Deadly Force: The Debate Over Police Violence
September 23, 1980
It happens in the dark of the night in an instant of justifiable fear. The police finger clutching the trigger may be only a twitch ahead of a gunman’s equally fatal fire. But almost as often, the victim turns out to have been armed only with “shiny object,” pliers, a fishing rod, or a flashlight. When he has nothing, a police report explains later that the dead man “seemed to be reaching into his waistband in a menacing manner” or began to back a car in the direction of a cop approaching from behind.
In a city where the death penalty has been perhaps the most controversial public issue for a decade, cop bullets killed 39 people last year. The trials lasted seconds. Two hundred have died this way since Ed Koch became mayor in 1978. And until the recently aborted and now rescheduled congressional hearing on police brutality (set for September 19), there was little public debate of these officially sanctioned executions. The Koch administration is now engaged in an attempt to mythologize its police record and to discredit those who raise the issue as partisans who have invented it to advance a 1985 mayoral campaign. But tongue-lashing police is hardly the way to build a broad-based coalition for a mayoral run and no one knows that better than the poll-armed incumbent. Indeed it is the mayor who seized on the politically ill-timed urge by blacks to press this issue now and is using it to polarize the 1985 campaign. The best way to gauge Koch’s role in fanning this media fire has been to follow its handling in the pages of the New York Post, which began a drum beat of stories about the canceled July congressional hearing weeks before it was scheduled to occur. But no amount of mayoral or Post hype, nor any of the distorted statistics Police Commissioner Robert McGuire bandied about in his undelivered but released congressional testimony, can conceal a host of shocking facts about police violence in the Koch’ years:
◊ A steady, downward trend in fatal police-shootings, begun at the end of the Lindsay era when tough new regulations on firearm use were implemented, and continuing through the Beame years, has been reversed under Koch. Police killings dropped from a record-smashing 93 in 1971 to an average of 28.5 in the two years prior to Koch. In the five Koch years for which complete numbers exist (1978-82), there has been an average loss of 36 lives a year, a statistical leap of 25 per cent. This year’s numbers are consistent with that trend: 23 deaths as of last week.
◊ The increasing death toll in New York also bucks a national decline. The same nationwide survey that Commissioner McGuire based his misleading congressional testimony on reveals that New York cops, virtually alone among those of the major cities cited by McGuire, have been killing more citizens in the Koch years than in the immediately preceding years. While Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Houston, Baltimore, and Washington — all cities named by McGuire as worse than New York — improved during the Koch years covered by the survey, killings were up only in New Orleans and New York.
◊ In 1982 city police killed twice as many Latins as blacks (20 to 10, according to the department’s official statistics). This disturbing new trend, inconsistent with the Hispanic population percentage and crime rate, began the year before when, for the first time, there were more Hispanics killed than blacks. The department did not seem to have focused on this trend until questioned by the Voice; they now point out that so far in 1983, the rate of Hispanic shootings is down. If anyone has a political motivation for their abdication on the police violence issue, it is the quiescent and generally pro-Koch Latin elected leadership, especially Bronx congressman Robert Garcia, who did not even attend the explosive July hearing.
Garcia is so uninformed about the changing ethnic dynamic of deadly police force that he told the Voice: “I think the situation has gotten better.” Bronx assemblyman Joe Serrano, whom Koch is wooing as a possible running mate on a 1985 citywide ticket in a transparent effort to split black and Latins says he was not invited to participate in the congressional probe. “I believe there’s a problem between police and the Hispanic community, but I don’t think it’s attributable to a City Hall administration,” said Serrano. East Harlem assemblyman Angelo Del Toro was the only Latin elected official who came to the recent hearing though Garcia says he hopes to attend the upcoming one.
