playing field by party. So you can restrict the vote, you can make voting more difficult.

So these are all vital: Do you have constraints on the executive? Do you have the rule of law, so that there’s accountability? Do you have a level playing field, so that there can really be popular participation?

Another warning sign you’ve talked about is when a party becomes less about policy and more about identity, a shift one can see in the Republican Party in recent years. Can you talk about it?

The Republicans have always had a challenge that they were the party of wealthy Americans and business. The problem is wealthy Americans will always be a very small minority of Americans. So for wealthy Americans, they have to convince at least some nonwealthy Americans to support their platform. How do you do that? Well, you do it with issues of identity, their sense of threat, their sense of fear, their sense of the world is changing and “I’m being left behind.” It’s very effective.

I want to get to why we see these dynamics playing out across so many countries. You cite three dynamics. One is that the dominant caste in many nations, white people, is trending toward minority status. Another is increasing wealth concentration, where rural areas are often losing out. And then there’s a new medium that has risen that is unregulated and unmediated: social media.

On No. 3, the new medium, I would state it stronger than that. It’s not that it’s unregulated per se. It’s that it’s being driven by algorithms that selectively push out the more extreme incendiary messages.

You also wrote about another concept that I hadn’t heard before: ethnic entrepreneurs. These are politicians like, say, Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian strongman, who recognize an opportunity in appealing to the fears of a particular group.

Yep. He was not a nationalist. He was a straight up Communist. And again, that gets back to the difference between a political party based on ideology and one based on ethnicity. He became the leader of the Serb party.

So he saw which way the wind was blowing and he put up a sail. And that’s what an ethnic entrepreneur does?

Yes, but it can also be more strategic than that. Milosevic really had a problem in that communism was over. And if he wanted to stay in power, he was going to have to compete in elections. How is he going to get elected? And then he’s like, “Oh, like the largest ethnic group, and in this country are Serbs. I’m Serb!” If I can convince the Serbs during this time of change and insecurity and uncertainty when everyone’s a little bit on edge that unless they support a Serb, the Croats are gonna kill them, then then I can catapult myself to power. That’s classic ethnic entrepreneurship.

I want to ask you a last question I’ve been thinking about a lot myself. Like a number of news organizations, we’ve created a team devoted to covering threats to democracy. But after I read your book, I stopped referring to it as that because it occurred to me that the term threats to democracy reinforces a story that we Americans tell ourselves: that we already have a true democracy, the best darn one in the world, and we just need to protect it.

Our American democracy, even when we were happy with it and thought it was doing really well, it already had a whole series of undemocratic natures that no other healthy liberal democracy has.

Our electoral college, nobody has that. That was a compromise to rural states. We have the fact that our elections are run by partisan agents. No other healthy liberal democracy has that. Canada, this enormous country, has an independent electoral commission that runs all of the elections. Every ballot is the same no matter if you vote in Prince Edward Island or the Yukon. Or that we allow so much money to be injected into our system. Nobody else has this.

So we have not only these undemocratic features but a whole number of vulnerabilities that if you really did want to somehow cement in minority rule, you could do this legally. So in many ways we have a terrible system that’s ripe to be exploited.

She wrote the book on how civil wars start. Now she's noticing more and more disturbing signs

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Voters in Sweden this month gave a leading role to a far-right party with neo-Nazi roots. Italy is also on the cusp of putting a party in power that has fascist origins. And of course, in the United States, one party has increasingly embraced election denialism and attempted to undermine the legitimacy of the electoral process.

To try to understand what, exactly, is happening, I talked with Barbara Walter, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego who studies democracies across the world. Her book “How Civil Wars Start” has become a bestseller. Rather than talk about the prospects for political violence, we discussed why many democracies are retrenching and how the U.S. stands alone — and not in a good way.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you walk through the vital signs of democracy that you and other political scientists have been tracking and that are trending the wrong way in the U.S. and elsewhere?

So there are probably five big data sets that measure the quality of democracy and countries around the world. They all measure democracy slightly differently. But every single one of them has shown that democracies around the world are in decline. And not just the fledgling democracies, but sacrosanct liberal democracies in Sweden, the U.K. and the United States.

These indices are like vital signs, but instead of for your body, it’s for our body politic. What are the most important ones?

So, empirically, we can’t rank order them. But we know what the good things are, and if you start attacking them, you’re attacking the vital organs.

