Nearly 500 Department of Investigation suggestions for improving agencies and protecting civil rights over the past decade got “accepted” but never implemented, its records show.
THE CITY is a nonprofit newsroom that serves the people of New York. Sign up for our SCOOP newsletter and get exclusive stories, helpful tips, a guide to low-cost events, and everything you need to know to be a well-informed New Yorker.
Every year, the city’s Department of Investigation issues bold and critical recommendations intended to help city government function more effectively and efficiently, as part of its agency probes.
But increasingly, and especially under Mayor Eric Adams, the department is being downsized, the scale and scope of its investigative insights is diminishing and some of its most urgent findings are being ignored by agencies.
“These are well thought-out recommendations and they should be implemented,” said Gale Brewer, (D-Manhattan), who chairs the City Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations.
Over the past few years, DOI policy recommendations have included training more cops in how to handle people in the midst of mental health crises, revamping the dysfunctional lifeguard unit, and digitizing records of violence in city jails.
Since 2014, DOI has made 483 recommendations that city agencies agreed to accept but were never implemented, according to an analysis by THE CITY of data extracted from DOI’s Policy and Procedure Recommendations Portal. That’s 14% of all accepted recommendations.
The recommendations are typically part of reports or audits that highlight ongoing problems at agencies, misguided policies or bureaucratic setups.
City agencies are able to simply reject recommendations, and did so in 4% of cases each year, on average, from 2014 through 2021 during the majority of the de Blasio administration. That figure spiked to 15% in 2022, when the NYPD rejected numerous recommendations in a report about police surveillance.
THE CITY analysis of accepted-but-languishing suggestions also revealed there has been a sharp decrease in DOI-issued recommendations overall since Adams took office in January 2022 and immediately named Jocelyn Strauber as DOI commissioner, a nomination confirmed by the City Council.
All told, DOI made 112 Policy and Procedure recommendations in 2022 and 60 as of June this year, according to the online portal. But from 2014 until 2022, the average annual number was 630, the data shows.
The 2022 figure is the lowest yearly count since 2014, the first year covered by DOI’s online portal.
There are “no definitive reasons” for the drop in recommendations but some explanations include a drop in staff, longer times to close cases due to the pandemic, and a change in administration, according to DOI spokesperson Diane Struzzi.
Those factors “impact tracking, follow up and implementation,” she added.
“DOI is aware of this decrease, and Commissioner Strauber is focused on making impactful Policy and Procedure Recommendations (PPR) in matters wherever warranted,” Struzzi said. “So, we are not issuing PPRs to achieve a number but to result in effective reforms.”
DOI, like many other city agencies, is also struggling with a staffing shortage..
As of June 2023, DOI’s job vacancy rate was 10.2%, which was down from the 15.7% rate in January, payroll records show. The total active headcount was 433 as of this month.
By contrast, that figure was 534 in 2018, according to DOI.
Life and Death Decisions
Over the years, hundreds of suggestions continue to go unheeded, including many with life-or-death stakes.
“Throughout the past two years and almost three months our family has been going through emotional hell,” said Leszek Wiszowaty, whose 18-year-old son, Matthew, drowned in the turbulent waters of Queens’ Rockaway Beach.
Wiszowaty has sued the Parks Department, alleging that it failed to provide lifeguards by Shore Front Parkway and Beach 101st Street or do a proper analysis of which beaches needed added protection.
Unheeded DOI recommendations would have forced the agency to assess where lifeguards are most needed — and to assign those with the most experience to the most dangerous spots.
The case is pending.
In December 2021, the city’s investigative agency found the Department of Parks and Recreation’s lifeguard division has been drowning in mismanagement and dysfunction for decades.
The Parks Department allows the unit overseeing lifeguards to operate as its own fiefdom, with poor oversight, the scathing 20-page report concluded.
So DOI at the time listed a roadmap of basic, good governance reform.