◊ Compared with the final Beame years, black deaths are also up under Koch. In 1976 and 1977, cop bullets killed 14 blacks a year. Since then, an average of 16 blacks a year have died. Blacks deaths haye dropped in the two most recent Koch years, while the Hispanic toll soared. Ironically, fewer blacks were killed last year than in any year for which the city maintains ethnic death data. But so far in 1983, the black death toll is already ahead of last year’s final total.
Whites are also being killed at a slightly higher rate in the Koch years, and these are some of the most inexplicable killings.
New York cops are killing more people at a time when criminals are shooting fewer of them. Four cops a year have been killed under Koch, one more than the average number of cop suicides in the same period. While this is slightly higher than the average of the two years preceding Koch, it is half the cop death rate of the early ’70s. There has also been no statistically significant change in the number of cops wounded; so the rising use of fatal force by police is occurring in a less threatening overall environment.
◊ In statements that the mayor and Commissioner McGuire prepared but did not deliver for the congressional hearing — and in a host of related public appearances — they have tried to make the case that this city’s police are the most restrained in the nation. The essence of McGuire’s argument is that the rate of police shootings here has declined significantly owing to “an institutional commitment by the Police Department to actively promote racial understanding, community outreach, and a department representative of New York’s diverse population.” He said “studies revealed” that NYC has “the lowest incidence of police shootings of any major American city.” Yet the only national study cited by McGuire specifically — that of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) — puts dozens of other cities ahead of us.
As an exhibit to his testimony, McGuire concocted a chart, which is incorrectly attributed to the IACP study, listing four cities worse than New York in the rate of police homicide per 100,000 population. Actually, the IACP study charts 54 cities and New York is 25th. McGuire chose to diagram only cities we were ahead of. He had to look no farther than across the river to find one we are behind: Newark, New Jersey. On every measure selected by McGuire himself, all of which are adjusted for population, Newark is better than New York: fewer deaths per police officer on the force, fewer correlated with the violent crime rate, fewer per 100,000 people. The mayor’s testimony that New York’s record “is superior to that of every major American city” is pure hoax.
◊ Confronted by the Voice with the rising death figures, Deputy Police Commissioner Kenneth Conboy preferred to discuss the drop in shooting incidents as a clearer indicator of the impact of departmental policy on the cops on the beat. But in fact, the entire recent drop in discharge incidents is attributable to a reduction in firings at animals (due to a toughening of the regulations). The annual discharge rate under Koch is virtually indistinguishable from the rate of the final two Beame years if all that is counted is shots fired at human beings. The first statistic cited by McGuire in his testimony, and the only one mentioned twice, is the 39 per cent drop in discharges since the new regulations in 1973. But once the reduction in animal firings is factored out, McGuire and Koch can claim no role in this downward trend; it all occurred before they took office. Indeed, the category of firings that McGuire’s own academic experts say is most likely to involve excessive use of force — namely shootings by off-duty police officers — has risen dramatically under Koch, from a prior average of 82 to 100.
◊ Despite increases in fatal and off-duty-incidents, disciplinary action against cops who shoot has declined significantly during the Koch years. In the two years prior to Koch, 4.9 per cent of all gun firings resulted in a departmental finding that the officer had violated regulations and that charges and specifications would be brought against him. For the four Koch years (they stopped releasing the data in 1982) an average of only 3.9 per cent of the incidents reviewed led to a violation finding and the bringing of departmental charges. This full point plummet sets a mood in every station house in the city.
◊ All of these stats involve only the use of police firearms, not nightsticks or any other potentially abusive police action. One index of the overall rise in all kinds of police violence is the doubling of civil claims filed against police since Koch took office, leaping to 1340 last year. Settlements of claims against the police by the city also reached an all-time high in the 1982/83 fiscal year just ended — up to $9.1 million or almost $44,000 per settlement (three times the year before). Of course some of the cases settled involve incidents that go back years, prior to Koch becoming mayor.