One is constraints on executive power. You want lots of checks and balances on the executive branch. Here in the United States, you want to make sure that the legislative branch is strong and independent and willing to check presidential power. You want to know that the judicial branch is the same. Another one would be rule of law. Is the rule of law actually respected? Is it uncorrupted? You don’t want a system where certain individuals are above the law. If you want to become, say, Orban 2.0, you place loyalists in the Justice Department who are beholden to you and not to the rule of law.

You also want a free and open press, so that your citizens get high-quality information and they can make good decisions. Another one is you really want a competitive political environment, so that there’s a level playing field for people who are competing for power. You could make a very uneven playing field by party. So you can restrict the vote, you can make voting more difficult.

So these are all vital: Do you have constraints on the executive? Do you have the rule of law, so that there’s accountability? Do you have a level playing field, so that there can really be popular participation?

Another warning sign you’ve talked about is when a party becomes less about policy and more about identity, a shift one can see in the Republican Party in recent years. Can you talk about it?

The Republicans have always had a challenge that they were the party of wealthy Americans and business. The problem is wealthy Americans will always be a very small minority of Americans. So for wealthy Americans, they have to convince at least some nonwealthy Americans to support their platform. How do you do that? Well, you do it with issues of identity, their sense of threat, their sense of fear, their sense of the world is changing and “I’m being left behind.” It’s very effective.

I want to get to why we see these dynamics playing out across so many countries. You cite three dynamics. One is that the dominant caste in many nations, white people, is trending toward minority status. Another is increasing wealth concentration, where rural areas are often losing out. And then there’s a new medium that has risen that is unregulated and unmediated: social media.

On No. 3, the new medium, I would state it stronger than that. It’s not that it’s unregulated per se. It’s that it’s being driven by algorithms that selectively push out the more extreme incendiary messages.

You also wrote about another concept that I hadn’t heard before: ethnic entrepreneurs. These are politicians like, say, Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian strongman, who recognize an opportunity in appealing to the fears of a particular group.

Yep. He was not a nationalist. He was a straight up Communist. And again, that gets back to the difference between a political party based on ideology and one based on ethnicity. He became the leader of the Serb party.

So he saw which way the wind was blowing and he put up a sail. And that’s what an ethnic entrepreneur does?

Yes, but it can also be more strategic than that. Milosevic really had a problem in that communism was over. And if he wanted to stay in power, he was going to have to compete in elections. How is he going to get elected? And then he’s like, “Oh, like the largest ethnic group, and in this country are Serbs. I’m Serb!” If I can convince the Serbs during this time of change and insecurity and uncertainty when everyone’s a little bit on edge that unless they support a Serb, the Croats are gonna kill them, then then I can catapult myself to power. That’s classic ethnic entrepreneurship.

I want to ask you a last question I’ve been thinking about a lot myself. Like a number of news organizations, we’ve created a team devoted to covering threats to democracy. But after I read your book, I stopped referring to it as that because it occurred to me that the term threats to democracy reinforces a story that we Americans tell ourselves: that we already have a true democracy, the best darn one in the world, and we just need to protect it.

Our American democracy, even when we were happy with it and thought it was doing really well, it already had a whole series of undemocratic natures that no other healthy liberal democracy has.

Our electoral college, nobody has that. That was a compromise to rural states. We have the fact that our elections are run by partisan agents. No other healthy liberal democracy has that. Canada, this enormous country, has an independent electoral commission that runs all of the elections. Every ballot is the same no matter if you vote in Prince Edward Island or the Yukon. Or that we allow so much money to be injected into our system. Nobody else has this.

So we have not only these undemocratic features but a whole number of vulnerabilities that if you really did want to somehow cement in minority rule, you could do this legally. So in many ways we have a terrible system that’s ripe to be exploited.

A police car hit a kid on Halloween 2019 -- the NYPD is quashing a move to punish the officer

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Series: A Closer Look

Examining the News

It was a little more than two years ago that I really started learning about the reality of police oversight in America.

On Halloween night in 2019, my wife and our then-6-year-old daughter were walking home from trick-or-treating in our Brooklyn neighborhood when they saw a New York Police Department car go the wrong way down a street and smack into a teenager, who fell and then ran away.

When I contacted the NYPD afterward, they told me that what my family saw hadn’t happened. A police car hadn’t hit a teenager. The teenager had hit the car. Or, as an NYPD statement put it, he “ran across the hood of a stationary police car.”

