Is Police Misconduct Higher in Majority Black Neighborhoods?

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Photo by Dave Hosford via Flickr.

Earlier this year, in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of officers of the Minneapolis Police Department, New York State repealed a 1976 law — known as Section 50-a — that had shielded information about police officer misconduct from public scrutiny.

The Public Safety Lab at New York University analyzed 323,911 misconduct complaints filed against officers of the New York Police Department (NYPD) with the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), released as a consequence of the repeal of Section 50-a.

Our report, as well as all data and code used to produce the report’s findings, is available to the public.

What we found is disturbing evidence that the NYPD is more tolerant of excessive misconduct in neighborhoods with more Black residents, and that excessive misconduct in these neighborhoods is associated both with excessive stops, and with officers who accumulate large numbers of misconduct complaints.

We gave the NYPD the benefit of the doubt in our analysis. Our starting premise was that officers’ responses to reported crime have the potential to escalate into misconduct complaints. We therefore expected precincts with higher reported crime volume to have higher misconduct complaint volume.

That turned out to be true.

After mapping approximately seven million crimes reported between 2006-2019 in New York’s 77 precincts and 11 transit districts to the misconduct complaints made against officers assigned to those commands, we found that higher reported crime volume was associated with higher misconduct complaint volume, both for all complaints and for those complaints found to be “substantiated” by the CCRB.

However, even after adjusting for reported crime volume, many precincts still had “excess” misconduct — higher numbers of complaints and substantiated complaints than one would predict, given reported crime volume.

As we looked at this “excess” misconduct, troubling patterns emerged.

First, precincts with larger proportions of Black residents had higher levels of excess misconduct complaints, while precincts with larger proportions of non-Hispanic white and Asian residents had lower levels of excess misconduct complaints.

For example, Precinct 75 in Brooklyn (East New York) had the highest rate of excess or unexplained misconduct complaints, averaging 38 more misconduct complaints per year than predicted by its reported crime volume, for an observed rate of misconduct complaints 31 percent higher than the predicted rate. In the 2010 Census, Precinct 75 was recorded as having 60 percent Black residents, 3 percent non-Hispanic white residents, and 5 percent Asian residents.

In contrast, Precinct 122 on Staten Island had one of the lowest rates of excess misconduct complaints, averaging 22 fewer complaints per year than predicted by its reported crime volume, for an observed rate of misconduct complaints 36 percent lower than the predicted rate. In the 2010 Census, Precinct 122 was recorded as having 3 percent Black residents, 79 percent non-Hispanic white residents, and 7 percent Asian residents.

These patterns held throughout the data, both for all complaints and for those complaints found to be substantiated by the CCRB.

Second, after mapping the approximately four million stops made by NYPD officers between 2006-2019 to the misconduct complaints, we found that precincts with more excess misconduct also had more excess stops, or higher numbers of stops than one would predict, given reported crime volume.

Residents of Precinct 75, the precinct with the highest level of excess misconduct, experienced approximately 4,000 more pedestrian stops per year than predicted between 2006 and 2019. Residents of Precinct 122 experienced approximately 3,500 fewer pedestrian stops than predicted over the same period. This pattern held throughout the data, both for all complaints and for those complaints found to be substantiated by the CCRB.

Third, precincts with more excess misconduct tolerated officers who accumulated more misconduct complaints. In Precinct 75, the precinct with the highest level of excess misconduct, an officer accused of misconduct between 2006-2019 had on average 6.4 complaints brought against him during that period.

Officers accused of misconduct in Precinct 122 averaged 38 percent fewer complaints per accused officer over the same period. This pattern held throughout the data, both for all complaints and for those complaints found to be substantiated by the CCRB.

Fourth, these findings were related.

Precincts with larger proportions of Black residents (like Precinct 75) tolerated not only disproportionately high levels of excess officer misconduct, but also disproportionately high levels of excess stops and misconduct committed by disproportionately fewer officers. Again, these patterns held throughout the data, both for all complaints and for those complaints found to be substantiated by the CCRB.

New Yorkers have a right to expect policing that is both responsive and fair. That’s not what we are getting.

Anna Harvey

Prof. Anna Harvey

The patterns revealed by our analysis indicate that how a neighborhood is policed depends on how many of its residents are Black. There is more officer misconduct that is unrelated to a precinct’s reported crime volume, more stops that are unrelated to a precinct’s reported crime volume, and misconduct that is committed by fewer officers, in precincts with more Black residents.

This is unfair and unjust.

It fundamentally undermines the NYPD’s promise to protect and serve.

NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea has a misconduct problem. He should fix it.

Anna Harvey is Professor of Politics and Affiliated Professor of Data Science and Law at New York University, and director of the NYU Public Safety Lab.

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