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The Police Exposed, Yet Again

February 16, 2009

Police Officer David London has become the latest member of the NYPD whose life has been forever changed by the realities of our high-speed digital age, where security cameras are everywhere and practically everyone carries a cell phone and can share his pictures with the world via the Internet.

In the summer of 2008, a security camera in a West Side housing project caught London allegedly beating a handcuffed man whose only “crime” was trying to visit his mother. The security tape showed Walter Harvin on the ground as London repeatedly hit him with a police baton.

Worse, the camera allegedly caught London, a 16-year veteran, pausing to take a 90-second call on his cell phone before resuming his beating.

After the video surfaced, prosecutors dropped charges against Harvin, an Iraq war veteran, of assault and resisting arrest,. Last week, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau indicted London for fraud and assault. If convicted, he faces seven years in prison.

Before we proclaim that transparency is breaking out everywhere, let us point out that cameras cannot compensate for the past 15 years of no official oversight for the NYPD, courtesy of former mayor Rudy Giuliani and his mirror image, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. [There is also somebody known as Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has abdicated his responsibilities in this regard.]

Nonetheless, police cannot as easily spin their version of events when pictures tell another story.

Recall that, in March 2003, police claimed they had arrested anti-Iraq war demonstrators for being unruly and refusing to disperse. Video footage, however, showed that the protestors couldn’t disperse because police barricades had pinned them down just as police mounted units began to advance.

Video cameras also showed that many people arrested at the Republican National Convention in 2004 had not broken any law, leading the Manhattan District Attorney to drop virtually every case.

A year later, a teenager’s MP3 player caught a veteran detective in an apparent lie that all but ended his career and might even send him to prison. Under oath, Bronx detective Christopher Perino repeatedly denied he had interrogated Erik Crespo, a 17-year-old shooting suspect, at the 44th precinct and urged him to sign a confession before his relatives arrived. Perino never imagined the kid was secretly recording their talk, including Perino’s warning, “And our conversation right now does not exist, you following me?”

Two years later when the recording was revealed in court, Perino was charged with 12 counts of perjury. Although a surveillance camera had captured Crespo shooting his victim in the face, Perino’s lie allowed him to get seven years off his sentence.

Then, there was the video shot by someone in always-crowded Times Square last

July, which contradicted rookie cop Patrick Pogan’s sworn complaint that a bicyclist had deliberately driven into him and resisted arrest. Instead, the video, seen by a quarter of a million people after being posted on YouTube, showed Pogan charging the cyclist without warning and violently flinging him off his bike to the ground.

“It looks … totally over the top and inappropriate,” said Bloomberg. “In terms of the officer, it certainly looked like — inappropriate is a nice way to phrase it.”

The Manhattan District Attorney dropped the charges against the cyclist and indicted Pogan for assault and filing a false document. He, too, may lose his job.

The day after this footage aired on YouTube, another video surfaced. This one

showed an officer three weeks earlier striking a man on the Lower East Side ten times with the modern version of a police nightstick— a collapsible metal baton. It looked like the cop had used too heavy a hand in subduing someone he thought was committing the minor crime of carrying liquor into the park. The NYPD ended up investigating the officer for excessive force.

While the camera can help keep the police honest, it also can have unexpected — and tragic — consequences. It may well have contributed to the pressures on Emergency Service Unit lieutenant Michael Pigott, who committed suicide last fall. The lieutenant could not forgive himself for making a mistake, albeit a big one, which was captured on videotape and played over and over on television and the Internet.

On Sept. 24, 2008, Pigott ordered an officer to Taser Iman Morales, a naked, emotionally disturbed man, perched on a second-floor ledge of his Brooklyn building, and brandishing an eight-foot long fluorescent light bulb at a cop who was trying to rescue him. After Pigott ordered the officer to Taser Morales, he fell head first to the pavement and died, his awful end filmed by witnesses.

The police department charged that Pigott’s Taser order violated guidelines, where in cases like these, officers must try to ensure safe landings. The department stripped Pigott of his badge and gun and placed him on desk duty in another unit, away from his colleagues and support system. The anguished lieutenant took full blame for Morales’ death, absolving the officer who fired the Taser of any responsibility. He also publicly apologized to the dead man’s family, a rare step for a cop under investigation.

Eight days later, Pigott committed suicide with a gunshot to his head inside ESU’s locker room. He had secretly returned to his former unit at 4 A.M., broken into a fellow officer’s locker, grabbed a gun inside and fired a bullet into his head.

A suicide note said he feared being arrested, and didn’t want his family seeing him in handcuffs or behind bars. He left his note alongside pictures of his three children.

The Kelly Whitewash? Ever since his first tour as police commissioner nearly two decades ago, Ray Kelly has been trying to whitewash his image. Not that it needs much cleansing. His second tour as police commissioner has proved eminently successful, from no terrorist attacks on the city to record-low crime.

But Kelly is sensitive. Two issues from his past, including his brief first term as commissioner in 1992 and 1993 have plagued him – at least in his own mind.

Now he has found someone to set the record straight, or at least set it in a direction Kelly prefers.

That person is Christopher Dickey, author of a recently published book about the NYPD’s counter-terrorism force. Besides proclaiming himself a terrorism expert, Dickey professes to know NYPD history, in particular of Kelly’s first term.

Rather, it appears that Dickey is merely embracing a newly-emerging Kelly-centric -- and revisionist -- tale about the city’s record homicide declines. [See the New York Times front page article of Nov. 29, 2007].

Rudy Giuliani and Kelly’s successor, William Bratton, had taken well-deserved credit for the impressive crime plunge that distinguished Giuliani’s eight years as mayor.

Dickey, however, says that this success actually began under Kelly and former Mayor David Dinkins.

Let’s get real here. While homicides did decline incrementally during Kelly’s 15 months as police commissioner, they fell 18 per cent in 1994 when Bratton achieved nothing less than a cultural revolution within the NYPD, transforming it from a reactive to a pro-active force that anticipated crime trends and deployed manpower accordingly.

A second sensitive subject for Kelly is his belated response to the Crown Heights riots of 1991, where a Jewish rabbinical student was attacked by a black mob and fatally stabbed. Dickey offers a new interpretation, suggesting that Kelly, then First Deputy Commissioner, single-handedly ended the three-day riot.

As Dickey writes: “Finally on Wednesday afternoon, Brown [Police Commissioner Lee Brown] asked Kelly to take charge. Among the forces he quickly brought to bear were 50, 000 police. By the end of the night, the riots were over.”

Well, for the sake of accuracy, this is what appears on page 351 of Gov. Mario Cuomo’s authoritative report on the Crown Heights Riots, written in 1993 by the state’s then Criminal Justice Coordinator Richard Girgenti.

Of Brown, Girgenti writes: “The Police Commissioner did not effectively fulfill his ultimate responsibility for managing the department’s activities to suppress rioting and preserve the public peace.”

Of Kelly: “Given the seriousness of the disturbance, it is unfortunate that the First Deputy did not assume a role in coordinating the development and implementation of a different strategy sooner.”

Crooked Cop of the Week [Con’t]
In the seemingly never-ending saga of NYPD corruption, 31-year-old Yaniris Balbuena was nabbed last week and charged with allegedly laundering $238,000 in drug money for her boyfriend.

Starting in 2002, Balbuena allegedly picked up bags of cash from his heroin operation at locations across the Bronx, including a store near the 44th precinct stationhouse, depositing the money into eight different bank accounts, limiting each to under $10,000 to avoid federal scrutiny.

But apparently someone was watching. As usual, it wasn’t the police department’s Internal Affairs Bureau. It was the feds.

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