I ended up diving into the case and wrote about it the next summer during the global racial justice protests spawned by George Floyd’s murder.

The police had been looking for a group of Black, male teenagers who reportedly had stolen a cellphone. After the teenager who’d been hit by the car ran away, my wife, Sara, watched as officers turned their attention to other Black boys.

The police lined the boys up against the wall of our local movie theater, then arrested three of them. The boys insisted they had just been trick-or-treating. The youngest was 12. He was crying, asking repeatedly, “What did I do?”

I didn’t hear anything more about the case for a long while. Then, a few weeks ago, the city agency charged with investigating civilians’ complaints of police abuse let me know it had finally finished its investigation.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board found that, contrary to the NYPD’s assertions, an officer did hit a kid with his car. It also found that officers, including the precinct commander, had arrested the boys without justification. An officer had even drawn his gun and pointed it at one of the boys.

One of the officers, the report noted, was wearing a sweatshirt with a logo of the Punisher, a Marvel character who kills lawbreakers, which is popular with cops and white nationalists. The sweatshirt also had a blue line over the American flag and the acronym DILLIGAF. (“Do I Look Like I Give a Fuck.”) The officer told investigators he hadn’t known the meaning of the logo or the acronym on his sweatshirt.

The police response that night started when some teenagers told officers they had been robbed at the local park. But the officers only had what investigators later described as “varying and inconsistent descriptions” of who they were looking for.

The officers stopped a group of boys a few blocks away. There was little about them that matched the description of the assailants other than that they were Black, young and walking together. Indeed, the CCRB’s report noted, one of the officers “stated that he was not certain whether they were involved.”

Some of the boys ran, including the one who was hit by the police car. (They told investigators that they ran because they were scared.)

The boys who were arrested — a 15-year-old, a 14-year-old and the 12-year-old — said that the officers never offered any explanation for why they were stopped. They were released without charges, after being held for hours. Their parents said they weren’t given any documentation on the arrests. The mother of one of the boys worked for the NYPD as a school safety officer, but even she couldn’t get any record of what happened.

It was as if the case was being pushed into a fog.

The CCRB began investigating after receiving a witness complaint. But the agency’s investigations are dependent on the NYPD cooperating. And as often happens, the NYPD has been slow to do so.

Take body-worn cameras, which are often critical in abuse investigations. The CCRB noted it faced “extremely substantial delays” in getting the Halloween night footage from the NYPD. While some cities have given civilian investigators direct access to body cam footage, the NYPD has rejected calls to do the same.

The agency also did not get to interview officers until more than a year after the incident. By the time officers did finally submit to interviews, they had serious trouble with their recollections. When the officer who drove the car was asked whether he had hit a kid, he “stated that he could not remember.”

In December, the CCRB told me it had just filed disciplinary charges against the officers: for wrongful arrests, for pulling a gun without justification, and for, as the bureaucratic lingo puts it, “Force, Vehicle.”

The next step would typically be disciplinary hearings, in which the CCRB acts as the prosecutor and the proceedings are overseen by an NYPD judge, who answers ultimately to the police commissioner. While the penalties after guilty verdicts are often wrist-slappy, like lost vacation days, it seemed like this case could be a rare, if modest, victory for police accountability.

Then, about a week after I heard about the outcome of the investigation, I learned of another twist.

The NYPD had informed the CCRB that it was invoking its authority to unilaterally end the cases against most of the officers the civilian agency had charged with misconduct. No disciplinary charges would be brought against them.

Instead of letting the CCRB’s disciplinary process play out, the NYPD said it would handle the cases internally. The NYPD wrote, as it has many times before, that allowing the CCRB case to continue “would be detrimental to the Police Department’s disciplinary process.”

When it came to the officer who had hit the kid with his car, the NYPD said it was an “alleged traffic accident” and that therefore the CCRB had no authority to investigate in the first place.

The NYPD did decide that the disciplinary charges against one officer could continue — for using offensive language and telling one of the teens to stop filming on his phone.

It was all remarkable, but also par for the course.

Like many police departments around the country, the NYPD has complete discretion to overrule the civilian agency that is supposed to help oversee it.

