One Police Plaza

Suit targets cop ‘brutality’

December 7, 1998

The arrest of a woman for holding an open container of beer in public has led to a judge's ruling that the arresting officer beat the woman inside his squad car, then lied about it.

In a case heavy with racial overtones, Queens Civil Court Judge Laura Blackburne last month found Alvina Toombs, a black woman from Hempstead, not guilty of attempted assault, harassment and consumption of alcohol on public streets. She also ruled that although Toombs bit Wayne Brooks, a white police officer, "causing him substantial pain," her action "was more than justified" because of Brooks "brutality."

The NYPD, which investigated the 1997 incident, has brought no charges against Brooks or the lieutenant with him, Rafael Demeglio.

"The only thing we know with certainty is that officer Brooks thumb was bitten," a top department official told Newsday.

Toombs, 20, has filed a $62-million civil-rights suit against the officers and the police department, alleging "systemic violations of civil and due process rights among minority persons."

Blackburne, a former counsel to the NAACP, served as Housing Authority chairman under Mayor David Dinkins. She resigned in 1992 after criticism that she spent $341,000 to decorate her executive offices, including purchasing a $3,000 pink couch.

In 1995, she was elected to a 10-year term in Queens Civil Court and has heard low-level criminal cases since then.

A key point in her decision last month involved black leather gloves Brooks donned when he arrested Toombs. Wrote Blackburne: Toombs "found herself with her hands cuffed behind her back in the rear seat of a police car with an armed police officer in the front seat and an armed police officer seated next to her who had put on black leather gloves in the middle of July and proceeded to slap her in the face several times . . . In a desperate effort to stop this attack she took the only action she could and bit Brooks thumb."

Contrary to the sinister image of a cop donning gloves to brutalize a prisoner, as allegedly occurred to Abner Louima in the 70th Precinct, NYPD officials maintain that wearing gloves is standard practice during arrests to protect against slashings, AIDS and hepatitis.

Law-enforcement sources add that records at the Queens hospital where Toombs was later treated refer to alcohol abuse. (In an interview with Newsday, Toombs denied drinking that night.)

In her decision, Blackburne wrote that the incident began at 3:30 a.m. on July 20, 1997, when Toombs and four other people traveled in a van from Long Island to Jamaica to party. After they parked the car in a vacant lot in Jamaica, Brooks and Demeglio of the 103rd Precinct stopped Toombs because she was holding a container of beer. Unable to provide identification, she was arrested, handcuffed and placed in the back seat of a patrol car.

According to police officials, Brooks denied slapping Toombs and maintained she began kicking and spitting at him inside the car. Brooks said he tried to stop her spitting by cupping her mouth with his left hand while pushing her head into the corner of the car, at which point she bit his thumb.

"I tried to pry her jaw open," Brooks was quoted as saying. "I hit her once with an open palm adjacent to her left eye. She bit down harder. I was afraid. My thumb was throbbing. Thank God I had the leather gloves on."

Outside the 103rd Precinct station house, wrote Blackburne, Toombs sustained a broken nose after she was "pulled from the car and forced face down onto the concrete."

Police sources say Brooks acknowledged throwing Toombs to the ground but said he did so only after she attempted to kick him in the groin.

Toombs attorney Fred Brewington said he filed his civil-rights suit in July before Toombs criminal case was resolved to obtain Brooks personnel file. In it were numerous civilian complaints, all unsubstantiated by the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Brewington showed two to Newsday alleging Brooks had used racial and gender slurs. One of the complainants had filed more than 30 similar complaints against other cops.

Brewington said he was able to enter Brooks alleged remarks into the trial record because Blackburne allowed him to ask Brooks the question: "Were you ever accused of using racial epithets?"

"She knew what I was trying to do," he said of Blackburne.

Assistant Corporation Counsel Gail Donoghue, representing Brooks and Demeglio, said, "I have been litigating civil-rights cases for 10 years. I have never before seen unsubstantiated complaints about people - police officers or others - permitted into the record, because they are nothing more than naked accusations."

©1998 Newsday, Inc.Reprinted with permission.