Photo by Arnold Adler/ABA Journal
The framed indictment hangs on Cynthia Conti-Cook's office wall.
It’s from 1967, and the charge is draft evasion. The defendant is her father, Jack Cook, an activist and writer who spent two years in prison.
Aware of her dad’s imprisonment from a child, she recalls a visceral feeling that it was a case where the government got it wrong. The indictment is “a reminder that every caption has a human being behind it, that those human beings are often loved ones,” says Conti-Cook, 38.
Today, as a staff attorney at the special litigation unit at the New York Legal Aid Society, that reminder is the cornerstone of a career that seeks justice by speaking truth to power through litigation and data.
After graduating from the City University of New York School of Law in 2006, Conti-Cook became a civil rights attorney with Stoll, Glickman & Bellina. While there, she brought more than 100 civil rights cases against corrections and police officers. Through this work, she began to see patterns of police abuse that were punishing minority communities and costing the city millions.
She could have made a career out of repeatedly suing the same officers, but she wanted to find systemic trends in the abuse to stop it from happening in the first place.
Conti-Cook was “somebody who really was fighting for real community engagement around the abuses that were happening in black and brown communities around policing,” says Tina Luongo, who leads the criminal defense practice at the Legal Aid Society.
Today, the Cop Accountability Project houses information on all NYPD officers, including 10,000 with a paper trail of alleged or proven misconduct. The data is collected from news sources, state and federal lawsuits, New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board and NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau investigations, social media and the office’s own experiences.
Versions are available for Legal Aid Society attorneys and other institutional defenders. On a smartphone, defenders can access this information during notoriously fast bail hearings, for example. Access to this information helps their clients avoid pretrial detention or get charges thrown out.
The data has also had a systemic impact, leading to litigation that challenged the racially biased application of loitering laws by New York police against trans sex workers of color. This led to procedure and practice changes at the NYPD, according to Luongo.
They also recently released CAPstat, a public dataset of federal civil rights cases brought against the NYPD between 2015 and June 2018.
While the impact of Conti-Cook’s work is already felt in New York, there’s more to come.
“I think that 10 years from now, there will be a lot of new developments in the way in which we think about this kind of information and the way in which lawyers access information that will be inspired by this idea,” she says.
This article first appeared in the September-October 2019 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline “Policing the Police.”