In New York City, the police commissioner can and often does choose to ignore the results of CCRB-brought disciplinary trials. The commissioner can ignore guilty pleas and can even decide there should be no trial at all, as appears to be happening in this case. Last year, the police commissioner followed through on the CCRB’s discipline recommendations in serious cases just 27% of the time.

I sent the NYPD a series of questions, asking both about its power to ignore the CCRB and about how that power has been wielded in this case. I got a one-sentence response: “The disciplinary process is ongoing.”

We do know something about what’s happened to the officers, and about their records. Thanks to legislation that New York state passed in the summer of 2020, police records are no longer secret. The CCRB’s report names the officers involved.

Officer Christopher Brower drove into the boy, according to the report. Officer Christopher Digioia wore the Punisher sweatshirt and is the one officer still facing a disciplinary trial, for allegedly swearing at the teens. A search of their respective CCRB files shows they were also disciplined for another case together. Investigators found that, in April 2019, about six months before the Halloween incident, the two had refused to provide their names or badge numbers to a civilian. The NYPD penalized them for that with “instructions.”

The precinct commander who the CCRB concluded oversaw the wrongful arrests is Inspector Megan O’Malley. She told investigators she believed the arrests were justified because the boys ran and one had dropped a kitchen knife. O’Malley has since been promoted and now heads a precinct in midtown Manhattan.

The officer who, the report said, first ordered the boys to be stopped and then pointed a gun at one of them is Lt. John Dasaro. He told investigators he had been worried that the boy was armed. Dasaro was moved to work at the internal affairs unit that investigates use of force against civilians.

None of the officers responded to my requests for comment.

I recently shared all the developments with one of the boys from that night. He was in ninth grade when officers ordered him up against the wall. His mom and 9-year-old sister watched from across the street, where they had been trick-or-treating.

“It’s just all getting blown over,” he said, sounding deflated. “So, it’s kind of like, what’s the point of doing all this?”

But the Halloween case isn’t fully over yet.

After the NYPD said it would be overriding the CCRB cases, the agency formally objected. The NYPD has yet to give its response.

Technically, the CCRB can move ahead if the NYPD doesn’t respond. But the reality of the current system is that any discipline or trial requires the police department to be on board.

The NYPD has a new commissioner hired by New York’s new mayor, Eric Adams, a former police officer who has often talked about his experience being beaten by officers as a teenager. Like many mayors and politicians around the country, Adams has taken something of a middle ground on policing, rejecting calls for “defunding” the force while also emphasizing that misconduct can’t be countenanced.

“Justice and public safety go together,” Adams said recently. “I don’t subscribe to the belief of some that we can only have justice and not public safety. We will have them both.”

I’ve asked Adams’ office about the Halloween case — whether the mayor thinks that there has been justice in this instance.

I have yet to hear back.

A police car hit a kid on Halloween – now the NYPD is trying to protect the officer from punishment

It was a little more than two years ago that I really started learning about the reality of police oversight in America.

On Halloween night in 2019, my wife and our then-6-year-old daughter were walking home from trick-or-treating in our Brooklyn neighborhood when they saw a New York Police Department car go the wrong way down a street and smack into a teenager, who fell and then ran away.

When I contacted the NYPD afterward, they told me that what my family saw hadn’t happened. A police car hadn’t hit a teenager. The teenager had hit the car. Or, as an NYPD statement put it, he “ran across the hood of a stationary police car.”

I ended up diving into the case and wrote about it the next summer during the global racial justice protests spawned by George Floyd’s murder.

The police had been looking for a group of Black, male teenagers who reportedly had stolen a cellphone. After the teenager who’d been hit by the car ran away, my wife, Sara, watched as officers turned their attention to other Black boys.

The police lined the boys up against the wall of our local movie theater, then arrested three of them. The boys insisted they had just been trick-or-treating. The youngest was 12. He was crying, asking repeatedly, “What did I do?”

I didn’t hear anything more about the case for a long while. Then, a few weeks ago, the city agency charged with investigating civilians’ complaints of police abuse let me know it had finally finished its investigation.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board found that, contrary to the NYPD’s assertions, an officer did hit a kid with his car. It also found that officers, including the precinct commander, had arrested the boys without justification. An officer had even drawn his gun and pointed it at one of the boys.

One of the officers, the report noted, was wearing a sweatshirt with a logo of the Punisher, a Marvel character who kills lawbreakers, which is popular with cops and white nationalists. The sweatshirt also had a blue line over the American flag and the acronym DILLIGAF. (“Do I Look Like I Give a Fuck.”) The officer told investigators he hadn’t known the meaning of the logo or the acronym on his sweatshirt.