◊ McGuire made much in his testimony of the role of the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), a misnomer for wholly police-staffed commission charged with reviewing all citizen complaints against police. McGuire testified: “As long as I have been police commissioner, I have not heard or received any complaint questioning CCRB’s integrity, diligence, or objectivity.” Where has he been?
Ninety-eight per cent of all the complaints filed in the Koch years — 43,283 complaints — evoked no disciplinary response, making it a vast dead letter department. During the Koch years its budget has been slashed and the already infrequent disciplinary actions ordered by CCRB have been sharply reduced. In the two years preceding Koch, an average of 469 cops were disciplined for all infractions. In the five Koch years, this average dropped by a third to 301. Fewer cops are being disciplined even though the number of complaints filed has been increasing every year.
Of the 52 cops ordered to do “command discipline” last year, only 2 per cent were given the maximum penalty by their precinct commanders — five days without pay. Almost 70 per cent were merely “warned and admonished.” Last year’s total of 215 disciplinary actions is a third of the Beame total of 1976. No wonder Ed Koch is the most popular mayor the PBA has ever had. No wonder Brooklyn’s black congressman Major Owens, in testimony he prepared for the brutality hearings, called the CCRB “an expunging agency whose primary purpose has become the removal of complaints from the files of officers.”
◊ Some of McGuire’s statistical muddle seems deliberate; some is merely the result of his use of a different set of base years than the Voice analysis. I have compared Koch numbers with the two prior Beame years; McGuire has drawn some similar comparison but used the four Beame years. I used the average of the the final two Beame years (one year could be an aberration) because they represent the bottoming out of a consistent downward trend. McGuire’s insistence on a four-year average ignores the significance of this trend and softens the upturn in his own years.
In some instances, though, McGuire’s footwork is not merely fancy — it’s fanciful. None of three national survey charts ostensibly taken from the IACP volume (Kenneth J. Matulia, A Balance of Forces) and submitted as exhibits by McGuire, actually appear anywhere in the inch-and-half thick volume. Conboy told the Voice they were separately prepared by the IACP. But the author of the IACP study, Matulia, told the Voice that he’d submitted nothing to the department: “They must have made it up themselves. It’s not mine at all. They may have taken their statistics from mine, but they didn’t take the total context.” The McGuire charts erroneously attributed to Matulia do not even carry on them the years covered by the data, most unusual for a statistical study. The only date cited in the charts or McGuire’s speech is 1982, when the IACP study was published. In fact the data only cover the first two Koch years — 1978 and 1979.
Similarly, McGuire cites an academic study on the racial content of New York police shootings and does not point out that the period studied was 1971 through 1975. He tries to leave the impression that the data is more current both by omitting the dates of the study and by saying that it was “concurred in by Professor James Q. Wilson of Harvard in 1981.” Wilson did cite the study favorably in a 1982 article, but he did not reconfirm the old hypothesis with new data covering more recent years. He simply pointed to it as the only data that existed on the issue. McGuire’s omissions are an attempt to stretch the data to cover his own era.
The commissioner concluded the section of his speech on police killings with a single underlined statement that is wholly untrue: “The number of deaths resulting from police shootings within the city of New York is substantially less than that of other comparable major American cities.” In fact, no city has anything approaching the number of deaths New York has; the second highest from the survey data McGuire used is Houston with 20, almost half our total.
◊ The most outrageous claim made by Koch and McGuire in their prepared testimony, however, relates only indirectly to brutality. Both cited the increased number of black and Hispanic cops hired under their administration. McGuire at least had the decency to note that the almost 7 per cent leap in minority officers was “in part due to court-ordered quotas.” What McGuire did not say is that the city fought the affirmative action decisions of the federal courts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and that even after losing at the Circuit Court level, the department refused to hire any cops for a while rather than hire the minority cops that the courts had ordered. Even a pro-Koch minority leader like Joe Serrano told the Voice that the police department’s minority hiring record “is a disaster.”
