Revealed: NYPD complaints surge under Adams to reach highest level since 2012

<span>NYPD officers arrest pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Brooklyn on 31 May 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images</span>
NYPD officers arrest pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Brooklyn on 31 May 2024.Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

The New York City police department’s disciplinary issues are coming to a head during the third year of tough-on-crime Mayor Eric Adams’s administration, with complaints at their highest since 2012, stop-and-frisk encounters soaring and displays of impunity by rank-and-file officers, according to interviews and data from the city’s independent police watchdog agency.

Disciplinary records and interviews with sources also reveal a persistent problem with instances of NYPD officers wearing morale patches on their bulletproof vests containing possible white supremacist imagery.

This is an uncomfortable echo of four years ago, when the NYPD’s riot squad pummeled protesters and cops openly wore pro-Trump imagery, flashed white supremacist symbols while on duty and were discovered in membership lists of extremist militias.

The first public clue of the NYPD’s renewed problem with far-right imagery emerged in the civilian complaint review board’s (CCRB) May monthly report. In December 2022, two officers from Staten Island’s 120th precinct responded to a fight between parents at a public school. One cop refused to provide his name to one of the mothers who also observed a patch with a skull image on the other cop’s bulletproof vests.

“The skull patch on subject officer 2’s uniform was a specific imagery commonly used by white supremacist groups. Subject officer 2 stated that the patch was a gift, and the skull insignia did not have offensive connotations. The investigation found that the display of the patch on subject officer 2’s uniform was discourteous and offensive,” reads the summary in the CCRB document.

According to sources with knowledge of the investigation, the cop with the offensive patch was Sergeant John J Pedersen, a 38-year-old who joined the NYPD in 2011 and has four sustained civilian complaints against him during his career. Pedersen will face a departmental trial for wearing the offensive patch.

Pedersen’s conduct was not isolated: the CCRB has sustained complaints against several other cops for wearing the same sort of skull imagery – which resembles the logo of the comic book superhero the Punisher – while on duty, according to sources with knowledge of the matter. The CCRB has investigated at least 19 cases related to improper morale patches – mostly related to the Punisher skull insignia – since 2018, according to an agency spokesperson.

There have been earlier indications of the CCRB’s focus on political patches: Sergeant Dana Martillo lost 40 days of pay after she was disciplined for wearing pro-Trump patches on her bulletproof vest during a February 2021 Black Lives Matter protest in Brooklyn, including a Punisher logo fashioned after former president Donald Trump. However, the scope of the watchdog agency’s crackdown and its consideration of the Punisher logo as white supremacist iconography has not been previously made public.

“The Punisher symbol has since been adopted by several groups, most prominent among them the US military, white supremacists and law enforcement. Between 2017 and 2021, the Punisher logo has been visible on articles of clothing and weapons held at white supremacy rallies,” reads a passage from a closing report from a 2020 CCRB case in which three officers sporting such patches were sustained for misconduct by the review board.

“The Punisher symbol represents a character that engages in criminal behavior and violence and has been adopted by white supremacist groups. The symbol is inconsistent with the mission and values of the NYPD, namely those of enforcing the law, treating citizens with respect and valuing human life. Additionally, the ‘Punisher’ logo’s association with white supremacist groups goes against the requirements of [the patrol guide], which prohibit[s] association with any person or organization advocating hatred, oppression or prejudice based on race,” the report reads.

The broader problem with morale patches was formally communicated by the independent watchdog agency to the NYPD’s legal bureau last year in an official “risk management bureau” letter informing the NYPD of a persistent discipline problem involving extremist iconography, according to sources with knowledge of the matter.

“The CCRB takes all cases involving extremist imagery on uniforms very seriously, and images that invoke white supremacy are no exception,” a spokesperson for the watchdog agency wrote in an emailed statement. “CCRB investigators used the NYPD patrol guide to determine if the uniform modification in question constitutes misconduct.”

The NYPD did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Michael Sisitzky, assistant policy director at the New York Civil Liberties Union, expressed alarm at the extremist imagery issue but noted it fit into a longer pattern. “These complaints are not entirely new, we’ve heard similar reports of officers sporting those patches or making white supremacist gestures at protests. Most recently, our monitors have seen really aggressive activity by the department towards the George Floyd and Palestinian solidarity protests,” Sisitzky said.

More alarmingly, Sisitzky said, the NYPD’s command staff under Mayor Adams’s term has taken a hard turn to the right.

“The adversarial and hostile tone and rhetoric towards New Yorkers from the command staff have been really troubling – figures like [Chief of Department] Jonathan Chell and [Assistant Commissioner] Kaz Daughtry have been using social media in an to attack members of the city council and judges, recently called out protesters as ‘anti-American’, and are slurring folks as supporters of terrorism.”

The behavior of senior NYPD officials like Chell and Daughtry has provoked rebukes from the city council and prompted New York City’s department of investigation to open an inquiry into the use of social media by the police department.

Adams, for his part, unequivocally supports the NYPD’s new aggressive approach towards its political opponents.

The CCRB, which is the external investigative agency for complaints of NYPD misconduct, is staring down precipitous budget cuts: the current budget calls for a $25.7m cut to the watchdog agency’s budget. In response to prior rounds of cuts, the CCRB has ceased investigating whole categories of complaints if they are isolated incidents, including failure of officers to provide their name and shield number, threats by a member of service, discourtesy, refusal to process a civilian complaint, property seizures, forced hospitalizations or untruthfulness.

Yet some 2,355 complaints were made against NYPD personnel as of 1 June, according to CCRB data. That is the highest total number at this point in the year since 2012, when 2,374 complaints were logged against police.

Before 2023, complaints against NYPD officers had dropped steadily since 2019, but the Adams administration’s return to stress policing tactics last seen under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and police commissioner Ray Kelly resulted in a huge spike in misconduct allegations last year, as the Guardian first reported last fall. Vehicle stops have skyrocketed 50% as well, without a commensurate increase in seized contraband, arrests, summonses or other legal actions.

What’s more, NYPD line officers are not accurately documenting the true number of stop-and-frisk encounters with New Yorkers and appear to face no accountability for this lapse, according to a letter filed at the end of 2023 by the court monitor overseeing a consent decree that ostensibly reins in the NYPD’s conduct on the street per a 2013 settlement agreement.

The letter singled out “neighborhood safety teams” and “precinct safety teams”, the terms used by the Adams administration to rebrand the NYPD’s notorious, aggressive anti-crime units that were behind the huge rise in stop-and-frisk encounters during the Bloomberg administration, when hundreds of thousands of mostly Black and Latino New Yorkers were stopped and searched.

Lupe Aguirre, a staff attorney at the NYCLU, criticized the budget cuts to the CCRB.

“Transparency remains a real issue with the NYPD, and the CCRB is a critical source of insight into the agency’s disciplinary system,” Aguirre said. “Without it, we don’t really have a sense of how the NYPD’s internal accountability systems are working and how problematic cops remain on the force and are held accountable.”