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Gescard Isnora: Kelly’s Harsh Cop Justice

April 16, 2012

The firing of Detective Gescard Isnora fits the harsh punishments Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has issued to cops involved in fatal, high-profile mistakes — especially racially charged ones.

If there is a constant to Kelly’s discipline, it is this: the more vulnerable to criticism he perceives the department or himself to be, the harsher the punishment.

Isnora fired the first shot that led to the 50-bullet police barrage that killed the unarmed Sean Bell and wounded his two friends in November 2006. The shooting sparked city-wide demonstrations and an Al Sharpton-led crime-scene walkthrough with Congressmen Charles Rangel and John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Besides firing him, Kelly stripped Isnora of his pension and health benefits, a punishment that Detective Endowment Association president Mike Palladino called “disgraceful, excessive and unprecedented.”

“Stripping a cop of his livelihood and retirement is reserved for cops who disgrace the shield and turn to criminality, not for cops who act in good faith within the law and whose actions were justified by a court of law,” Palladino said.

Isnora was working undercover at the Club Kalua nightclub in Queens, where Bell and a group of friends were partying the night before his wedding. Isnora testified before a Queens grand jury that he’d overheard an argument between Bell and a stranger, and that one of Bell’s friends said he was going to get a gun.

Isnora said he followed Bell and two of his friends to their car, ordered them to stop and showed his police shield. Instead, Bell lurched the car forward, striking Isnora and a police van. Bell then backed the car, missing Isnora, mounting the sidewalk and striking a building before driving back towards the van. As the car drew parallel to Isnora, he said he saw the man he’d overheard say he was getting his gun, raise his arm. Isnora yelled “Gun,” and fired.

A Queens State Supreme judge acquitted him and two other detectives of manslaughter and reckless endangerment charges in Bell’s death.

Kelly forced those other two detectives, as well as the supervising lieutenant who did not fire his gun, to retire but allowed them to keep their pensions.

Kelly justified his harsher actions against Isnora by citing the recommendation of the police department’s chief trial judge, Deputy Commissioner Martin Karopkin.

Karopkin found Isnora guilty of violating department guidelines by coming out of his undercover role and opening fire.

He disregarded the testimony of the department’s current undercover trainer — for whom the courtroom was cleared of reporters and spectators to protect his identity — who testified Isnora was justified in coming out of his undercover role.

Kelly’s spokesman, Paul Browne, said, “There was nothing in the record to warrant overturning the decision of the department’s trial judge.”

The Bell shooting is reminiscent of that of Amadou Diallo, the unarmed African immigrant who was killed in a hail of 41 police bullets in February 1999.

As in the Bell case, the four cops who shot and killed Diallo were all acquitted.

Unlike the Bell case, none faced a departmental trial.

Two of them, including Sean Carroll — who fired the initial shots at Diallo — remained in the department on modified assignment for the remainder of their careers.

All this occurred under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who liked to say that he gave cops the benefit of the doubt.

That doesn’t seem to be the case today.

As Detective Endowment Association attorney Phil Karasyk said, “When things don’t go exactly according to the book and it takes a courageous political stand to protect an officer, the police department throws him into the fire.”

Here is how Commissioner Kelly has meted out cop justice in the city’s most high-profile fatal police mistakes.

BulletAlberta Spruill, May, 2003. Spruill, a city worker, died of a heart attack after a dozen officers from the elite Emergency Service Unit knocked on her apartment door, then tossed a flash grenade inside. They had acted on incorrect information that a drug dealer was using the apartment as a stash house.

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Kelly publicly apologized and in a highly publicized move transferred Chief Thomas Purtell, the Special Operations Division commander, who supervises ESU.

Some viewed Purtell as a scapegoat since Kelly did not discipline Purtell’s subordinate, ESU commander Steven Bonano, who was more directly responsible for the mistakes than Purtell. Kelly never explained why Purtell and not Bonano was punished.

After six months in the lowly-regarded Housing Bureau, Purtell quietly resurfaced, with no public announcement, as the Bronx Borough Commander. Today he commands Patrol Borough Manhattan South, one of the department’s most prestigious assignments.

BulletOusmane Zongo, May 2003. Zongo, an unarmed African immigrant, was shot and killed in a botched police raid. Acknowledging “very troubling questions about the shooting,” Kelly consoled Zongo’s widow in his office, a meeting arranged by Sharpton. Afterward, Sharpton told reporters that Kelly had promised a full department investigation into Zongo’s death.

Three years later, police officer Bryan Conroy was convicted of criminally negligent homicide by Manhattan State Supreme Court Judge Robert Straus, who blamed the killing on the police department, citing tactical mistakes by Conroy’s sergeant, lieutenant and captain.

With the public outcry over, Kelly never revealed the findings of his investigation. The department claimed ignorance of the supervisory lapses cited by Judge Straus.

Department spokesman Browne blamed the impasse on the Manhattan District Attorney’s request that the NYPD wait until after Conroy’s trial to investigate. A spokeswoman for the district attorney said the DA had made no such a request.

BulletTimothy Stansbury, January 2004. Just hours after police officer Richard Neri fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Timothy Stansbury, on his apartment building rooftop, Kelly announced, “There appears to be no justification” to the shooting.

Law enforcement officials criticized Kelly, a non-practicing lawyer, for speaking out before the investigation was completed as possibly prejudicing Neri’s criminal trial. The former New York Civil Liberties head, Norman Siegel, said Kelly had violated Neri’s rights.

Meanwhile, the city’s newspapers praised Kelly for saving the city from a riot. Kelly “quickly told the public that the shooting appeared to be unjustified,” the New York Times editorialized, “with an openness that was absent when Rudolph Giuliani was mayor.”

A Brooklyn grand jury concluded the shooting was accidental and did not indict Neri. He remained in the department and was subsequently elected a union delegate.

Bullet Imam Morales, September 2008. ESU Lieutenant Michael Pigott ordered his officer to fire a Taser gun at Morales, a naked, emotionally disturbed man perched on a second-floor ledge of his Brooklyn building. Clutching an eight-foot long fluorescent light bulb, Morales had been menacing the cop trying to rescue him. After the officer fired, Morales fell headfirst to the ground and died, his tragic end filmed by a witness and played over and over on television.

Kelly charged that Pigott violated department guidelines, and ordered him stripped of his badge and gun and placed on desk duty in a unit away from his ESU colleagues. Pigott took full blame for Morales’s death but apparently grew despondent when superiors warned him he faced the possibility of prison.

Eight days after Morales’s death, Pigott secretly returned to his former ESU unit at 4 A.M., broke into a fellow officer’s locker, took his gun, and fired a bullet into his head. A suicide note said he was afraid of being arrested and didn’t want his family to see him in handcuffs or behind bars. Alongside his suicide note were pictures of his three children.

His wife Susan banned Kelly from her husband’s funeral, although Kelly appeared at the wake with his wife.

For reasons not explained, Kelly subsequently promoted the officer who had fired the Taser to detective.

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Copyright © 2012 Leonard Levitt