McGuire played a personal role in designing the racially discriminatory test that the courts threw out. When he announced the results of that test on August 30, 1979, he proclaimed: “I have always believed it is a healthy sign for a police department to reflect the makeup of the community it serves. The results show that it is possible, through normal testing procedures, to increase minority representation in the department.” Three hundred sixty-seven of the 415 police recruits hired on the first eligible list resulting from that test were white. The city was stopped by the courts when the second group of recruits was even whiter: 342 out of 380 in a city where the eligible workforce is judicially defined as one-third minority. Those were the numbers the mayor fought to defend for years in the courts, vowing at one point (July 1980) in language straight from a southern schoolhouse steps scene in another era: “I will never give in.” Now he is trying to take credit, testifying simply: “The department has increased its representation of blacks and Hispanics.”
As recently as this April, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the only Latin organization that has played an important part in opposing both racial violence and hiring discrimination at the Police Department, filed another suit against the latest city police exam. This time they are charging that only 34 of the 616 who passed the lieutenants’ exam are minority. In 1981, they also successfully forced a settlement of a challenge to the most recent sergeants’ exam. Virtually every exam for each rank, given in the Koch years has been really flawed. The black anger over police behavior is unquestionably tied to the persistent racism of its hiring practices.
Politicizing Police Pain
In Ed Koch’s first month in office, Reverend Herbert Daughtry and other leaders of the Black United Front met with the mayor at City Hall to press a series of demands concerning the use of police force. BUF had been created a couple of years earlier, prompted by the police slaying of a black youth in Brooklyn. While nothing came of that and a subsequent BUF meeting with Koch, these discussions initiated what has really been a significant though largely subterranean issue that has dogged the Koch years. BUF has been the persistent activist, organizing countless demonstrations, often putting thousands of protestors in the streets, focusing on one questionable killing after another. I reported on a police riot that featured widespread clubbings during one BUF demo in 1979. The dozens of affidavits and complaints filed by those hurt then have never been answered by the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
One BUF leader, David Walker, has become an archivist of police-inflicted pain. Surviving victims, witnesses, and the relatives of the dead have been drawn to Walker and Daughtry as the only dependable voices for their fury. They troop out to Walker’s Bed-Stuy office from all over the city.
In a moving speech Daughtry prepared but did not deliver, at the aborted hearing, he recites the litany of horror deaths that are one-day stories in the media but fester on the streets of this city’s black and Latin neighborhoods for years. In 1978, black businessman Arthur Miller was choked to death by an army of cops, none whom was ever indicted or disciplined. The ostensible cause was a sanitation vioiation.
The next year Luis Baez, a young, disturbed Puerto Rican, was shot by a platoon of cops after Baez’s mother had summoned them to her house in an effort to calm him. Twenty-one bullets were fired into what Daughtry recalls was “his frail body.” No one was punished.
Another Latin, Peter Funches, a totally disabled Vietnam veteran, “shell-shocked and on medication,” was beaten to death by cops. Daughtry’s account: “In June 1979 his wife, recognizing that he was having problems, called the Veteran’s Administration for help. They never came. In the meantime Peter began to react to his Vietnam experience and got into his car and commenced driving. He drove until he ended up on a street in the Bronx and for whatever reason, police cornered him.” According to witnesses who came to BUF, “the police broke open the car with crowbars and beat Peter Funches to death.” Daughtry says that differing police explanations of Funches’s death went from a car crash to his wielding a knife at them, but that no knife was found and no crash occurred.
Daughtry closes his speech with a list of the minority youths killed by cops going back to the early ’70s and asks an anguished question: “I wonder what the Irish or Italian or Jewish or Polish people would say if black officers were killing their children, not to mention men and women.” The importance of Daughtry’s speech is not the accuracy of the fine points of each story (though the police offer no other persuasive versions of the three deaths cited here from the speech). It is that this history makes a fraud of the Koch claim that there is no real police violence issue, only a campaign charade. Daughtry’s chronicling of the hot incidents of the Koch years proves the opposite. The campaign for ’85 hasn’t manufactured the brutality issue; instead this sort of real problem over time has created the momentum for a political campaign, felt at the most grass-roots level.
