Under intense pressure, young and largely inexperienced staff at CCRB tasked with investigating police misconduct

Less than two years after graduating from college, Matthew Wasserman found himself for the first time in an interview room with a New York City police officer. As a newly minted investigator at the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, Wasserman’s assignment was to determine whether the officer had committed misconduct.

But, like many of his fellow CCRB investigators, Wasserman had little relevant formal education or investigative experience before joining the CCRB, a city agency tasked with investigating thousands of claims of misconduct made against New York Police Department officers every year.

A political science major from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, who had spent a postgraduate year in France teaching English, Wasserman, then 23 years old, was not prepared to face down an NYPD officer.

Nevertheless, just a week after becoming a CCRB investigator in 2008, and without having begun his formal training, Wasserman was in the interview room with a cop.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” Wasserman said.

Within six months, Wasserman was conducting interviews by himself, without a mentor in the room. A year later, he was promoted.

By July 2011 Wasserman was one of the CCRB’s most experienced investigators. Ready for a new challenge, Wasserman followed the well-trodden path of so many of the agency’s young investigators: he left the CCRB.

The NYPD continues to face heightened scrutiny in the wake of last year’s wave of demonstrations protesting the death of Eric Garner, whom a bystander videotaped gasping for breath while a New York police officer held him in a chokehold. Yet the agency responsible for investigating complaints of police misconduct relies largely on young investigators with little or no prior investigative experience who often don’t receive formal training for weeks or even months after starting the job. And, in part because of low pay, many investigators leave the job after only a few years.

Constant turnover forces the agency to divert resources to train new hires brought in to replace a constant flow of departing investigators.  And rookie investigators are far less productive than experienced ones, CCRB data show, slowing case processing times and jeopardizing the agency’s ability to pursue cases within the 18-month statute of limitations.

“CCRB investigators are the front line of police oversight in New York City, and they need to be both skilled and experienced,” said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “High turnover among investigators poses a grave threat to the quality of police misconduct investigations and therefore greatly reduces the likelihood that abusive officers will be disciplined.”

Of the 129 investigators on the agency’s payroll in July 2011, Wasserman was one of 32 who had left the CCRB by the following July. An additional 43 would leave by July 2014, meaning that fewer than half of the investigators from July 2011 were still at the agency three years later. According to city payroll data, the average CCRB investigator stays on the job for just over three years.

“The big issue that we face is the constant turnover of investigators, who leave for higher paying jobs. This stems largely from inordinately low starting salaries and few promotional opportunities compared to that of other City agencies,” CCRB’s executive director Mina Malik said in an email. “The turnover hurts morale and has resulted in double-digit attrition at times.”

Attrition at the CCRB outpaces that of other New York City government agencies, according to city payroll files. An average salaried, full-time New York City public employee has been on the payroll for more than 13 years; the average among all CCRB employees, by contrast, is less than five years.

The starting salary for CCRB investigators—$37,292—is lower than the starting salaries for investigators at the Department of Investigation ($39,778) or the Department of Correction ($44,598).

“It’s important to get quality investigators, and in order to get quality investigators, you have to start them off at a particular salary,” Malik said in an interview. “I think it’s a little bit difficult to survive, even as a college graduate, on $37,292 in New York City in 2015.”

To increase investigator salaries, the CCRB asked the mayor to boost the agency’s budget for personnel by $2.1 million for the 2016 fiscal year, which starts July 1. That would be enough to bump starting salaries to $51,000 and offer skilled investigators more frequent raises.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council announced an agreement on the city’s budget on Tuesday, although it may be several days before the final CCRB funding is released.

In the months leading up to the agreement, the council had supported the CCRB funding request while the mayor’s office was offering smaller increases. During a city council budget hearing in March, CCRB officials said the agency would need the full $2.1 million to pay salaries that they think would help retain the agency’s more experienced investigators.

Richard Emery, chairman of the CCRB board.

