Culture of Concealment Protects Police Officers
By GINIA BELLAFANTE APRIL 8, 2016
Glen Grays, a 27-year-old mail carrier, and his mother, Sonya Sapp, at a news conference in Brooklyn in March. CreditDave Sanders for The New York Times
When Glen Grays was inexplicably handcuffed and hauled off by the police in Brooklyn on March 17 while delivering the mail on his route in Crown Heights, the world soon learned a bit about him. At a news conference given by Eric L. Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, at which a video of the encounter was made public, Mr. Grays’s mother explained that she had six sons and worried about all of them. In the days ahead, Mr. Grays spoke to reporters, telling them that he was, in fact, engaged to a New York City police officer, that he had worked hard all of his life, that he had never been arrested and that despite the indignities he had suffered at the hands of the four plainclothes police officers — who were supposed to be in uniform — he did not wish for them to be fired.
Days after the video gained national attention, the police commissioner, William J. Bratton, said he had strong concerns about the actions taken by the officers. By then the Police Department had already begun an investigation by its Internal Affairs Bureau and the officers had beenremoved from their assignment with the Conditions Unit, a neighborhood-based troubleshooting division, and put back on patrol. Later, the supervising officer was stripped of his gun and badge and put on desk duty.
Despite all that, the department did not reveal the names of the men involved or apprise the public of any history of complaints leveled against them. The officers’ names became known because of an accident report Mr. Grays obtained at the 71st Precinct station house, which identified them. After Mr. Grays was taken away by the police officers in an unmarked car, that vehicle had hit another in front of it.
Secrecy is, in essence, protocol. It is required by a controversial lawpassed 40 years ago, Section 50-a of the state’s civil rights code, which protects officers’ personnel records from public view, enshrining the suppression of information around police misconduct as governance.
Had Mr. Grays, in his 27 years, accumulated a litany of petty offenses and low-level drug possession charges, we would almost surely know about them. One comparatively less glaring dimension of the hypocrisy that surrounds cases in which ordinary people are harmed or killed by those entrusted to protect them is the vast difference in the way that law enforcement handles the biographies of those people. A system that safeguards the names of police officers above all else often too easily accommodates the tainting of victims. The most notorious example occurred 16 years ago, when Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani authorized the release of Patrick Dorismond’s arrest record after Mr. Dorismond had become the third unarmed black man shot and killed by New York City police officers in approximately a year. When asked to respond to criticism that he had been vilifying the dead man, the mayor only delivered his rebuke more emphatically, claiming that Mr. Dorismond was not “an altar boy.”
Four years ago, a day after 18-year-old Ramarley Graham, unarmed, was shot and killed by a police officer in the Bronx, an article in The Wall Street Journal quoted an anonymous law-enforcement source offering that Mr. Graham had eight prior arrests. This information was made known before the Police Department identified the officer who shot him, Richard Haste. Documents filed in conjunction with a wrongful-death suit against the city, which resulted in a $3.9 million award to Mr. Graham’s family, showed that most of the arrests had been dismissed, or sealed because of Graham’s age, and that access to his history could have been obtained only through “the illegal or improper retention of sealed information.”
We know that Eric Garner had a criminal record, but we know far less about Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who applied the fatal chokehold while attempting to arrest Mr. Garner for the sale of loose cigarettes on Staten Island two years ago. Hoping to learn more, the Legal Aid Society sued the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, the independent agency that handles complaints against police officers, for a summary of substantiated claims and disciplinary actions against Mr. Pantaleo. A State Supreme court justice ruled in Legal Aid’s favor; the city appealed the decision in August.
All the while, both Officers Pantaleo and Haste have remained on the force, in administrative roles, collecting salaries.
In an effort to combat a culture of concealment, the Legal Aid Society last year began building a database to collect whatever information it could find about potential areas of misbehavior by police officers. Through the state’s Freedom of Information Law, for instance, the organization gathers city payroll data to examine overtime patterns. A lot of overtime can indicate either a penchant for hard work, or a propensity for making unnecessary arrests, with the notion that the attendant paperwork will extend the clock.
The three police officers and one lieutenant involved in the Grays case were all found to have amassed considerable overtime last year, according to Cynthia Conti-Cook, a staff lawyer for the Legal Aid Society. The lieutenant, Luis D. Machado, made more than $41,000 in supplemental income, meaning that he put in more overtime hours than 89 percent of the lieutenants working in Brooklyn. The officers, David G. Savella, Miguel I. Rodriguez and Lazo Lluka, each worked more overtime than at least 96 percent of the officers in Brooklyn. Responding to a request for comment, Lt. John Grimpel, a department spokesman, said the officers’ overtime levels last year were “well within the normal range for their assignments.”
When Section 50-a was under review in 1976, it had, not surprisingly, a great deal of support from prosecutors and police unions. In a letter opposing passage of the law, though, one prosecutor, Joseph P. Hoey, took an enlightened view. “Too often today the opinion is expressed that police work is just another job,” Mr. Hoey, who had been the United States attorney in Brooklyn, said. Making personnel records confidential would only bolster that belief, he argued.
“All the participants in the criminal justice system should constantly be reminded that their employment in this system is a privilege,” Mr. Hoey wrote, “and that the greatest part of this privilege is being charged with the trust of maintaining the public’s right to justice.”