That included “13 recommendations to correct deficiencies in the management and operation of the Lifeguard Division.” Among the proposed changes was improving its disciplinary system for lifeguards charged with breaking rules and assigning “intermediate managers” to “enhance supervision” of the unit.
The DOI also recommended that “experienced, intermediate managers” be used to deploy staff to dangerous areas.
Nearly two years later, just one of the reforms — the tracking of disciplinary cases — has been enacted, according to the DOI portal.
Parks officials say they are trying to make the suggested changes.
“Since the report was released, Parks has worked closely with both DOI and the Office of Labor Relations to make significant improvements to the lifeguard unit and keep New Yorkers safe,” said Parks spokesperson Meghan Lalor.
Still, the Adams administration is currently at an impasse in contract negotiations with the powerful union that represents city lifeguards and has been unable to make many broader structural changes.
More broadly, Struzzi, DOI’s spokesperson, defended how the department handles its outstanding recommendations, saying the agency routinely follows up with agencies and encourages them to take action.
In many cases, the recommendations are based on years-long probes conducted by multiple DOI investigators.
Struzzi stressed that historically the majority of reforms detailed in the reports are enacted by city agencies.
Waiting It Out
Still, some of the DOI recommendations have gone unheeded for decades, according to Peter Benjaminson, author of “Secret Police: Inside the New York City Department of Investigation” and former agency spokesperson during former Mayor David Dinkins’ administration.
He cited a 1990 DOI review of the city’s so-called watershed police, who are employed by the Department of Environmental Protection.
DOI investigators concluded the officers — charged with protecting the city’s water supply, which extends over 2,000 square miles and eight upstate counties — devoted a significant portion of their time to other random law enforcement tasks like putting up speed traps for drivers.
As a result, DOI recommended that the DEP consider consolidating what was then called the Bureau of Water Supply Police with its watershed inspectors who “have overlapping missions and jurisdiction, into a single, properly trained enforcement unit.”
More than three decades later, DEP continues to employ roughly 200 officers and hasn’t talked about disbanding or moving them into different units.
Ted Timbers, a DEP spokesperson, defended the current setup.
“New Yorkers should not have to think twice about the safety and security of their drinking water,” he said in a statement. “In our post 9/11 world, DEP police fill the critical role of protecting the drinking water supply for nearly 10 million New Yorkers — roughly half of New York State.”
DEP police have “specific knowledge” of the 2,000-square-mile watershed which is larger than the State of Delaware, he added.
Overall, Benjaminson said DOI is fundamentally flawed because the commissioner reports to the mayor.
“The mayor probably doesn’t like to have scandal in his own administration exposed,” he said. “What mayor wants a report on how badly his administration is doing? So they tend to suppress them.”
DOI commissioners, who are appointed by the mayor, have long maintained that they are still able to operate autonomously. Former DOI head Mark Peters famously clashed with de Blasio over his authority and aggressive probes.
The Long Game of the Law
As for more recent DOI recommendations that have gone unheeded, the NYPD has accepted 67% of proposed reforms since 2014, one of the lowest rates among all city agencies, records show.
In August 2016, the NYPD rejected a DOI recommendation to have the police’s HR team require members of police’s Intelligence Bureau “specify the role of the undercover officer or confidential informant.”
In November 2017, the Police Department rejected DOI’s recommendation to have the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau “categorize and track all LGBTQ-related allegations that implicate bias conduct.”
The NYPD also has a track record of just ignoring reforms it initially agrees to implement.
In July 2015, DOI told the NYPD it should “ensure fairness between citizens’ and officers’ rights to view police officer body worn camera footage.” The NYPD actually agreed to do that but never did, according to the online portal.
The NYPD didn’t respond to an email from THE CITY seeking comment.
“For the NYPD, an agency that’s supposed to hold people accountable for following the law, they do their best to find loopholes in any law that they don’t like or that forces transparency on them,” said Jerome Greco, digital forensics supervising attorney for the Legal Aid Society.
Struzzi highlighted that the NYPD has accepted 11 of 17 DOI recommendations listed in the criminal gang database report issued in July.