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It’s the DA’s call in church brawl

June 23, 1996

Queens District Attorney Richard Brown is to announce tomorrow whether he will bring criminal charges against three cops the New York Police Department says instigated a melee at a Queens church last summer.

The incident occurred at the Universal Calvary Church in South Jamaica, headed by the flamboyant Pastor Emanuel Osei-Acheampong.

Earlier this week, the church filed a $900 million lawsuit against the city and the department, in federal court, charging the police with brutality in the incident. At a news conference, parishioners compared the actions of the Police Department to the burning of black churches across the south, distributing literature that read, "Police, KKK and White Supremist Against God. From Mississippi to New York."

Many in the Police Department believe that the three cops in the Aug. 20 melee were scapegoated and that the church was encouraged to file its lawsuit because of the manner in which the normally pro-police Brown has handled the case.

As a lawyer familiar with the case put it: "The reason this is taking the route it is taking is that there are votes in South Jamaica."

The incident began with a 911 call from a church member about a man with a gun. The gunman, Clifford Warsop, a retired detective, had allegedly interrupted a church service to confront his estranged wife. Church members then beat him and took his gun, police said.

Officers from the 103rd Precinct say they were met by bricks and bottles hurled by parishioners after attempting to arrest one of them. About 60 officers and 10 supervisors were mobilized, and seven congregants were arrested. Six officers and 28 parishioners were injured.

While attempting to make an arrest, Det. Joann O'Toole was beaten and suffered internal injuries that caused her to miss weeks of work. But a subsequent report by Deputy Insp. Patrick Devlin - printed in Newsday last September - accused O'Toole and two other officers of using "poor judgment in attempting to effect an arrest . . ."

Omitted from Devlin's report was any mention of O'Toole's injuries or that, as police sources say, her gun was nearly taken from her.

A police chief who had been at the scene said last week, "I can tell you she did nothing wrong."

Police sources say, however, that the department retaliated against O'Toole and one of the other two cops. Despite her active arrest record, she was transferred from the 103rd Precinct squad - a high-crime precinct - to the 102nd, which has less activity and fewer opportunities for promotion, sources say.

Printable versionPolice Chief Larry Loesch, who heads Queens detectives and ordered O'Toole's transfer, denied that retaliation was involved. "She was not transferred because of that incident," he said. "It has nothing to do with hurting her."

The second officer, Chuck Barbieri, was required to give up his guns and given a desk job after he was accused of using excessive force while handcuffing a man who had assaulted another cop. However, Officer Frank Crochetti, who with Barbieri arrested the man and, like Barbieri, had a complaint against him, was allowed to keep his guns.

Barbieri's lawyer, Marvyn Kornberg said, "My office has gotten statements from at least 15 witnesses who are prepared to testify he did nothing improper."

Robert Burke, the former Queens South borough commander, and his successor, Deputy Chief Jules Martin, met three times with Osei-Acheampong to try to ease tensions. "There was no movement," a police official said of the meetings.

Osei-Acheampong, said the official, was especially insulting to Martin, one of the department's highest-ranking black officers, referring to him as the department's "boy." Acheampong did not return calls seeking comment.

Meanwhile, Brown, the district attorney, dismissed all charges against the seven church members arrested in last summer's incident. O'Toole was never called to testify before the grand jury about them, nor was she notified when the charges against her two alleged assailants were dropped, as police say is customary in such circumstances.

The only person indicted was the alleged gunman, Warsop, for disrupting a religious service and for menacing.

Brown's actions were criticized by Kornberg, who said, "The DA's office should be the first to stand up and say these police officers did nothing wrong. By waiting nearly a year, he encouraged members of the congregation to bring this frivolous lawsuit. Now, if they indict the cops, this makes the DA's office look as if they did it because of fear imposed by church members as a result of their lawsuit."

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© 1996 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.