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Phantom Cover-Up


Phantom Cover-Up

September 4, 2001
Urban PolicyCrimeNYC

It is received wisdom among the Democratic mayoral hopefuls that the NYPD ignores police misconduct - an accusation that plays wonderfully with the city’s police-bashers.

These criticisms are pure political grandstanding, as Commissioner Bernard Kerik’s response to the allegations against Officer Joseph Gray (accused of mowing down an entire family in a DWI accident) attest.

Kerik not only accelerated the departmental proceedings against Gray to get him off the force as quickly as possible (Gray resigned last week), he has cleaned out the top command and disciplined 12 other officers in Gray’s Brooklyn precinct. Then-Commissioner Howard Safir responded with equal alacrity and severity to the torture of Abner Louima, removing the precinct’s entire supervisory staff.

If these high-profile cases don’t suffice to rebut the “lax discipline” charge, New Yorkers can decide for themselves whether the department is winking at misconduct.

City Law (a publication of New York Law School) has posted on its Web site ( the decisions in disciplinary cases brought by the department against its own officers. And the rulings show the NYPD giving the benefit of the doubt to the most incredible complainants and prosecuting cases resting on the flimsiest of evidence.

Each case begins with a complaint brought to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an all-civilian body charged with investigating accusations by civilians against officers. When the CCRB substantiates a complaint, it passes it on to the NYPD for prosecution. If the department agrees with the CCRB findings, it will bring a case against the suspect officer in the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH), a neutral court that decides disciplinary cases against all city employees.

In the mid ’90s, the department declined to prosecute a large number of CCRB cases, on the ground that the CCRB’s investigations were shoddy and its recommendations insupportable. This brought down the wrath of local anti-police activists and the Clinton Justice Department. Facing charges that it condoned brutality against civilians, the NYPD brass started bringing a much greater proportion of CCRB-substantiated cases to trial.

The results speak for themselves. OATH judges are throwing out over half the cases brought by the department against its officers. “Police Department v. Garvey,” decided Jan. 24, is typical of the more ridiculous cases that the CCRB substantiates and the department prosecutes.

Complainant Mark Luther, an Upper West Side SRO resident with a huge rap sheet and history of attacking other tenants, charged Officer Garvey with beating him in 1997.

Luther claimed that on the day of the beating, he had been repeatedly beset in the SRO by swarms of Mexicans wielding machetes, sticks, bats, bottles, butcher knives and screwdrivers.

When the officers arrived at the SRO in response to his call, Luther alleges, they started beating and kicking him, and stomped on him en route to the patrol car - all under the observation of two supervising sergeants and the SRO’s other residents.

Luther claims the officers next slammed the car door on his legs, punched him in the car, then continued beating him with nightsticks and fists in the precinct, causing his ribs to collapse - also under the watch of a sergeant. The officers, he says, took him to a hospital for a laceration under his eye, but prevented him from getting food or water for two days, and refused the attending physicians any access to him.

Luther was unable to describe any of the officers he charged with assault, and he originally reported the wrong date for the incident. And by the time of the trial, Luther was nowhere to be found.

But the department proceeded with the case against Officer Garvey anyway. Garvey presented the following evidence in his defense:

* According to numerous witnesses in the SRO, it was Luther who had assaulted a Mexican couple with a machete; a hotel clerk had called the police.

* When Garvey and his fellow officers tried to arrest Luther, he violently resisted and started to flee. The SRO witnesses all denied that the officers had used excessive force.

* The cops had to carry the wildly flailing and screaming Luther in and out of the patrol car to take him to the precinct; Luther bit one of the officers, causing the officer to drop him.

* The precinct called an ambulance to take him to the hospital for the cut under his eye, but the ambulance workers refused to touch him until someone calmed the madman down. Eventually, the officers and EMS crew got him into a velcro bag for transporting emotionally disturbed persons.

Beyond the cut, which he could have gotten resisting arrest or when he was dropped, Luther had no other injuries to suggest he had been beaten. And, as if his credibility was not weak enough already, Luther had told the SRO manager to lie about the incident so that he could sue the city for $50 million.

The trial judge rightly threw out the department’s case against Officer Garvey, noting the complainant’s complete lack of credibility, the “serious question of his mental stability raised by the hyperbolic nature of his accusations,” and the department’s “woefully” thin evidence against the defendant.

That the department is pursuing such weak cases at taxpayer expense shows how completely it has been browbeaten by its critics. Before the mayoral candidates unleash their next round of police-bashing, and before the press credulously reports their charges, both candidates and the press should spend a few hours reading OATH decisions. They might learn something about the real state of discipline at the NYPD.