The police response that night started when some teenagers told officers they had been robbed at the local park. But the officers only had what investigators later described as “varying and inconsistent descriptions” of who they were looking for.

The officers stopped a group of boys a few blocks away. There was little about them that matched the description of the assailants other than that they were Black, young and walking together. Indeed, the CCRB’s report noted, one of the officers “stated that he was not certain whether they were involved.”

Some of the boys ran, including the one who was hit by the police car. (They told investigators that they ran because they were scared.)

The boys who were arrested — a 15-year-old, a 14-year-old and the 12-year-old — said that the officers never offered any explanation for why they were stopped. They were released without charges, after being held for hours. Their parents said they weren’t given any documentation on the arrests. The mother of one of the boys worked for the NYPD as a school safety officer, but even she couldn’t get any record of what happened.

It was as if the case was being pushed into a fog.

The CCRB began investigating after receiving a witness complaint. But the agency’s investigations are dependent on the NYPD cooperating. And as often happens, the NYPD has been slow to do so.

Take body-worn cameras, which are often critical in abuse investigations. The CCRB noted it faced “extremely substantial delays” in getting the Halloween night footage from the NYPD. While some cities have given civilian investigators direct access to body cam footage, the NYPD has rejected calls to do the same.

The agency also did not get to interview officers until more than a year after the incident. By the time officers did finally submit to interviews, they had serious trouble with their recollections. When the officer who drove the car was asked whether he had hit a kid, he “stated that he could not remember.”

In December, the CCRB told me it had just filed disciplinary charges against the officers: for wrongful arrests, for pulling a gun without justification, and for, as the bureaucratic lingo puts it, “Force, Vehicle.”

The next step would typically be disciplinary hearings, in which the CCRB acts as the prosecutor and the proceedings are overseen by an NYPD judge, who answers ultimately to the police commissioner. While the penalties after guilty verdicts are often wrist-slappy, like lost vacation days, it seemed like this case could be a rare, if modest, victory for police accountability.

Then, about a week after I heard about the outcome of the investigation, I learned of another twist.

The NYPD had informed the CCRB that it was invoking its authority to unilaterally end the cases against most of the officers the civilian agency had charged with misconduct. No disciplinary charges would be brought against them.

Instead of letting the CCRB’s disciplinary process play out, the NYPD said it would handle the cases internally. The NYPD wrote, as it has many times before, that allowing the CCRB case to continue “would be detrimental to the Police Department’s disciplinary process.”

When it came to the officer who had hit the kid with his car, the NYPD said it was an “alleged traffic accident” and that therefore the CCRB had no authority to investigate in the first place.

The NYPD did decide that the disciplinary charges against one officer could continue — for using offensive language and telling one of the teens to stop filming on his phone.

It was all remarkable, but also par for the course.

Like many police departments around the country, the NYPD has complete discretion to overrule the civilian agency that is supposed to help oversee it.

In New York City, the police commissioner can and often does choose to ignore the results of CCRB-brought disciplinary trials. The commissioner can ignore guilty pleas and can even decide there should be no trial at all, as appears to be happening in this case. Last year, the police commissioner followed through on the CCRB’s discipline recommendations in serious cases just 27% of the time.

I sent the NYPD a series of questions, asking both about its power to ignore the CCRB and about how that power has been wielded in this case. I got a one-sentence response: “The disciplinary process is ongoing.”

We do know something about what’s happened to the officers, and about their records. Thanks to legislation that New York state passed in the summer of 2020, police records are no longer secret. The CCRB’s report names the officers involved.

Officer Christopher Brower drove into the boy, according to the report. Officer Christopher Digioia wore the Punisher sweatshirt and is the one officer still facing a disciplinary trial, for allegedly swearing at the teens. A search of their respective CCRB files shows they were also disciplined for another case together. Investigators found that, in April 2019, about six months before the Halloween incident, the two had refused to provide their names or badge numbers to a civilian. The NYPD penalized them for that with “instructions.”

The precinct commander who the CCRB concluded oversaw the wrongful arrests is Inspector Megan O’Malley. She told investigators she believed the arrests were justified because the boys ran and one had dropped a kitchen knife. O’Malley has since been promoted and now heads a precinct in midtown Manhattan.

