Series: The NYPD Files
Investigating America’s Largest Police Force
When Deputy Chief Michael Osgood, then head of the New York Police Department’s Special Victims Division, got word that the city’s Inspector General wanted to review his records in 2017, he didn’t think twice about cooperating.
For years, Osgood had been pleading with police leadership to get the staffing and resources necessary for his division to investigate sexual assaults. When its overworked and inexperienced officers interviewed survivors, they were forced to do so in the hot, cramped bullpens of dilapidated precincts, within earshot of other detectives and in view of the holding cells. Even the suspects could catch the eye of those being interviewed. Advocates pointed to these indignities as a reason people were reluctant to report sex crimes or became disengaged once investigations had begun.
The Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD had been created four years earlier to look into problems like this one. The IG’s role would be to review records, conduct interviews and make public recommendations to the department about how to improve police operations, policies, programs and practices.
Osgood said he collected all the records asked of him and provided them to the NYPD’s legal bureau, expecting they’d be given to the Inspector General. But weeks later, when he went in for an interview with the IG, he learned some of the records hadn’t been turned over. Osgood didn’t see why police lawyers would withhold them; they weren’t sensitive. Over the course of the yearlong investigation, Osgood told ProPublica, he was ordered by department leaders to slow-walk requests and give one-word answers and was scolded for being truthful.
“The NYPD withheld documents from the IG, delayed handing pending documents over to the IG, lied to the IG, restricted the IG’s access to information, had NYPD attorneys present in IG interviews to chill testimony,” Osgood told ProPublica in a statement. “My career was threatened and I incurred acts of intimidation, retaliation and vilification.” He said that he witnessed and fought off “prolonged and protracted criminal obstruction by NYPD senior executives.”
In March 2018, the Inspector General released a scathing report on problems inside the Special Victims Division, relying substantially on Osgood’s cooperation. In response, the NYPD nearly doubled its number of investigators for adult sex crimes, raised their experience requirements and took steps to improve the division’s facilities.
But, in a move some saw as retaliation for his cooperation, the NYPD transferred Osgood from his position as commander of special victims investigations for all of New York City to the head of patrol for Staten Island, a lesser post. Dermot Shea, then the department’s chief of detectives, said at the time that moving Osgood was not a punishment. Osgood disagrees. “I was ostracized,” he told ProPublica. He retired a week after his transfer.
Osgood isn’t the only person to say that the NYPD has delayed and impeded the investigative efforts of the Inspector General. More than a dozen former and current employees of both the office and the NYPD told ProPublica that for years, the police department has restricted the Inspector General’s access to records and witnesses, withholding information the office was legally entitled to, excessively redacting material or providing it in formats difficult to review, instructing witnesses to cancel interviews and delaying requests for as long as two years.
While the NYPD didn’t comment on Osgood’s allegations, a spokesperson attributed the disagreements three years ago to the fact that the Office of the Inspector General was still relatively new and said that the department has since worked out protocols to cooperate with it.
“It is categorically untrue that NYPD impedes the OIG’s efforts or does not accept its oversight role,” said Sgt. Jessica McRorie, an NYPD spokesperson, in a statement. “To the contrary, we value their important work and embrace our continuing cooperation in the mission of further reimagining and reforming policing for our great city. There will be disagreements from time to time on process and there are systems in place to resolve those.”
But the Inspector General, Phil Eure, says problems persist. “It’s had a tremendously negative impact on our work and has slowed production,” he said.
The Office of the Inspector General is a branch of the city’s Department of Investigation, which looks into corruption complaints against city employees and reports to the mayor and City Council. Eure and his boss, Margaret Garnett, commissioner of the Department of Investigation, said there has been some improvement in recent years, namely the tenor and tone of how the IG and NYPD communicate. Still, they said, the police department has interpreted the IG to have more limited legal authority than they believe it does, which has led to lengthy disputes.
“There’s a reason people call 1 Police Plaza the puzzle palace,” Garnett said. “When the police department wants to slow-walk things, when they want to find problems,” she continued, “every lawyer knows how to do these things. You heavily redact and then there has to be three rounds of negotiations about what’s under the redactions.”