Richard Emery, chairman of the CCRB. Photo: CCRB

“This agency cannot function properly unless our starting salary of investigators is competitive with other agencies who hire investigators,” CCRB Chairman Richard Emery testified at the March 12 hearing. “I know how supportive this council is of the agency, but the way that support can truly manifest itself is by … satisfying this need.”

Prior to the budget agreement, Emery said he was hopeful that the agency would receive a substantial funding increase.

He characterized the funding request as “a tiny amount in the big scheme of things” but said that it “means a lot to this agency, and the agency means a lot to the mayor.”

“We have every reason to believe… that we will be able to obtain the differential relatively soon,” Emery said.

While city officials debated the budget, CCRB investigators continued to review allegations of unlawful arrest, discrimination and excessive force in a highly charged environment.

Four years after leaving the CCRB, Wasserman still recalls the mortification he felt the first time he interviewed a police officer as a new CCRB investigator.

“It was kind of a fiasco,” Wasserman said.

Though untrained and inexperienced, at least he had the benefit of having sat in on some interviews during the previous week. He also had backup—his mentor, an experienced investigator, was with him in the interview room, and she would be able to jump in if he struggled.

The turning point came when his mentor wanted to ask the officer about a document buried somewhere in Wasserman’s case file. Such files, as any experienced CCRB investigator would know, are supposed to be organized in a specific way so documents can be found quickly. But Wasserman was not an experienced investigator, and his case file was a mess.

“I didn’t know how case files should be organized,” Wasserman said. “And so she was looking for a particular document to ask the police officer about, and she couldn’t find it. And she unloaded on me in the middle of this interview in front of the police officer.”

The file’s disorganization wasn’t entirely Wasserman’s fault. The case had been passed on to him from another investigator who had recently left the agency for a new job. When Wasserman received the case file, it was in a state of disarray.

“I should have reorganized the case file,” Wasserman said. “I just didn’t know any better at that point.”

New hires receive instruction on topics including search-and-seizure law, interview techniques and evidence procurement from CCRB staff and take several classes at the NYPD Police Academy.

“At the time I was there, what happened is they would hire people, and every few months they would do a training class,” Wasserman, who didn’t begin his formal training until two months after joining the agency, said. “But the formal training was pretty useless.”

Malik acknowledged that some new investigators, including the agency’s two most recent hires, take on their first cases before receiving formal training. The CCRB plans to change that in the future, she said.

The CCRB is in the process of interviewing candidates for a new director of training position with responsibility for improving and formalizing the training program.

Training, no matter how rigorous, cannot replace experience. According to the CCRB’s internal data, investigators with 19 to 24 months of experience close more than four times as many cases as investigators with fewer than six months on the job.

As experienced investigators leave the agency and are replaced by new ones, productivity inevitably suffers.

“We’re locked into a cycle of constantly diverting supervisors to train incoming beginners, and those new investigators don’t reach their full potential for at least two years,” Malik said.

Lacking the money to hire experienced investigators, the CCRB instead recruits among the graduating classes of elite colleges, seeking young people who can learn quickly.

But if the recruits’ intelligence is an asset to the agency, their ambition can be a liability. Many of the CCRB hires see the job as a short-term steppingstone toward long-term career aspirations. They learn quickly, but they leave quickly, too.

“When I came into the position, I didn’t really see myself staying there for even up to three years,” said Caitlin Schnur, who became an investigator in January 2009, when she was 24, and left in July 2011 to pursue a master’s degree in social service administration at the University of Chicago. “I think that was the sense for a lot of the younger staff, who didn’t really see it as a career.”

Wasserman echoed his former colleague’s sentiment.

“I didn’t look at it as a career. And honestly I didn’t know anyone who came in who did look at it as a career,” Wasserman said. “It was like a kind of rotating crew of people right out of college or a couple years out of college. Mostly they went to elite colleges and universities and probably a majority were headed for graduate studies of some sort.”

