The NYPD Doesn’t Want You to Know the Official Policy on Police Chases
The NYPD Patrol Guide has certain pages deleted and the CCRB, the main watchdog, took them down, too. Experts are alarmed.
12:00 AM EDT on August 30, 2023
Good luck finding the NYPD's guidelines for high-speed vehicle chases.
The independent agency that investigates police misconduct removed its copy of the NYPD Patrol Guide from its website, where it previously had posted a version that included pages about vehicle pursuits that the NYPD has kept hidden from the public — a move that raises alarms among legal experts amid a dangerous uptick in the number of car chases under Mayor Adams.
The watchdog Civilian Complaint Review Board had published the NYPD’s lengthy training manual — including four pages on vehicle pursuits omitted from the NYPD’s publicly available version — on its website since at least June 1, 2016, but eliminated a still-live link to the entire document from its website last week after an inquiry from Streetsblog.
A spokesperson for the CCRB said the oversight agency had revamped its website months ago, but the link to the unexpurgated Patrol Guide was easy to find in a Google search until last week. Now, the link is dead, and the agency directs visitors to the NYPD website, which contains the version of the Patrol Guide without a section on car chases. (The change was first spotted by David Dartley, a longtime Streetsblog reader.)
“The CCRB has spent months combing through our website to ensure we are providing the public with the most accurate and up to date information. This includes removing old versions of the patrol guide which are no longer viable and making the NYPD’s current patrol guide easy to find," the spokesperson said. "When the CCRB realized that a page deleted from our website was still functional, we corrected it. CCRB gave a presentation in our August board meeting to notify the public of the updated website and welcomed public feedback on how to continue to improve the site.”
Still, prominent civil liberties lawyers are not happy.
“It's certainly concerning that an important part of the patrol guide that relates directly to an issue that is of great public concern … is being actively removed from the most easily accessible versions of public websites,” said Bobby Hodgson, a supervising attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union.
The removal from CCRB comes amid numerous reports about the massive increase in NYPD car chases under the Adams administration — a nearly 600-percent increase compared to the same time last year, according to the website The City. NYPD Chief of Patrol John Chell is reportedly behind the increase, telling multiple news outlets that the proliferation of ghost cars, illegal scooters and ATVs on city streets is necessitating enforcement. One police pursuit earlier this month injured 10 people, including two children, after the driver of a stolen car being chased by the cops plowed into several vehicles and pedestrians in Manhattan.
The patrol guide is a public resource and should remain online, said Keegan Stephan, an associate at Beldock Levine and Hoffman LLC, who is suing the NYPD in an unrelated civil rights case.
“It’s extremely odd,” he said. “It also sort of flies in the face of the purpose of the CCRB, it’s supposed to be an entity that exists for accountability. [The NYPD] is obviously in the hot seat for vehicle pursuits. CCRB has these records and made them public. It’s the right thing to do.” (The CCRB said that the NYPD decides what to make public.)
In 2016, the NYPD amended its patrol guide by putting all procedures related to the use of force in section 221, or its “Tactical Operations” series. Vehicle pursuits were listed under section 221-15. Before that, it was “publicly available for many years” previously published in the patrol guide under section 212-39, according to civil rights attorney Gideon Oliver.
The vehicle pursuits procedure has been updated at least once since 2016, according to experts and public records. In 2021, the NYCLU purchased a version from that year that was sold by a company then known as Looseleaf Law Publications (now Blue360 media). In it, the vehicle pursuits procedure had last been updated as of 2017, according to Hodgson, who says the firm likely obtained the document via a Freedom of Information Request. It’s unclear if it’s been revised further since 2021.
But according to an NYPD spokesperson, some pages of the patrol guide are not posted online “due to tactical operational concerns” that could “provide a roadmap for some to interfere with police operations or endanger the lives and safety of officers and/or the public.”
Local Law 129 of 2016, which requires the NYPD to publish its manual, does leave some wiggle room for certain procedures to be exempt, the rep said, including “any material that would reveal non-routine investigative techniques or confidential information” or “any material that, if published, could compromise the safety of the public or police officers, or could otherwise compromise law enforcement investigations or operations.”
Oliver says vehicle pursuits “do not fall into those categories.”
“Rather, they reflect the Department’s guidelines on a routine police practice that is carried out in public and that has a tremendous — and often tremendously negative — impact on public safety,” he said.
The NYPD claims that the page “relating to vehicle pursuits has never been published on the public website.”
Contrary to the NYPD claim, however, other sensitive tactical procedures are still in the publicly available patrol guide — including rules for vehicle checkpoints (number 221-16), which is the very next page after what should be vehicle pursuits.
“It is weird,” said Shamus Smith, a doctoral lecturer of criminology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “I don't think it’s smart to keep withholding that information from the general public.”
The NYPD did not respond to multiple follow-up questions about whether the procedure is being revised, or if and when it will be shared publicly again, but legal experts say that regardless of how old something is, anything pursuant to FOIL is considered public, and should remain so.
“It may be they never made it public. But it could be subject to discovery in its entirety, as ubiquitous as anything on the Internet,” said Steve Vaccaro, an attorney who represents victims of traffic violence. “I'm not against police pursuits, but there should be transparency. It shouldn't be a secret what police should or should not do.”
And several attorneys told Streetsblog they recall the procedure being made available to them as part of litigation, and that it’s simple enough to find with a quick Google search. In fact, though not published in its entirety, the crux of the procedure is still available as part of a 2018 lawsuit against an officer on an NYPD website.
“There’s nothing in there that should be sensitive. It’s been the subject of countless litigations over the past two decades. I don't ever remember it being protected or any kind of confidentiality required,” said Daniel Flanzig, who runs a personal injury law firm. “That’s very odd … especially in light of what we've seen over the past couple of weeks.”
According to the seven-year-old document previously published on the CCRB website, the policy for vehicle pursuits has remained largely the same, with language similar to wording used in an agency-wide memo sent out by Chief of Department Jeffrey Maddrey advising his rank-and-file officers to review the existing guidelines on car chases on Aug. 10.
“A vehicle pursuit must be terminated whenever the risk to members of the service and the public outweighs the danger to the community if the suspect is not immediately apprehended,” according to Maddrey’s memo, which was reported by the Post.
Legal experts remain dubious of the NYPD’s explanation.
“It’s clearly a lie insofar as CCRB had made it public on their website. It’s hard to believe they wouldn't know CCRB had it publicly available,” said Stephan. “Going on vehicle pursuits is nonsense, warrior cop mentality. There’s no reason to be going on high-speed chases.”
But whether it was ever published directly on the NYPD’s website is almost the secondary concern — vehicle pursuits should only rarely, if ever, be deployed, according Smith.
“There’s nothing that's good about a police pursuit. It’s not gonna work out for anybody. There’s always something that outweighs the cost of pursuing someone who may have committed an infraction and doesn’t wanna pull over for whatever reason,” he said. “I don't really see how it could interfere. I don't see how police pursuits could really endanger lives if they were informed.”
Julianne Cuba joined Streetsblog in February, 2019, after three years covering local news and politics at The Brooklyn Paper. There, she also covered the notoriously reckless private carting industry and hit-and-runs. A 2015 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism Master’s Program, she lives in Brooklyn. Julianne is on Twitter at @julcuba. Email Julianne at firstname.lastname@example.org
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