Investigations that were opened in 2018 and 2019 remain open to this day, largely due to NYPD’s failure to provide documents in a timely fashion, according to multiple sources. Two records requests from 2019 remain unfulfilled. The Inspector General hopes to publish some of the reports this year.
There was a time, in its first few years of existence, when the Inspector General’s office could pump out four robust investigative reports in a year. Since the beginning of 2019, it has only generated two investigative reports. This is, in large part, due to diminished staffing, an attrition connected to the challenges of obtaining timely and complete records from NYPD, according to current and former Inspector General’s office staffers. Some employees became disenchanted with their inability to dig into issues; others found better paying jobs and left after less than a year.
The office wasn’t able to fill the positions fast enough to keep up with the exits, and today, with a head count of 20 staffers, is almost half of the size it was at its peak in 2017, when it had 38. A DOI spokesperson said that, while some of the positions have been consolidated in an effort to pay higher wages to more experienced employees, several positions remain open because of citywide hiring freezes implemented in the past two years.
Advocates for police accountability now worry the Office of Inspector General faces an even larger threat. This January, Mayor de Blasio began publicly supporting the idea of moving the office from under the Department of Investigation to under the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an entity created to investigate individual allegations of police misconduct that has had its own struggles with NYPD obstruction. CCRB leaders told ProPublica this year that the board sometimes recommended lighter punishments to get police leaders to agree to discipline officers at all. Its mission is more narrow than that of the Inspector General.
“So now you’re going to put the only agency that actually has — as limited as it is — some track record of producing transparent reviews of how the NYPD basically protects abusive officers and protects abusive operations, you're going to shove them under the CCRB,” said Joo-Hyun Kang, director of Communities United for Police Reform. “It makes no sense. This is literally, I think, de Blasio just trying to do the will of the NYPD. It makes NYPD’s job a lot easier and it benefits nobody in the city.”
De Blasio’s office told ProPublica that police oversight in New York City is fractured and unfocused because three separate agencies have a role in it. “The thought behind the recommendation as articulated in the report was that a single entity would be better focused, better staffed, better funded and ultimately more effective,” said Avery Cohen, a spokesperson for the mayor.
With last month’s announcement by de Blasio of the creation of a charter revision commission, called the Racial Justice Commission, that is expected to give consideration to the mayor’s desire to move the Inspector General’s office, what’s clear is that the future of the office is very much up in the air.
The Inspector General for the NYPD almost didn’t come into existence. When the City Council first passed a bill to create it in 2013, Mayor Michael Bloomberg vetoed it.
“Together, the mayor and the commissioner set the direction of the Department — and they do not need an unelected and unaccountable official to supervise their policy decisions,” Bloomberg said in 2013. “The bill being considered by the City Council would undermine the accountability that has been essential in the Department’s success — and make our city less safe.”
The City Council had to override Bloomberg’s veto to establish the Inspector General. At the time, many New Yorkers were frustrated with Bloomberg’s support of stop-and-frisk police tactics. Other police oversight agencies focused on investigations of individual officers; no one was tasked with taking a bird’s-eye view of department practices and policies. The Inspector General filled that gap at an urgent time.
The young agency got off to a productive start: In 2015, it authored four investigative reports. It told the police department to do a better job of analyzing the ballooning number of costly lawsuits against it, to find patterns in officer misconduct. It urged police leaders to broaden the use of body-worn cameras, create consequences for cops who didn’t comply and make sure tapes weren’t destroyed before those investigating misconduct could review them.
After the chokehold death of Eric Garner in July 2014, the Inspector General’s office examined the police department’s continued use of the banned practice and found that the police commissioner was giving violating officers light punishments or none at all. This was happening on a broader scale, investigators wrote months later, in another report examining all excessive uses of force. “Our investigation demonstrates real problems, including failures of discipline, monitoring and training,” wrote Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark G. Peters.
It was not long before the office started getting pushback from Larry Byrne, then the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for legal affairs. (Byrne died in December 2020.) The department set up Byrne as the gatekeeper for access, said Sandy Musumeci, who served as Eure’s deputy from 2014 to 2017. “That was the beginning of the obstruction,” she said.
The Inspector General originally wanted to show up at precincts unannounced and observe, but the legal bureau was against the idea, Musumeci said. NYPD had Inspector General officials review records on-site and did not permit them to bring cellphones or any devices that could photograph documents. “It was not unfettered access, which is what we were supposed to have,” she said.
