NEW YORK — The city police department should have an inspector general to examine its conduct, but the monitor would need independence and a broad mandate to be effective, a panel of criminal justice and legal experts said Wednesday.
The City Council is weighing a proposal to put the nation's largest police force under the scrutiny of an inspector general. Mayor Michael Bloomberg says there's no need for one, but the idea has gained currency among civil liberties advocates and others troubled by some New York Police Department practices, including widespread spying on Muslims.
Proponents say an inspector general could build public confidence by looking at issues such as the surveillance and the department's extensive use of a tactic known as stop and frisk – questioning and sometimes patting down people whose behavior is deemed suspicious but doesn't necessarily meet the legal bar for an arrest.
"It is an important first step in bringing some measure of transparency and accountability to the police," said Faiza Patel, a national security specialist at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice.
The center sponsored Wednesday's discussion at Jay College of Criminal Justice, where a police informant kept tabs on a Muslim student group earlier this year, The Associated Press reported Tuesday, following a series of other recent AP articles illuminating the NYPD's surveillance of Muslims. The latest report prompted criticism Wednesday from City Comptroller John Liu, who called the tactics "un-American."
"No one should be spied on simply because they choose to attend a study group on Islam," Liu said.
That should be especially true at a school where students aim to enforce the law, not break it, said Sarah Duzan, a freshman whose family is from Guyana and whose mother is Muslim.
"We are in a criminal justice school. I don't think anyone would do anything against society," Duzan, an aspiring FBI agent, said in an interview.
The NYPD has said its surveillance is legal.
Inspectors general – officials with investigative powers – are a common feature of government agencies, including in law enforcement and intelligence. The FBI and the CIA have such inspectors, as do police forces including the Los Angeles Police Department.
In New York City, allegations of police misconduct are explored by a civilian complaint board, a police corruption commission and the department's 700-person Internal Affairs Bureau – plus, at times, local and federal prosecutors and judges.
That's enough, the administration says.
"We believe that there is already sufficient oversight of the police department," Michael Best, a lawyer for Bloomberg, said at a recent City Council.
But critics say the current system is focused largely on individual complaints and corruption claims, and the NYPD needs a monitor who can look at the bigger picture of police policies and practices.
For an inspector general's office to work, it needs a robust budget and political independence, said Merrick Bobb, who has monitored the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for 20 years as special counsel to the county Board of Supervisors.
And to gain acceptance from police, any potential NYPD inspector general also should have a broad agenda – one that isn't limited to civil rights concerns and doesn't stop at rank-and-file officers, John Jay professors Patrick O'Hara and Eugene O'Donnell said.
"It would be a welcome development if the inspector general had a broad remit, was able to look upward as well as downward and was able to raise serious policy questions," said O'Donnell, a former police officer.
Under the proposal before the City Council, the NYPD inspector general would be appointed by the mayor and could review the department's policies, its operations and their impact on civil liberties.
A majority of City Council members support it. But Speaker Christine Quinn, who has near-total control of what proposals go to a vote, hasn't taken a position.
The idea is the most ambitious of a suite of proposals for change at the NYPD – the rest concern new rules for stop and frisks – and it may face the highest hurdles.
Three Democratic state senators also proposed an NYPD inspector this winter.
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