This is one time when the impassioned shouts and the random anecdotes get us closer to the truth of a hard problem than the seemingly cool efficiency of a forthright commissioner with a batch of charts in his hand. No campaign agenda could produce the massive number of people who jammed the Harlem State Office Building and talked to each other, after the hearing was abruptly closed, about hundreds of incidents for the rest of a hot day. John Conyers, the congressman who called the hearings, would have to have been a political prophet to have first laid the basis for these hearings way back in the summer of 1980. The Voice reported after the Miami riot that Conyers’s sub-committee on crime began investigating police brutality and cited New York as one of three cities “with particularly explosive potential” (NYC, June 2, 1980).
The Voice has examined a series of police violence incidents during the Koch years. One category of incidents is made up of all 39 fatal shootings in 1982. Another is a loose compilation of beatings and killings, some suggested by BUF’s Walker, some by attorneys who represent victims in these kinds of cases (including the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund), and some by law enforcement agencies. These incidents are not typical of police use of punishing or deadly force; they are ones that rise to the level of a questionable case or a filed complaint. Though Koch and McGuire deride any critical version of a police act that hasn’t been filed as a charge with the Civilian Review Complaint Board, the CCRB record of dispositions and its entirely in-house structure does not encourage the filing of the complaints. Dave Walker’s storefront on Nostrand Avenue is more of a civilian review vehicle for police complaints than the CCRB bureaucracy.
The Voice has attempted to get both a police and citizen version of these incidents. The police version is contained in incident reports that are filed with the department. Though the department encouraged this reporter to read individual incident reports when I was doing a similar story in 1980, and freely provided the reports, they refused Freedom of Information requests for the same access for this story. Instead, they prepared for the Voice one-paragraph summaries of each report. They answered some additional questions on specific incidents. They refused to inform the officers involved of our request for interviews. Our own attempts to reach those cops at their precincts did not produce a single officer willing to discuss the case. Since union, departmental, and legal reasons might legitimately prevent officers from discussing these cases, the Voice asked both the department and the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association to arrange a confidential group interview with cops who had actually been in shooting incidents. We offered to print excerpts from that taped interview, without comment and without identifying the cops by name or printing details that would’ve revealed a specific incident. The purpose was to let cops explain what runs through their heads during and after these incidents. We struck out everywhere. Despite these limitations, we’ve pieced together these glimpses of the violence behind the current storm:
One Year’s Deadly Tally
◊ Of the 39 shot dead last year by cops, 20 were armed with guns and four had knives. On the other hand, David Ramsey, a 25-year-old Hispanic, was shot in the back of the neck while sitting unarmed in his car. The officer, in civilian dress and leaving an unmarked police van, claimed that Ramsey tried to back his car into him. Though department regulations ban firing at moving vehicles, the officer has not been disciplined. Thirteen months after Ramsey’s death, a Brooklyn grand jury cleared the cop. The criminal proceeding ended four months ago, but a departmental case is “still open.”
A 31-year-old black, Otis Morrison, was shot in the park adjacent to the 113th Precinct stationhouse in Queens. At least four cops went into the park looking for Morrison, who was creating a disturbance. So close to their home base and with Morrison so overmatched, the cops nonetheless killed him when they mistook a pliers in his hand for a gun. No criminal or disciplinary action was taken.
Rudy Santos, an unarmed 18-yearold Hispanic, was shot by cops executing a narcotics search warrant at a Manhattan apartment. They said he “reached into his waistband in a menacing manner.” A number of narcotics arrests were made in the apartment. Thirty-five-year-old black Edward Latchman took 15 police bullets from four different cops after he cut a fifth with a knife. Police claimed they tried throwing garbage at him and firing Mace at him before emptying their guns. Neither incident led to any action against the cops.