The officer who, the report said, first ordered the boys to be stopped and then pointed a gun at one of them is Lt. John Dasaro. He told investigators he had been worried that the boy was armed. Dasaro was moved to work at the internal affairs unit that investigates use of force against civilians.

None of the officers responded to my requests for comment.

I recently shared all the developments with one of the boys from that night. He was in ninth grade when officers ordered him up against the wall. His mom and 9-year-old sister watched from across the street, where they had been trick-or-treating.

“It’s just all getting blown over,” he said, sounding deflated. “So, it’s kind of like, what’s the point of doing all this?”

But the Halloween case isn’t fully over yet.

After the NYPD said it would be overriding the CCRB cases, the agency formally objected. The NYPD has yet to give its response.

Technically, the CCRB can move ahead if the NYPD doesn’t respond. But the reality of the current system is that any discipline or trial requires the police department to be on board.

The NYPD has a new commissioner hired by New York’s new mayor, Eric Adams, a former police officer who has often talked about his experience being beaten by officers as a teenager. Like many mayors and politicians around the country, Adams has taken something of a middle ground on policing, rejecting calls for “defunding” the force while also emphasizing that misconduct can’t be countenanced.

“Justice and public safety go together,” Adams said recently. “I don’t subscribe to the belief of some that we can only have justice and not public safety. We will have them both.”

I’ve asked Adams’ office about the Halloween case — whether the mayor thinks that there has been justice in this instance.

I have yet to hear back.

NYPD denies watchdog's request for full access to police body cam footage

The New York Police Department is undermining investigations into police abuse by refusing to give full access to body-worn camera footage, according to a new report by a city watchdog agency.

The NYPD began rolling out body-worn cameras to officers in 2017, nearly four years after a federal judge found that the department's stop-and-frisk tactics were unconstitutional and ordered the NYPD to begin piloting the use of body cams.

The cameras are now standard issue in many jurisdictions across the country, seen as a way to provide more objective accounts of police actions and rely less on the recollections of officers or anyone else.

But, as ProPublica has detailed, the NYPD has often refused to share footage with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the city agency tasked with investigating allegations of excessive force and other misconduct.

In some instances, the NYPD has told CCRB investigators no footage of an incident exists, only for the CCRB to later learn that it does. For example, during one investigation of an incident for which the NYPD said there was no footage, an officer later told investigators that she had her camera on.

Other times, the NYPD has acknowledged footage exists but refused to turn it over, citing privacy issues. In one case, an officer slammed a young man into the pavement, sending him to the hospital with a brain bleed. Seven body cameras worn by officers captured parts of the incident. But the NYPD withheld almost all the footage from CCRB investigators, on the grounds that a minor's face could be seen in some of it.

The new report, by the Inspector General for the NYPD, which is not part of the department, recommends a straightforward solution: Investigators at the CCRB should have direct access to body-worn camera footage, so they don't have to rely on the NYPD's discretion. Police oversight agencies in a number of other cities already have such access.

“Effective and independent police review requires direct access to body-worn camera footage," the inspector general, Philip Eure, said in a statement. “Oversight agencies cannot hold officers accountable for misconduct and foster greater trust between communities and law enforcement if the police withhold, redact, or delay the production of critical evidence."

In its response, the NYPD rejected the call to give CCRB investigators full access.

The department emphasized that backlogs of requests for footage — an issue ProPublica has highlighted — have been addressed. The NYPD argued that the report was based on outdated information “about past practices that are no longer applicable."

But the response gives the false impression that investigators already have the access they are seeking.

In referring to the call for direct access to body-worn camera, or BWC, footage, the NYPD stated: “The CCRB already has access to BWC footage detailed in this recommendation."

Currently, CCRB investigators have to go through a request process that depends on the NYPD's cooperation.

“Direct access has, and continues to be, one of the top needs of the CCRB," the agency's chair, the Rev. Frederick Davie, said in a statement to ProPublica.

An analysis last year by the CCRB found that investigators got to the bottom of cases — either substantiating allegations or clearing officers of charges — far more often when they were able to review body cam footage.

Two years ago, the NYPD and CCRB arrived at what was supposed to be a solution to the dispute over access to footage. Under the agreement, a CCRB investigator can observe NYPD staff as they search the system. But even then, the NYPD has limited what CCRB investigators can do with what they see. For example, if an investigator sees abuse unrelated to the case in question, the CCRB can't start an investigation into it.

