New York City

Police Abuse Watchdog Fired Four Investigators for Speaking Out on NYPD Body-Camera Stall, Lawsuit Charges

Reuven Blau, THE CITY

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Protesters chant “Hands up, don’t shoot!” at NYPD officers while marching along Canal Street, May 31, 2020.
“Hands up, don’t shoot!” yell protesters at NYPD officers while marching along Canal Street, May 31, 2020. | Christine Chung/THE CITY

Four former investigators at the city’s police watchdog charge they were fired for speaking out against NYPD officials for withholding potentially damning cop body camera footage captured during last year’s racial justice protests.

The quartet of ex-Civilian Complaint Review Board employees contends in a federal lawsuit filed Monday that police brass stalled probes — and that the agency ruled in favor of cops to please Mayor Bill de Blasio or top NYPD officials. 

CCRB Executive Director Jonathan Darche “often skewed policies” to cozy up to the mayor and the Police Department “for his personal and professional gain,” the lawsuit alleges. 

Darche, who is white, allegedly threatened to call 911 on a Black investigator during a dispute at an executive meeting on Dec. 11, 2019. The lawsuit compares him to Amy Cooper, a white dog walker who infamously called police on a Black birdwatcher in Central Park in late May. 

The suit also alleges that one investigator was targeted for firing because she objected to the lack of cooperation between the CCRB and the NYPD’s Office of the Inspector General. 

“The case should strike a chord with members of the public who want to know how the CCRB is operating,” said attorney Hope Pordy, who is representing the former investigators. 

Civilian Complaint Review Board Chair Fred Davie.

CCRB Chair Fred Davie defended the agency, indicating the four veteran investigators were fired as part of a “difficult but necessary restructuring” last year “motivated by a need for change during this difficult financial time for the city.” 

“Any suggestion otherwise is false,” he added, declining to address the specific allegations in the suit. 

‘Anger and Retaliation’

The four investigators suing are J. Christopher Duerr, Winsome Thelwell, Dane Buchanan and Nicole Napolitano. Their firing on Nov. 12 was first reported by The New York Times.

When he was at the CCRB, Buchanan wrote a memo, obtained by ProPublica, detailing how the agency asked for police body-worn camera footage tied to 212 cases of alleged abuse by cops — but only got 33 replies as of June 26, 2020. 

The missive warned that the police handling of those requests has “steadily gotten worse,” concluding that “the situation is untenable.” 

Former CCRB employees Chris Duerr, Nicole Napolitano, Dane Buchanan and Winsome Thelwel (clockwise).

Delays can kibosh cases because investigations must be completed and recommendations made within 18 months of the complaint. 

Darche blamed Buchanan and another staffer for the leaked document and “repeatedly threatened that their roles within the CCRB would suffer as a result,” according to the lawsuit, filed in Manhattan Federal Court. 

The four employees, with 50 years at the agency among them, were “functionally demoted” shortly after, the court papers say. 

Thelwell, who had 25 years of experience at the board, was worried cases would expire, the lawsuit says. In a message to Darche, she said that “the CCRB allows substantiated cases to sit in panels sometimes up [to] 400 days” unless they involve high-profile incidents, according to the lawsuit. 

“As a Black person, a person who has fairly investigated police misconduct for over 20 years and as a manager who listens to my heartbroken staff, I find all of this outrageous and offensive,” she said in the memo. “So far, all I have received for speaking out is anger and retaliation.”

‘Amy Cooper-Style’ Threat

Darche allegedly threatened to call police on Thelwell because she refused to leave a room during a dispute at a meeting on 911 policy in late 2019, according to the lawsuit. 

“Darche – in Amy Cooper-like style – aggressively pointed at Plaintiff Thelwell, towering and leaning over her, and said that not only was she fired but that he would call 911 on her,” the suit alleges. 

In August, ProPublica reported that the NYPD has held back evidence pertaining to probes of alleged abuse. 

In the summer, New York state lawmakers repealed a law that kept police misconduct records secret for decades. The move came in response to rampant demonstrations calling for sweeping police reform after the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans by cops across the country. 

New York’s police, fire and corrections unions sued, arguing in part that unsubstantiated complaints of misconduct should not be released to the public. The city’s top lawyer, James Johnson, has decided to keep all records private, even complaints with allegations that were upheld, until the court case is concluded.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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