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So, Who's Watching This Investigation?

May 16, 1994

Guess who is conducting the interviews with witnesses in the case of Ernest Sayon, who died in police custody on Staten Island?

The answer is Staten Island detectives and the New York Police Department's Internal Affairs Bureau, which is more than surprising, considering that district attorneys are reluctant to use the police to investigate the deaths of people who die in police custody.

As Queens Executive Assistant DA Jack Ryan put it: "We often work with IAB, but there are times when it is best for everyone when we use [our own] people who don't answer to or who are not accountable to the Police Department."

The Queens DA's office knows whereof Ryan speaks. In 1991, then-District Attorney John Santucci investigated the case of Federico Pereira, a suspected car thief who died in police custody from a "camel clutch," or choke hold, after he resisted arrest. Santucci indicted the five arresting officers on murder charges, although cops - and the district attorney's own prosecutors - felt the charges were unwarranted.

In retaliation, prosecutors said at the time that Queens and Internal Affairs detectives obstructed the DA's investigation. They allegedly filed misleading interview reports, interviewed witnesses the district attorney instructed them not to, and leaked at least one confidential memo to one of the cops' attorneys. Charges against four officers were dismissed. The fifth was acquitted.

But the Staten Island district attorney's office must use police detectives to interview its witnesses. Chief Assistant District Attorney David Lehr said his office has no civilian investigators of its own. "We have asked for many years to establish a civilian investigation squad from the mayor," he said.

Lehr acknowledges his office has never prosecuted a case involving a person dying in police custody, although he did prosecute a cop for shooting to death two cab drivers point-blank. (He was acquitted.) "So far," Lehr says of the Sayon probe, "there have been no problems."

Second thoughts? One of Commissioner William Bratton's top aides said at a recent meeting of the department's executive staff that it was all right "to slap around" drug dealers. He may be having second thoughts in light of the death of Sayon, who police say is a petty drug dealer, during a drug sweep at the Park Hill Houses.

The aide made his remarks at a March retreat in the Bronx attended by deputy commissioners and three-star chiefs. Even veteran police officials, doubtlessly aware the practice is not unheard of, were open-mouthed that a high-level official would say it out loud.

Two takes on Bill. Bratton recovered from his snub of President Bill Clinton two months ago in grand style. Not only was he on hand at the South Street Seaport heliport when the president arrived last week, Printable versionhe then suggested Clinton visit the SoHo firehouse that was home to Capt. John Drennan. Drennan died recently after a 40-day battle with injuries he suffered in a fire. Bratton's move was viewed as classy politicking in that it might help ease the traditional enmity between cops and firefighters - two groups that often battle for supremacy at emergency sites.

It apparently didn't hurt Bratton with his boss, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who mentioned the presidential visit at the eulogy he gave for Drennan at St. Patrick's Cathedral. It was packed with firefighters.

On the other hand. Bratton, who has never been shy when talking about himself to the media, was even more egotistical than usual at his briefing last week with in-house reporters at One Police Plaza. For nearly an hour he talked about his successes, describing how he instituted in-service training both in Boston and with the Transit Police when "they said it couldn't be done." He delivered such Brattonisms as "I can get a silver lining out of every cloud. Believe me." And he used his favorite phrases, "flattening the hierarchy" and "re-engineering" about a half-dozen times. Could his solipsistic performance have been due to the fact that he had invited New Yorker magazine writer John Lardner to the news conference? Lardner is writing a profile of him.

The unanswered question. The deputy commissioner for public information refuses to discuss the hottest topic around Police Plaza - the case of the woman who said she was raped in Prospect Park, but which Daily News columnist Mike McAlary says is a hoax, based on information from top police officials. "I'm not going to discuss it. It's an ongoing case," said John Miller. "There's no upside for the department here." Miller's reluctance might be due to rumors swirling at headquarters and even hinted at in at least one newspaper story that he or one of his buddies is the source of McAlary's information. (Miller denies he did it.)

Bratton, meanwhile, has said he is not interested in pursuing which of his top brass is the leak. In his public apology to the woman, he also refused to criticize McAlary. Some say he is afraid to antagonize him. Perhaps the most important unanswered queston is whether McAlary will still be welcome at Bratton's table at Elaine's that the commissioner shares with Miller, Deputy Commissioner Jack Maple and other Daily News cronies.

William Murphy and William K. Rashbaum contributed to this story.
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Email Leonard Levitt at llevitt@nypdconfidential.com

© 1994 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.