The inspector general said social distancing and work-from-home measures instituted during the pandemic have hampered the protocol, but that even when fully implemented, the process would “waste limited City time and resources attempting to perfect an imperfect solution."

As ProPublica has detailed, the NYPD has also often not cooperated with the inspector general's office itself. A footnote to the new report contained further evidence of that. It said the office sought to interview NYPD officials about body-worn cameras but were rebuffed: “NYPD opted against making any representatives available for a meeting (or meetings)."

Shooting of Black man in his own apartment provides a startling glimpse of what police impunity looks like

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Whatever the jury ultimately decides about the culpability of former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, we already know the case is an anomaly. Officers who kill civilians are rarely prosecuted, let alone convicted — many aren't even disciplined by their departments.

To understand how police impunity works, it's worth looking at another case, that of Kawaski Trawick.

Two years ago, Trawick was alone in his apartment in the Bronx when two New York City Police Department officers arrived in response to 911 calls about Trawick walking through the building with a serrated bread knife and a stick. Trawick, who had a history of mental health and drug issues, had locked himself out of his apartment but had gotten back in after firefighters pried open the door. When the police officers arrived minutes later, they pushed the door ajar and found Trawick, a personal trainer and dancer, standing near his stove, holding the knife and stick.

“Why are you in my home?" Trawick asked. Less than two minutes later, he lay dying on the floor. A few months ago, I examined what happened in those 112 seconds. Video from a body-worn camera shows one of the officers — Black and more experienced — repeatedly trying to stop his white, less experienced partner from using force.

“We ain't gonna tase him," Officer Herbert Davis told Officer Brendan Thompson, as Trawick stood about seven feet from them. Thompson fired his Taser anyway, which (as can happen) enraged Trawick, who ran toward the officers. Davis again tried to stop his partner, this time from shooting his gun. He briefly pushed Thompson's gun down, saying, “No, no — don't, don't, don't, don't, don't."

Thompson fired three times, paused for a moment, and then fired a final shot. Trawick died almost instantly. You can see and hear it all for yourself, in a video we made using surveillance and body-worn camera footage. (Davis and Thompson both declined requests for comment.)

Last Wednesday marked two years since the shooting, so I checked in with the NYPD about it. The department had said late last year that it had finally finished its internal investigation and that the police commissioner — who has complete discretion over discipline, as many chiefs around the country do — would soon be deciding what to do.

Last week, the NYPD told me that Commissioner Dermot Shea had indeed ruled on the case. The officers were completely cleared. “There was no discipline as no wrongdoing was found," the department said.

Here is the NYPD's full statement. It noted that there was also a “tactical review" to determine “what, if anything, could have been done differently."

Experts I spoke with pointed to a litany of poor decisions and tactics by the officers.

The officers could have tried to make a connection with Trawick, as the NYPD trains its officers to do, and at least answered his repeated questions about why they were there. They could have waited for help and “just closed the door," as one former NYPD detective told me, since department policy is to “isolate and contain" people in crisis. They could have decided to not use force, as other officers did when they had encountered Trawick in a similar situation weeks before.

Thompson could have warned Trawick before firing his Taser, as the NYPD encourages officers to do so. After he used his Taser, Thompson could have kept it in his hand, rather than putting it on the ground and leaving himself with only his gun.

Yet as perplexing as the NYPD's conclusion may seem, it is also the logical culmination of a series of decisions that have again and again narrowed the avenues for accountability.

The rare occasions in which officers have faced even the possibility of significant punishment have usually come after the public has seen what happened, for example, after a bystander filmed Chauvin's knee on Floyd's neck. Trawick's killing happened out of the public eye. And the NYPD worked to keep it that way.

For a year and a half, it refused to release body-worn camera footage, arguing in response to a public records request and lawsuit that doing so would “interfere" with the department's internal investigation and would be an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

But the NYPD did offer its perspective about what happened. “It appears to be justified," one of the NYPD's top officials told reporters the day after the shooting.

The police's perspective shaped the early coverage. Citing “law enforcement sources," the New York Post reported that a “musclebound man" who was “nicknamed 'Chaos'" had been shot “when he charged at cops twice with a stick and a knife." (Trawick was about 5 feet, 5 inches tall, and his family told me they've never heard that nickname. The video shows he ran at the officers once, after he was hit by a Taser.)