Ironically, though, the two most questionable police killings of 1982 involved white victims. Nine whites were killed last year, continuing an upward trend. Anthony Ruggerio, a 25-year-old transit employee who had passed the police exam and was awaiting appointment, was shot dead at point-blank range on the shoulder of a Staten Island road. He had been interrupted by an unmarked police car that pulled alongside his car to watch him and his girlfriend, parked and half-naked, engaged in midnight sex. The police were in civilian clothes and, according to their own initial statements, did not identify themselves. Ruggerio’s girlfriend said: “Tony was frightened and worried. We both thought that they might be weirdos or perverts. So he got out of the car and he smashed the passenger window with a fishing pole.”
From a sitting position in the car, one cop shot Ruggerio square in the chest. Seventy-five white demonstrators marched on the Staten Island District Attorney’s office, but no indictment was handed down. A departmental probe wound up handled by the cop’s own supervisor who had made newspaper statements clearing the cops immediately after the shooting. The officer remains a detective in the “crimes against the person” squad.
Another 25-year-old, Richard Sirignano, was shot twice by an off-duty cop who had spent the night at four different bars and, earlier in the evening, drawn his gun on six bar patrons and frisked one in an unrelated argument. Sirignano and two Red Cross operations assistants had been talking on a street corner for a half hour, and when they started to walk across the street, the cop appeared to drive right at Sirignano. Sirignano and officer Charles Tschupp Jr. got into an argument. Tschupp claims Sirignano hit him with a bottle. Queens D.A. John Santucci, who ultimately indicted Tschupp, says that “at the time the officer fired his weapon, the deceased allegedly was in retreat, not advancing on the officer, and therefore did not represent a threat to the officer’s safety.” After a series of beneficial and inexplicable rulings by Queens State Supreme Court Justice Herbert Posner, Tschupp won a hung jury. He didn’t even take the stand. Santucci may try him again. Tschupp is suspended from the force, and is being defended by the PBA.
Another Few Bite the Dust
◊ The 1982 questionable killings are replicated by other disquieting deaths of in recent years, beyond the notorious deaths of Arthur Miller, Luis Baez, and Peter Funches. Voice reporter Jill Nelson, in a cover story (“Cops Who Kill,” January 28-February 3, 1981), documented the extraordinary Brooklyn slaying of two young black men, construction worker Ricky Lewis, 24, and 18-year-old Kenny Gamble, in a fusillade of police bullets. Cops opened up on a carload of six young blacks, subsequently claiming that one of the passengers had earlier been involved in a shoot-out with a plain-clothes cop. There was never a charge that any of the other five were involved in the alleged shooting incident, nor that anyone in the car was armed during the blast-out.
Several eyewitnesses questioned by reporter Nelson said that Gamble, already wounded, emerged from the bullet-riddled car with his arms in the air and took four more shots in the chest, followed by a beating and kicking. One of the survivors in the car told the Voice: “I was layin’ on the sidewalk and I looked up and saw the police comin’. They was runnin’ and firin’ away at the car. I just seen a big clump of smoke, I could see the fire jumpin’ out of the barrels, oh man. They was steppin’ through the smoke and kept on firin’. I didn’t expect to live. I thought they were killing everybody in the car. The police laughed and said, ‘They all dead.’ ” No one was ever indicted or disciplined for the two deaths; the city reached an out-of-court cash settlement with one of the victims’ families. A black accountant, college graduate Vernon Lawrence, who grew up with the dead Lewis, arrived at the scene that night as the ambulances drove off. He watched 30 cops: “They were congratulating themselves, singing ‘Another one bites the dust.’ ”
In another Brooklyn killing this March, 19-year-old black Larry Dawes died after he and a friend were chased on their moped by a cop car. Dawes’s companion and several witnesses claim that the cops rammed the moped into a parked car. The police say they chased the moped for 12 blocks after it ran a red light. Dawes’s companion, Corey Gibson, told the Voice that he was thrown under the parked car and watched one cop kick Dawes’s body. Last week a grand jury decided not to indict the cops involved and the Police Department is “just getting involved” in its own reveiw of the case.