Investigators tried to interview NYPD administrators about the department’s Risk Assessment Information Liability System program, which it uses to track officers’ behavior and lawsuits against them. “They just, like, flat out refused,” said Candace McCoy, director of policy analysis for the Inspector General at the time, who is currently a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center, CUNY. “It wasn’t like ‘Oh, he’s on vacation.’ It was like ‘No.’ And there wasn’t anything you could do.”
McCoy sought help from Peters, the Department of Investigation commissioner at the time. She said Peters went into a “performance rage” laced with profanity about how he was going to make the NYPD comply. “And then nothing happened,” she said. “It was horrible.”
Current and former Inspector General’s office staffers told ProPublica about a November 2016 meeting that included Peters, O'Neill, Eure and Byrne, in which Peters and Byrne, the police department’s lawyer, shouted and cursed at each other about their disagreements over the records issues. Peters said he didn’t remember yelling or cursing at this meeting or the earlier one with McCoy.
Peters would be fired two years later over an unrelated matter, after an independent DOI investigation found he overstepped his authority, taking over a city agency that scrutinizes public schools, then retaliated against two officials when they complained his behavior was illegal. Peters said at the time the investigation contained factual errors and the findings did not justify his firing.
“Despite the NYPD’s lack of cooperation, we produced unprecedented reports,” Peters told ProPublica in a statement about his time as the Inspector General’s boss. “These investigations peeled back the secrecy that the NYPD seeks to impose.” He added: “The federal judiciary and the City Council relied on these reports to impose additional restrictions on the NYPD.”
In April 2018, the Inspector General’s office decided to publicly air its problems with the NYPD. The agency wrote in a report that the NYPD had intervened in its effort to interview a former police lawyer who had gone on to work for another city agency, “instructing that lawyer that certain issues must be resolved between NYPD and DOI before such an interview could take place.”
In a written response, NYPD said the report “creates the misleading impression that NYPD refused to cooperate with their investigation,” adding, “OIG is incorrect.” NYPD wrote that it did provide substantial information and that it made lawyers available.
Four months later, in a rare and extreme move, the Inspector General sent a letter to NYPD asking leaders to discipline their own attorneys for telling two police department employees not to appear for scheduled interviews. NYPD officials rejected the “assertions of impropriety” and said “no disciplinary action is necessary.”
The Inspector General’s office ultimately received the access it wanted, Eure said.
Past and present Inspector General’s office staffers said they kept a binder for collecting instances they felt were evidence of the NYPD obstructing their work, with a cover letter addressed to the City Council in the event the standoff got so untenable that they needed intervention. IG leadership never gave it to the City Council.
But City Council members Brad Lander and Jumaane Williams, who co-sponsored the bill that gave rise to the office, were aware of the problems, they told ProPublica. “People were concerned also about their job and repercussions,” said Williams.
“There were back-channel conversations. There was an awareness that things kept reaching the near breaking point,” Lander said. “Because there hasn’t been a public allegation, a public charging, we have never had a real reckoning.”
Osgood, the former deputy chief, is calling for one. “It is obvious O’Neill and Shea were aware of the multiyear obstruction, and thus complicit,” Osgood said. “The New York City Council must hold public hearings and question under oath current and former IG personnel.” The U.S. Department of Justice, he said, “must step in.”
Lander, too, is calling for a hearing. “It would be critical to do so,” he said.
O’Neill did not respond to requests for comment. The NYPD did not make Shea, the current police commissioner, available for an interview. Eure said that in all of his years as Inspector General, he has never had one-on-one meetings with those police commissioners. Garnett told ProPublica she didn’t think that would have solved the problems.
A spokesperson for the NYPD said the department had developed procedures in recent years that work for both organizations: “DOI and its NYPD Inspector General component have since conducted many reviews of NYPD entities and procedures. The NYPD has cooperated and worked closely with the OIG on all of these.”
Repairing the relationship between the Inspector General and NYPD was one of Garnett’s top priorities when she replaced Peters in late 2018 as head of the Department of Investigation. Several things worked in her favor.