The NYPD eventually decided to release footage, after the Bronx District Attorney's Office published it as part of a report last November that laid out its decision not to pursue criminal charges against the officers. The DA's decision, too, was no surprise: Local prosecutors, who work closely with the police, are particularly hesitant to indict officers.

The DA's report had troubling revelations buried inside it. While the report's highlighted timeline didn't mention it, the report revealed more than two dozen pages in that Davis had tried to stop his partner from shooting Trawick. It also disclosed that other officers had previously decided there was no need to use force when they answered remarkably similar calls involving Trawick. On page 36, the report cited those interactions as “examples of disparate outcomes that deserve mention."

The DA's report did not contain the full, unedited body-worn camera footage, and the NYPD initially continued to fight a lawsuit demanding it.

The day before a December hearing in the case, the NYPD sent the footage to the complainants, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, because, after 20 months, the department's internal review was complete. That footage, which the law firm shared with me, showed that as officers converged on the scene where Trawick lay lifeless, two of them told a sergeant that “nobody" had been hurt. “Just a perp."

Shortly after ProPublica published a story about that, a lawyer working on the case for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest got a phone call from the city agency that investigates police misconduct against civilians. An investigator at the Civilian Complaint Review Board had a favor to ask: Could the lawyer please share the newly released footage with him? The investigator explained that the NYPD wouldn't provide footage to the CCRB.

“I was shocked to get that call," said the lawyer, Benjamin Reed, of Milbank LLP. “It's disturbing that they had to come to us, after we had to fight with the NYPD for a year to get it. It's just backwards. It's obvious that they can't properly oversee the NYPD if they can't get footage."

That is part of a long pattern of the NYPD obstructingthe work of the overmatched agencies that are supposed to oversee it. In shootings and other serious incidents such as the Trawick case, the NYPD routinely refuses to give the CCRB footage and other records until the department's internal investigation is over, which can take a year or more.

The delays can render the civilian board's investigations effectively moot. The CCRB told me that its investigation into Trawick's killing is still open, and that it has now received footage from the NYPD. But the police commissioner, who gets final say on punishment, has already decided there was no wrongdoing.

When I reported on the Trawick case last fall, one of the people I spoke with was Jonathan Smith, who worked on civil rights litigation at the Justice Department during the Obama administration and led the agency's most significant investigations into police abuse. “This case is a lesson in how you don't do one of these encounters," he said, after reviewing the footage. “They should teach it in the academy."

I reached back out to Smith to share the NYPD's conclusion that there was no wrongdoing. “For them to find nothing wrong there," he said, “it's just stunning."

Smith said it reminded him of another young man's death he recently investigated for the city of Aurora, Colorado. Twenty-three-year-old Elijah McClain died after police officers twice put him in a chokehold and paramedics injected him with ketamine. The officers had stopped him after a 911 caller said McClain, who was walking down the street, “looked sketchy."

Like Trawick, McClain wasn't doing anything criminal. As in the Trawick case, local prosecutors decided not to indict the officers. And as in the Trawick case, an internal police investigation cleared the officers. (The independent review that Smith led concluded that the investigation had been “cursory and summary at best.")

It's all part of a pattern, Smith said: “Every department I've seen where there's been a pattern of misconduct, you've also had a broken accountability system."

There was one other call I made after learning of the NYPD's decision. It was to Kawaski Trawick's mother, Ellen Trawick. She had not heard about the department's ruling.

“I just don't understand it," she said. “He hadn't committed a crime. He hadn't harmed anyone. They came into his own home and took his life for no reason. For them not to see that's wrong, that's just heartbreaking."

Trawick and her family have filed a lawsuit against the city, the NYPD and the officers.

But a suit can only do so much. If there's a settlement or a judgment, it's likely the city and its taxpayers, not the officers or the NYPD, that will pay.

In response to the family's action, city lawyers have placed the blame for Kawaski Trawick's death squarely on Kawaski Trawick. As they put it in a filing last fall: “Plaintiff(s)' culpable conduct caused or contributed, in whole or in part, to his/her/their injuries and or damages."

I asked Ellen Trawick what outcome she is hoping for in the suit. “I want the officers held accountable for their actions," she said. “They took Kawaski's life. But from what you're saying there's nothing going to be done about it."