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Settlement of suits unsettling to some

February 6, 2004

Has the Latino Officers Association used the federal courts to make the city its cash cow in a $26.8-million discrimination settlement against the Police Department?

Or - as the city agreed - did black and Hispanic officers under the Giuliani administration and former Police Commissioner Howard Safir receive more complaints per capita and harsher penalties than their white counterparts?

Depends on whom you talk to.

First, the Latino group has been suing in federal court for years. In 1999 the group won a landmark decision, allowing its members to march in uniform in the Hispanic Day Parade. In 2001 it won another, allowing it to hold news conferences on nonconfidential police matters without prior approval from the department. At the same time, association members began suing in federal court for discrimination.

In 1998, Officer Gilberto Ildefonso and Sgt. Hector Collazo - fired by Safir's predecessor Bill Bratton for beating the precinct dog, then stuffing him into their squad car trunk and passing him off as a stray to the ASPCA - sued the department. They alleged their firing was "motivated by racial animus and bias against Hispanics."

They lost at trial, after refusing the city's offer of reinstatement, a police source said.

Other Latino Officers Association members filed similar suits, then settled with the city. The group's founder, Anthony Miranda, settled for $96,000. Hiram Monserrate, its second vice president, settled for $107,973. Sgt. Gil Alvarez sued and settled twice: first for $62,500, then for $400,000.

William Acosta joined the department in 1990, resigned in 1991, was reinstated in 1993, resigned again in 1996, then appeared at the group's news conferences making unsubstantiated claims of corruption. He sued in federal court and settled for $300,000.

"We are setting the record straight. It is vindication," Monserrate, now a Queens councilman, said of the $26.8-million settlement, which allows the department's 11,000 black and Hispanic officers to sue for past discrimination.

Of Acosta's earlier settlement, Monserrate said, "The reality is he had some evidence the department clearly understood would not have been in the best interests to litigate against."

White officers contacted by Newsday - all of whom asked for anonymity - see the settlements differently.

A top police official called Acosta's settlement "unthinkable and unspeakable," adding that two district attorneys and the U.S. attorney had found nothing to justify his corruption allegations.

A police union lawyer said that black and Hispanic officers did have more complaints per capita filed against them than white cops did.

But, he added, "The issue is not necessarily discrimination but that as new kids on the block with no 'rabbis' or supporters in key positions, black and Hispanic officers often are assigned the most difficult commands, where they accumulate the most complaints."

An officer noted that white cops can be treated as badly as black and Hispanic cops.

He cited the recent case of Deputy Insp. Benjamin Petrofsky, demoted to captain and placed on dismissal probation for expediting the pistol permits for the rock group Aerosmith without a proper background check under former Commissioner Bernard Kerik.

"He didn't do anything different than anyone did at the time," the officer said. "And no one stepped up to help him, including his boss." The officer was referring to George Grasso, then-deputy commissioner of legal matters and now first deputy commissioner, who did not return a call.

But minority officers also cited the case of Joseph A. Flynn, a white civilian attorney who heads the Disciplinary Assessment Unit in the first deputy's office who was among the top department officials named in the Latino Officers suit.

Recently, Flynn was involved in what police described as a "verbal domestic incident," prompting his girlfriend to call police. No disciplinary action has been taken against him.

Saving Some Dough. In moving his top aide Paul Browne to head the department's public information office, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly may be saving the city a $150,000 salary. Browne had served as deputy commissioner of administration, and Kelly indicated at a news conference that he may not fill the position.

Begun in 1996 under Safir, it has been a position for the police commissioner's crony. Safir's deputy commissioner of administration was Richard Sheirer, also known as Bumper, whom Safir brought from the Fire Department, where Sheirer had been a dispatcher.

When Kerik succeeded Safir, he placed his detective buddy Tibor Kerekes there. It was never discovered what either Kerekes or Sheirer did. Say what you will about Browne, he works.

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© 2004 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.