The first steps towards creating what is now the Civilian Complaint Review Board were taken in 1950, when a coalition of 18 organizations formed the “Permanent Coordination Committee on Police and Minority Groups” to lobby the city to deal with police misconduct in general, and “police misconduct in their relations with Puerto Rican [and Black New Yorkers] specifically.” In response to their demands, the New York City Police Department established the Civilian Complaint Review Board in 1953 as a committee of three deputy police commissioners. In 1955, under Mayor Robert Wagner, the board was granted wider authority but remained an organization within the police department. Police officers conducted the investigations and deputy commissioners decided whether or not to recommend discipline.
After his election in 1965, Mayor John Lindsay appointed former federal judge Lawrence E. Walsh to investigate NYPD operations and suggest improvements. Walsh wrote a report that focused primarily on modernization, however it also argued that the Civilian Complaint Review Board should have civilian representation in order to instill public confidence that investigations of civilian complaints would be handled impartially.
Chaired by former Attorney General Herbert Brownel, Lindsay formed a committee to search for civilians willing to serve on the board. John Cassese, the president of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association (PBA), rigorously opposed a civilian presence on the board, stating, “I’m sick and tired of giving in to minority groups with their whims and their gripes and shouting.” Neverthelss, the mayor’s search committee found four candidates who were later appointed. For the first time in New York City’s history, investigations of police misconduct would be overseen by civilians.
Lindsay’s board did not last long, as soon thereafter Cassese and the PBA petitioned for a ballot measure that would bar civilian representation on the Civilian Complaint Review Board. The ensuing campaign was bitter on all sides; the PBA appealed to fear by arguing that the police would not be able to do their job properly with civilian oversight. They also argued that those in favor of civilian participation painted their opponents as bigots and racists. The ballot measure won overwhelmingly, and the board returned to its previous all-police makeup.
In 1987, in accordance with legislation passed in 1986 by the City Council, the board was restructured to include a combination of private citizens alongside non-uniformed police officers. The mayor, in accordance with advice and consent of the City Council, appointed six members while the police commissioner also appointed six. At this time, the Civilian Complaint Investigations Bureau began to hire civilians to investigate complaints, though these civilians served alongside police department investigators and were supervised by department employees.
The 1988, the Tompkins Square Park riot helped sway public opinion in favor of more civilian control of police oversight. In response to complaints of drug trafficking and disorderly groups in Tompkins Square Park, the NYPD enforced a 1am curfew on the park. On July 31st, a rally protesting the curfew turned into a confrontation with police in which four people were arrested and four officers were injured. On August 6th, demonstrators were forced from the park in a series of violent incidents between the police, demonstrators, and bystanders. Video footage showed police officers striking people with nightsticks, kicking people who were on the ground, and covering their shields to hide their identity.
The CCRB commissioned a special report on the incident, concluding that “there is no evidence that any effort was made to limit the use of force . . . Force was used for its own sake.” The report was extremely critical of the NYPD while the event itself galvanized support for an all-civilian police oversight board.
In 1993, after extensive debate and public comment, Mayor David Dinkins and the New York City Council created the Civilian Complaint Review Board in its current, all-civilian form. The agency was granted subpoena power (one issue cited in the Tompkins Square Park report prepared by the CCRB within the NYPD was that without subpoena power, it could not obtain filmed footage from local media outlets) and authority to recommend discipline in cases that the board substantiated. However, the agency was underfunded at its inception, leaving it unable to cope with the large number of complaints it received.
After the Abner Louima incident in 1997, the CCRB’s budget was steadily increased, allowing the agency to hire dozens more investigators and experienced managers who oversee investigations. This has led to dramatic improvement in agency performance.