Brutality charges spark concern for police behavior in New York
A Queens grand jury is expected to begin hearing evidence today on allegations that police officers here tortured suspects with electric-shock devices, according to the Queens district attorney's office. And as the case goes to the grand jury, politicians, police, and the public are considering the number of allegations of police wrongdoing that have surfaced here recently.
In a dressing-down to more than 300 top police commanders over the weekend, Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward said he felt ``personal shame and disgrace'' over the incident in Queens.
Mayor Edward I. Koch has asked federal officials to look into the allegations of torture in a Queens precinct to determine if federal civil rights laws were violated.
Mayor Koch's two declared challengers in September's Democratic primary, City Council president Carol Bellamy and state Assemblyman Herman D. Farrell, have proposed separate plans to investigate the charges.
``It can't be an isolated case,'' says one Manhattan social worker.
A cab driver agrees. ``I'm afraid we just haven't heard about these things until now,'' he says. ``Now more will come out.''
The case surfaced last week when a high school senior, arrested for allegedly selling marijuana, reported that two police officers had assaulted him in the precinct station after his arrest. After the initial report, three more men came forward with similar allegations. Four police officers have been suspended and could be indicted as early as today.
Since then, there have been sweeping changes in personnel in the Queens precinct. Commissioner Ward has said he will institute stricter policies for accountability of supervisory officers.
The New York City Police Department has faced other allegations of misconduct in the past year. A elderly man was killed and another was injured when hit by a police car on Park Avenue earlier this year. The car continued on, and the officers in the car failed to report the accident. One officer has been indicted, and two have been suspended as a result of the case.
In addition, several shootings and beatings by police officers have resulted in indictments.
Investigation into the alleged use of ``stun guns'' in Queens was at first stymied by police-officer refusal to cooperate with the district attorney's office. But District Attorney John J. Santucci now says ``some cracks'' in the ``blue wall of silence'' has turned up some information.
When Ward talked to his police commanders on Saturday, he said he would hold them each responsible for brutality or misconduct in their command.
Observers say Ward is giving the right signals. James Jacobs of New York University Law School says it's important for Ward to let the department know that no abuse will be tolerated, that complaints will be followed up, and that a system of determining the merit of complaints will be strong and may result in administrative or legal action.
Professor Jacobs and others say the New York Police Department has not been considered lax or negligent, particularly after crackdowns on corruption and misconduct during the early '70s.
But others note there have been charges of racism by minority leaders in New York. A congressional subcommittee on criminal justice held hearings on the issue, and last year issued a report saying racism was a factor of civilian complaints. All four men who say they were abused in Queens are black.
The furor over the allegations has also taken on political importance as Mayor Koch maintains that the incidents are individual in nature, ``not systemic.'' He favors going through the legal system to resolve the charges. On the other hand, Miss Bellamy has called for a special commission to investigate police brutality and misconduct.
In a letter to the mayor, she said: ``Your proposal -- to shake up the 106th Precinct -- is a good step, but it gives little comfort to New Yorkers who live in other neighborhoods of the city, nor does it protect the reputations of the thousands of good officers who make up the vast majority of the force.''
Mr. Farrell has proposed the creation of a civilian review board to look into complaints of brutality. An internal review system already exists.
Public reaction to the proposals vary. The Manhattan social worker would like to see a full, public investigation, independent of a grand-jury investigation of the current charges. But another person did not want to see a ``circus of complaints.''
After some hesitancy, Professor Jacobs said a special commission might not be a bad idea, if it is done at the highest level.
``A lot depends on how much damage has been done to the police department, how much their credibility has been hurt in the public eye,'' he says.