During a New Year’s Eve party in 1981, a Harlem cop killed an unarmed 39-year-old woman, Ruth Alston, claiming that she and two other women were striking him from behind. In another incident nine days later, 19-year-old Donald Wright was shot at point-blank range in front of a Harlem shoe store by a cop who’d escorted the youth out of the store after getting involved in an argument with him. Neither incident led to an indictment, though the officer who killed Wright, the only black cop involved in the deaths detailed here, was removed from the police force. Alston’s family eventually won a $50,000 settlement and Wright’s a $125,000 settlement with the city.
A 15-year-old white Queens kid, John Cortese, was shot to death this March by an off-duty cop while he sat unarmed in a locked car. Cortese had brushed the cop’s personal car in a minor traffic accident and had driven from the scene. Cortese headed his car to his Astoria home and, in an alleyway near his home, got stuck. The cop got out of his car and started to approach Cortese. According to the recent indictment of the officer by D.A. Santucci, “the officer fired into the driver’s door window after jumping out of the way as it started to move again. When the shot was fired the officer was not in danger of being hit by the car.”
◊ But the police incident that provoked the current controversy and compelled the congressional inquiry did not result in a citizen’s death. It was a beating case and what turned it into a political issue was the mayor’s fast and foul lip. The black man beaten was Reverend Lee Johnson, a first-year graduate student at Union Theological Seminary. Reverend Donald Shriver, Union’s president, issued a press statement describing how a traffic summons escalated into police striking Johnson with a flashlight and a nightstick, amid a barrage of racial epithets. The beating and insults were carried from the street to the stationhouse. The Koch response was one of disbelief: “I find it certainly possible, but nevertheless strange, that in the heart of Harlem two white cops would intentionally, in violation of the law, harass a minister. It’s possible. It could have happened … but again, in a police precinct filled with large numbers of black officers?”
The Johnson incident was followed a week later and with less media attention by an allegation from Kenneth Woods, the co-owner of one of Harlem’s best-known restaurants, Sylvia’s, that he was roughed up and verbally insulted by officers from the same precinct. ” ‘None of you motherfuckers ain’t shit,’ ” businessman Woods says one cop swore. ” ‘All of you are the God damn same. ‘ “
The documented beating incidents are as multiracial as the shooting cases. On July 29, Julio Castillo, a 42-year-old Hispanic bus driver with 12 years seniority, was driving to his Manhattan home in a rush after receiving a call on his beeper from his wife, who’d recently been hospitalized. A cop car pursued him the last mile or so for a traffic violation. Castillo recalls getting out of the car and the officer coming toward him with a gun in his hand. “I was in tears explaining to him that I live there, that my wife was ill and that I needed help. He kicked me in the stomach. I fell back and I don’t know how my head got cracked. One witness said he hit me with the butt of his gun.” Until Castillo made clear that he intended to press charges against the cops, none were filed against him. Then he was hit with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. After Castillo filed a CCRB complaint, police investigators showed up unannounced at his house one night. The first thing they said was “Have you thought about not considering the whole thing?”
A white victim, Richard Simmonson, a 38-year-old dentist employed by the NYU College of Dentistry, was jogging through Washington Square Park in the early evening of April 18, 1982. A slow-moving police car crossed his path and Simmonson collided with it, one hand slapping against a window. Simmonson, who thought little of it and kept running, was subsequently chased the wrong way down a one-way street by the officers and clubbed twice with a nightstick. The cop then tried to bring the nightstick up between his legs to hit him in the genitals, but Simmonson avoided the blows. The cops then just drove off. An initial CCRB investigation led to a quickly closed case, but NYU lawyers got District Attorney Robert Morgenthau’s office to force the CCRB to reopen the case. On its second go-around, the CCRB concluded, “The Board has found the complaint substantiated and has determined that the appropriate action in this case is to have the officer involved instructed by his Commanding Officer … regarding his responsibility to conduct himself properly in his contacts with the people we serve.”