Even with the constant turnover, the CCRB has managed to slash the overall time it takes investigators to submit cases to the CCRB board for review, from 329 days in 2013 and 271 days in 2014 to 63 days for complaints filed since the agency overhauled the investigations division seven months ago.

Among other reforms, the overhaul reduced the size of investigative teams to hold supervisors accountable for their subordinates’ productivity and created a special unit dedicated to clearing old cases.

The agency’s overall caseload has also dwindled in recent years, a trend that may have further contributed to investigators’ faster case clearances. The CCRB received just 4,778 complaints in 2014 compared with 5,388 in 2013, an 11 percent drop. Complaints about police misconduct have declined annually since 2009, when the CCRB received 7,660 complaints.

But even as the CCRB trumpets its improved case clearance times, the agency says its future success will depend in part on how much money it can pay investigators.

“We want to consolidate and improve the gains, which means that we need to retain our experienced investigators,” Malik said.

CCRB executive director Mina Malik.

CCRB executive director Mina Malik. Photo: Jacquie Hemmerdinger/CCRB

One former investigator, who requested anonymity to avoid alienating his former employer, stayed at the CCRB only a few months before leaving for law school.

“While my main motivation for leaving was to attend graduate school, a secondary but substantial reason was the salary,” the former investigator said in an email. “Investigator salaries are not much more than $30,000/year, so it was difficult to rationalize pushing off a more lucrative career path to earn a salary that barely covers one semester of law school.”

Wasserman also left the CCRB to attend law school. But for Wasserman, the low salary was less troubling than his increasingly low morale. As the years went by, the idealistic young investigator grew frustrated by what he perceived as the CCRB’s lack of power to effectively rein in police misconduct.

“Even in cases where you worked really hard and you came to find that misconduct did occur, the punishment was usually very minimal. It was a slap on the wrist. A lot of times, the police department would throw out your cases without saying why they were throwing out the cases,” Wasserman said. “One of the problems with the job, and one of things that made the turnover rate so high, was that it was hard to escape a sense that your work was ultimately futile.”

Emery, a civil rights attorney who was appointed CCRB chairman in July 2014, has himself advanced a similar argument. Over the past several months, Emery has worked to strengthen the CCRB’s role in the process by which police officers are disciplined for misconduct.

Under city law, the police commissioner has final authority to impose discipline on officers found to have committed misconduct; only the city council has the power to change the law.

But Emery has sought greater influence for the CCRB over the commissioner’s final disciplinary decisions. In one of his first major moves as chairman, Emery met last August with Police Commissioner Bill Bratton to discuss expanding the CCRB’s role in disciplining officers.

Among other things, the meeting set the stage for both agencies to adopt what they call a “reconsideration process.” Under the new system, rather than simply ignoring the CCRB, the police department can ask the board to reconsider its findings and recommendations based on evidence the board has not previously considered.

“Now there is communication all the way up and down, from the police department, to the [CCRB evaluation] panels, to the investigators. Whenever there’s a flip, the panels get to weigh in on it, and the police department gets to weigh in, and everybody has to articulate the reasons for coming to the results they do,” Emery said.

Since the advent of the reconsideration process last September, the police department has meted out discipline in 89 percent of cases where allegations were substantiated by the CCRB, compared with 62 percent from January through August 2014 and 57 percent in 2013, according to the CCRB’s annual report.

Satisfied with the police commissioner’s commitment to working with the CCRB, Emery is also counting on the continued support of the mayor.

“Bratton and the mayor have committed to relieving the CCRB of the stepchild status that it has always had in the disciplinary process,” Emery said. “For 20 years, [the CCRB] has been, as I call it, the Cinderella of the system. We’d like to get into the ball. We’re going to do anything we can do get into the ball, including call on our fairy godmothers.”

Emery will soon learn whether the CCRB’s fairy godmothers have heeded his call for investigator raises. The City Council must adopt a budget by June 30.

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