Aaron Wong: Can the NYPD Discipline Itself?
January 15, 2007
If anyone believes the New York City police department can discipline its officers without an outside watchful eye, he should check out the case of Aaron Wong, a 21-year-old black man from Staten Island whose jaw was broken by a retired, white cop.
The department failed to discipline the three arresting officers despite a mountain of evidence suggesting they acted improperly by: (l) arresting Wong and refusing to bring him immediately to the hospital for his broken jaw; (2) failing to interview at least two civilian witnesses at the scene; (3) lying to their superiors, which in the NYPD warrants automatic dismissal.
Instead even though the NYPD’s own Internal Affairs Bureau recommended discipline, the officers were given “letters of instruction,” a designation derided by a person familiar with the department’s disciplinary process as “a fictional wrist slap.”
Two of the officers were then promoted.
Here’s how it all went down.
Around 4:30 P.M. on May 16, 2003, the day after his 21st birthday, Wong and his 19-year-old girlfriend, Brooke Lopez, parked their car in a cul-de-sac outside a small apartment complex off Jewett and Burnside Avenues in the Port Richmond section of Staten Island.
Lopez said the complex’s owner, a retired, 16-year NYPD veteran, James Mangone, ordered them to leave.
The five-foot-eight-inch Wong, who weighed 143 pounds, and the six-foot-tall Mangone, who weighed 200 pounds, began arguing.
According to Lopez, Mangone smashed Wong’s driver’s side car mirror, and Wong then took a piece of the glass and hit Mangone, cutting him above his eye.
Mangone grabbed a circular saw, threw it through Wong’s windshield, and chased him.
Lopez said Mangone then called two people on his cell phone. She dialed 911 on hers, screaming, “My boyfriend who is black, is being attacked by a white man.”
Robert Essex, a Port Authority cop who lived next door, ran outside with his gun drawn and ordered Wong to halt and kneel down. Mangone then struck him from behind, knocking him out and breaking his jaw.
Two cops from 120th precinct then arrived — Young Yoo and Stephen Viani — accompanied by a sergeant, Anthony Alfano.
Meanwhile, Leonard Ciurcina, an off-duty NYPD detective who worked for Mangone, appeared. According to Lopez, Yoo allowed Ciurcina to handcuff Wong, still lying on the ground while Mangone stood on his neck.
Yoo arrested Wong, charging him with assault, harassment, and criminal possession of a weapon — the latter an apparent reference to a small closed knife that had fallen from his pocket, which he used in his work as a veterinary technician.
Mangone was not charged.
In his arrest report, Yoo wrote that Wong caused “physical injury to another person …by means of a dangerous instrument.”
No mention was made of Essex, Ciurcina, or Lopez. Both Essex and Lopez maintained they were never questioned.
Instead of taking Wong to the hospital, as is required for serious injuries, the police kept him in a stationhouse cell. Only hours later, after Wong complained of pain, did police take him to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where doctors diagnosed a “linear fracture in the body of the right mandicle [sic] ” — a broken jaw.
Instead of admitting him, as is procedure, police returned him to the stationhouse, where he remained until the next day when he was arraigned. After a judge released him, he returned to the hospital where, on May 22, he was operated on.
On June 28, 2004 all charges against him were dismissed.
On Oct. 1, 2004, this reporter, then working for Newsday, wrote about the incident.
Only then did the NYPD begin an investigation. Ditto the FBI and Staten Island District Attorney’s office.
Lt. Gonzalo Del Rosario, the Integrity Control Officer of the 120 precinct on Staten Island, headed the NYPD’s probe. A Feb. 11, 2005 memo from Captain Ed Leshack, head of the borough’s investigation unit, reads:
“Lt. Del Rosario questioned the MOS [members of service] involved in the incident. [They] were asked about a news account that claimed there were two males with Mr. Mangone, one who had a gun. The responding MOS stated they did not attempt to identify anyone beyond those involved in the incident.
“They also stated that no one said anything about a gun. P.O. Yoo stated he handcuffed Mr.Wong. [Lopez] did not mention anyone with a gun or seeing Mr. Wong handcuffed in her interview with Lt. Del Rosario.”
A subsequent memo from Asst. S.I. Chief William Calhoun to Chief of Department Joseph Esposito reads: “A review of the initial investigation … failed to reveal any misconduct on the part of the police.”
Wong, Calhoun wrote, was not falsely arrested. Mangone was “exonerated” of striking Wong because of insufficient evidence. The allegation that Wong had been incarcerated with a broken jaw, Calhoun wrote, was “unsubstantiated.”
That same month, the FBI requested the arrest reports of the incident. Two months later, on April 21, 2005 the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau reopened the case.
The investigation was led by Lt. Philip Romanzi, head of Group 33. His investigation turned up Essex, the Port Authority officer, and Ciurcina, the off-duty detective working for Mangone.