The Voice has examined details of half a dozen similar cases — Lamont Heywood, who had an electric revolving brush thrust down his throat in the Lower East Side stationhouse and Nero Richardson, a 16-year-old disturbed youth whose mother called the cops who beat him into a hospital bed. Each case has elements that lend some plausibility to police denials, but the bruises and the wounds are real. The frequently clean criminal records, before and after the incidents, are real. The credibility of the victims — most of whom were employed and pressing legal suits — is genuine. And the paucity of governmental response to either individual charges or the persisitent patterns of abuse is disturbing.
Ed Koch has misrepresented the numbers of blacks and Latins he’s appointed to top positions. He’s lied about the percentage of the city budget that’s spent on services for the minority poor. He’s built a mosaic of deception around every important race question raised since he’s been mayor. Now he’s distorting the numbers of minorities who’ve been beaten and killed by the Police Department he’s charged with running. The media has let him get away with this hype in part because Koch’s are always white lies, issued with an air of efficiency and countered only by black accusers without a press office of their own.
Police violence did not end with the riots they once prompted. Indeed, in the Koch years, when indifference or hostility to black concerns has become city policy, the nightstick and police gun have been working overtime. The only two cases chronicled here that led to criminal charges against cops involved the Queens D.A. prosecuting a Brooklyn cop for the death of a white. Koch is not responsible for that; the interdependence of prosecutors and police paralyzes such cases everywhere. But serious departmental action is now as rare as any by a prosecutor.
Conyers’s subcommittee hearings will surely provoke remedial ideas. Assemblyman Del Toro and others are already pushing a bill to reform the CCRB, as is City Councilman Fred Samuels. But the father of one of the white victims of fatal police force, a man who has spent a lifetime working in law enforcement himself, said he’d rejected a lawyer’s suggestion that he participate in Conyers’s hearing. “I never miss Mass,” is his way of fighting back. “Every night and every day I pray that those cops will be punished.” He has filed a federal suit and is determinedly waiting to force the cops he believes lied about the death of his son to take the stand. That is the way individuals insist on pecking away at the institutionalized police violence that has so many ways to insulate itself.
Cops live with fear. They do it to protect us. But that does not license them also to instill fear. And to do it to many of us. The theory is that a mayor’s politics and pronouncements reach the troops on the line. That is difficult to square with 93 dead in the Lindsay year of 1971. But Lindsay did something about that, and the 1972 change in police regulations, plus a curtailment of “buy and bust” drug raids by police, dramatically and persistently lowered the death rate until Koch was elected.
When all the figures are adjusted for population, neighboring Newark, with a black mayor, a black police commissioner, an increasingly black police force (30 per cent), and an overwhelmingly black and poor citizenry, is doing far better than New York in restraining the use of police firearms. There were five times as many police killings in Newark in the first half of the 70s’ (25) than in the second half (five). Deputy Police Commissioner Conboy argues that Newark is simply not comparable because of “the management issue,” the sizes of the two forces. While it is true that this comparison can be stretched too far, it is hardly a useless one. Police death tolls in Atlanta and Detroit, for example, did Newark-like nosedives with the rise of black political power and the election of black mayors.
The race message of the Koch mayoralty has been as clear for cops to see as it has been for blacks and Latins. The message has also been translated into hard numbers at the CCRB and in disciplinary dispositions. The cop response in the streets won’t change unless the mayoral rhetoric or the institutional handling of the violence cases does. That is a life-or-death fact for an undetermined number of potential police victims, not an organizing tool on a political calendar.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 5, 2020