One of the loudest voices in the battles between the Inspector General and NYPD, Byrne, had left, and his replacement, Ernie Hart, brought with him a less fiery reputation. And Jeffrey Schlanger, former deputy federal monitor for the Los Angeles Police Department, was installed as the head of NYPD’s Risk Management Bureau and charged with working with the Inspector General’s office to smooth out their relationship and develop a system that worked.
Schlanger told ProPublica he and his team, along with Eure and Garnett, were able to make significant progress on the professionalism front. He said he created a process for handling sensitive records, streamlined the legal review process and started meeting with the Inspector General every two weeks. He also pushed for the Inspector General to narrow the scope of requests to the “bare necessities” so they could avoid having to produce unnecessary items and shorten the delivery time of records.
Sources with the Inspector General’s office said Schlanger’s changes were welcome, but noted that sensitive items were often still bottlenecked within the legal bureau and delayed by months. Schlanger spoke to the delays: “There were still items which had to go through [legal] review, and in some instances, that was a lengthy process that held up the immediate production of items.”
Much of the bickering could have been avoided, several city officials said. Mayor Bill de Blasio should have stepped in and instructed the NYPD Commissioner to iron things out with the Inspector General and provide the requested records. “It hasn’t been that no one knew what the problems were,” Lander said. “The problem is more of a mayor that has been unwilling to hold his police department accountable.”
Peters wouldn’t say whether he had gone to the mayor for help with the NYPD. Garnett said she hadn’t, primarily to maintain the Department of Investigation’s independence from politicians. Asking the mayor for help, she said, would also invite his office into the investigative process and open it up to questions about why it needed the records and what kind of investigation it was doing.
“There’s a real cost to that; that affects all of DOI’s work beyond any particular investigation,” Garnett said. Anyone who believes asking the mayor for assistance is an easy calculus is being naive, she said.
Eure said his understanding was that “the people in the mayoral administration were clued in to some of the challenges” of issues that occurred prior to Garnett’s tenure.
De Blasio’s office didn’t respond directly to questions about whether it was aware of challenges the Inspector General has had with the NYPD’s production of records, but said that the office is a “vital resource for advancing police oversight and reform” and that, of the 161 recommendations the office issued between 2015 and 2019, over 82% had been implemented. “In the event that an oversight agency could not access what was needed to perform its role, City Hall would be deeply concerned and would act immediately,” a mayoral spokesperson said.
“The Mayor has overseen and initiated the largest expansion of police oversight since the creation of the CCRB,” she wrote in an email. “This is the same Mayor who ended the broken policy of stop and frisk, drastically reducing arrests and incarceration. There is no silver bullet for undoing centuries of biased overpolicing. But the idea that accountability has not been a priority for this administration is patently false.”
The mayor wants to move the Inspector General’s office under the CCRB, a prospect first revealed in a Department of Investigation report last December. The CCRB told ProPublica it supported the consolidation and that the plan would strengthen investigators’ access to evidence.
When ProPublica asked Eure his thoughts on the proposal during a joint interview with Garnett, the Department of Investigation commissioner jumped in and wouldn’t allow Eure to respond. “Nope, nope,” Garnett said. “There’s a space for robust conversation, and ultimately the agency’s voice is reflected in our reports that are the product of that conversion. Whether it’s Phil or any other IG, I just can’t.” She continued: “that’s not how things work.”
Williams, the former councilmember who is now the New York City Public Advocate, said he was open to de Blasio’s proposal.
“I’m always open to try some new things,” he said. “And if it works, great. If it doesn’t, maybe pass a law to put it back at DOI or to get the state to give authority to just create an independent IG.”
In March, seven former Inspector General staffers sent a letter to de Blasio’s office asking that any changes be deliberate, underscore unfettered access and ensure NYPD compliance. The letter, which was also anonymously endorsed by seven more former staffers, stopped short of rejecting the idea out of hand. But McCoy, speaking for herself, didn’t hold back.
“It is a very bad idea to put it under CCRB,” said McCoy, the John Jay professor and former Inspector General’s office director of policy analysis.
McCoy noted that the CCRB is designed to deal with individual problematic officers. “IG is not about that,” she said. “It’s about policies, it’s about patterns. It’s about practices, and potentially a lot more powerful.”