According to a Group 33 memo of August 11, 2005, when Essex identified himself to Sgt Alfano, Alfano “ignored him and waved him away.”
The memo added that an Emergency Medical Technician responding to the scene and identified only as Lt. Flores wanted to take Wong immediately to the hospital but that Alfano overruled him and refused to allow it.
Questioned by IAB, Yoo, Viani and Alfano denied off-duty cops were at the scene. Yoo denied Wong had been held down and denied having given his handcuffs to anyone. He said he saw no injuries to Wong, said he asked Wong several times if he needed medical assistance and was told ‘no’ each time.
Viani also said he did not see anyone holding Wong down. Nor did he see any injuries to Wong.
On June 10, 2005, IAB recommended charges be filed against Yoo, Viani and Alfano for “impeding an investigation” and not taking Wong immediately to the hospital.
An undated IAB memo reads: “Yoo, Viani and Sgt Alfano were given ample opportunity to come forward with the true description of events… but their description … greatly differed from the numerous witness’ statements, including the statements of Det. Ciurcina.”
IAB also recommended charges be filed against Ciurcina for failing to identify himself as a police officer and not notifying the department that he had been involved in the incident.
Charges were also recommended against Alfano for conducting an “improper and incomplete investigation.”
”Sgt Alfano was approached by Port Authority police officer Robert Essex, who identified himself to the sergeant twice,” the undated memo reads. “On both occasions the sergeant refused to acknowledge P.O. Essex or acknowledge him in regard to the incident. Accordingly this investigator recommends that the allegation be closed with the disposition of ‘substantiated’”
IAB also recommended that Yoo and Viani be charged with making false statements.
“The statements of numerous witnesses and off-duty officer Ciurcina contradict the statements of Yoo and Viani,” the memo read. “Yoo stated he cuffed Wong when according to Brooke Lopez and Det Ciurcina that was not the case.”
Despite IAB’s recommendations, none of the officers was penalized. The Department Advocate’s office, the NYPD’s prosecutorial arm, concluded that the 18-month statute of limitations from the time of the incident had elapsed.
Instead, the officers received what are known as “letters of instructions,” a harmless designation, created by former police commissioner Howard Safir in lieu of disciplining his top commanders after a series of wilding incidents in Central Park, following a Puerto Rican Day parade.
Still, there remained the charge of Yoo’s and Viani’s false statements, which warrant automatic dismissal.
On April 24, 2006, Sgt. Brian Reich of IAB’s Group 33 wrote: “The Advocate’s office felt there was enough evidence [to] prove the allegation however, there would not be enough evidence to warrant termination of the two. … With every false statement case, the Advocate’s office would have to offer termination and this one did not rise to the level of termination.”
According to Reich’s memo, the IAB investigating officer suggested reducing the charges of lying to “impeding the investigation” -- a fall-back position, allowing the offices to remain on the job. The Advocate’s office, however, “declined,” Reich wrote.
“The investigating officer explained that the two [Yoo and Viani] created a misleading story,” Reich’s memo continued. “The investigating officer was told again that the Advocate’s office would not be pursing charges and specifications.”
Instead, the department ruled that the charges of “false statements” and “impeding an investigation” were “unsubstantiated.”
The Wong case was closed in its entirety with the overall disposition of “partially substantiated.”
Yoo and Viani were subsequently promoted to sergeant.
The case is now the subject of a civil suit.
A final note: On Dec 19, 2005, IAB Lt. Joseph Lassen met with the Staten Island Assistant District Attorney for official corruption Rick Pasacreta regarding possible criminal charges in the Wong case. “Pasacreta stated that the DA’s office is declining criminal prosecution due to the fact that there is no probable cause,” Lassen’s memo reads.
D.A. spokesman Bill Smith explained last week, “The allegations of police misconduct were unfounded. We consider the case closed.”
On Feb 28, 2006, the FBI wrote to IAB, saying they had initiated a federal “Civil Rights Color of Law” investigation regarding Wong’s arrest and had sought the arrest reports of the incident. The case agent, Cynthia Deitle, had forwarded the file to Assistant U.S. Attorney Pamela Chen, Chief of the Civil Rights section of the Eastern District.
According to the FBI’s letter, when Deitle learned IAB had initiated a separate investigation, it suspended its own investigation. FBI spokesman Jim Margolin declined comment on the investigation’s status, an indication that the case was closed.
NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Paul Browne declined comment on Wong’s case. Mangone could not be reached for comment.
Andrew Quinn, the attorney for the Sergeants Benevolent Association, said, “My understanding is that the matter was investigated by Internal Affairs Division and that no charges were brought. Usually that is an indication that the guys did nothing wrong.”
Copyright © 2007 Leonard Levitt