NYPD Confidential - An Inside Look at the New York Police Department
Home Page
All Columns
Contact Leonard Levitt
Search this site
Printable versionSend to a friendEmail Leonard Levitt

The Phantom Riot

May 5, 2014

What exactly happened at 10:30 last Monday night at 125th Street and Lexington?

Was it “a near riot” in Harlem as news website DNAinfo.com called it, involving 100 officers from three precincts, housing and transit divisions and helicopters brought in to quell an angry mob that threw bottles at the cops, three of whom required hospital treatment?

Or was it, as department spokesman Steve Davis put it, merely “a street dispute that resulted in four arrests and lasted all of about 20 minutes?”

The incident, said both DNA and Davis, who went to the scene, stemmed from a dispute between two women at the nearby subway station.

“When the cops went to arrest/break it up, some of the crowd in the street began to get disorderly,” Davis wrote in an email to NYPD Confidential. “There is a bottle/can redemption center on the corner and someone started throwing bottles. The cops thought the bottles were coming from the buildings so they called for more assistance. It wasn’t really a ‘riot.’ But with cellphone cameras and Twitter, it was really blown way out of proportion.”

The department’s Public Information Office — Davis is its deputy commissioner — didn’t regard the incident important enough to alert the city’s media.

Instead, it remained for DNA to report the incident and to post a seven-minute video that was both disturbing and revealing as a cautionary tale.

According to the DNA story by Jeff Mays, a crowd turned hostile over the arrest of Adela Leon, 38, of Brooklyn, who allegedly stabbed a 34-year-old homeless woman in the left arm and upper back with an unidentified object at the 125th Street subway station.

Police arrested Leon, who was charged with felony assault, criminal possession of a weapon and resisting arrest. The unnamed homeless woman was treated at Harlem Hospital and released.

Quoting the police, the DNA story said some in the crowd became angry after Leon’s arrest, perceiving the homeless woman to have been the aggressor, and began inciting others.

The DNA story quoted Capt. Thomas C. Harnisch, commander of the 25th Precinct, saying officers “were pelted with glass bottles inside the subway and on the street.”

The officers then called for assistance. More than 100 of them from the 23rd, 25th and 32nd precincts as well as housing and transit divisions responded along with the helicopters, DNA reported.

A source familiar with the incident told NYPD Confidential: “The job went on the air as a 10-85, which is of less import than a 10-13, which means a cop is in imminent danger.” The source added that a helicopter, which is always on routine traffic advisory patrol, is automatically dispatched to such incidents. The source also called the number of 100 cops sent to the scene “far too high because we don’t have the manpower.”

The DNA story added that at a 25th Precinct community meeting two days later, a man complained that some officers were unprofessional by angrily “interacting with the crowd as opposed to trying to calm the situation.”

According to the story, Harnisch apologized, saying, “That's definitely not the way officers are trained. In an emotionally charged situation like that it’s very important for the officers to have the ability to keep their emotions in check.”

That leaves the video to flesh out what happened. But the video is too chaotic to present a clear picture. The scene is filled with the sounds of police sirens. There are parked police vehicles, including at least one emergency service unit truck. A crowd of undetermined size is pushing up against a group of largely white police officers. A cop is chasing a man running away. Another man is in handcuffs. Then there is the sound of a bottle breaking. Some in the crowd are taunting and cursing the cops, one of whom shouts, “Clear the block.”

People are taking pictures with cellphones. Someone says: “It started with a girl.” Someone else says: “It’s Harlem vs the NYPD.” There is frequent use of the word “nigger” — not by cops but by people in the crowd to each other, albeit in an agreeable way. One man says, “They just got that nigger with the mace.” Another, seeming to lead another man away from the crowd, says, “Come on, my nigger, [you’re] not going to jail.”

So was this a riot or a street dust-up? Regardless, it raises the question, as DNA’s veteran police reporter Murray Weiss put it, “Whatever happened to the real media?”

The video also seems to indicate that despite Harnisch’s apology and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton’s talk of “collaborative policing,” there is plenty of hostility out there directed at police.

“There has been a problem with police and minority communities for as long as anyone can remember,” explained a retired top NYPD official. “This happens in neighborhoods throughout the city. And it is not necessarily racial. When police are called in, people turn on the cops. Sometimes it is just youths being youths.”

So why was a patrol car parked 24/7 for at least four days outside the Staten Island home of Deputy Chief Mike Marino and Sgt. Amanda Palmenta, while they were in Florida getting married? And who in the Staten Island command authorized it? Did Marino order a patrol car to be stationed there while the couple was away, or was it, as retired chief of department Joe Esposito suggested, a misinterpreted order by someone else?

What action is the Internal Affairs Bureau taking to determine why department personnel and taxpayer money was spent babysitting Marino’s home?

Has anyone questioned Marino’s boss, Staten Island Borough Commander Ed Delatorre?

So far, no one is saying. What message does that silence send?

« Back to top
Copyright © 2014 Leonard Levitt