Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Only three city officers have been convicted for on-duty killings since 1977.198 Most close observers believe that, if district attorneys were more aggressive in these cases, they could win and set important examples. Each borough's district attorneys are quite different in their approach to police brutality cases, with some district attorneys much more likely than others to bring a case against an accused police officer, leading to an arbitrary application of the laws block-by-block in the city.
As in many cities, grand juries often decline to indict officers accused of brutality-related charges, choosing to believe officers' accounts of events. For example, a grand jury chose not to indict an officer who shot and killed Anibal Carasquillo, age twenty-one, in Brooklyn on January 22, 1995. Carasquillo was reportedly looking through the windows of parked cars and was unarmed. Police officials claimed Carasquillo faced the officer who shot him and took a "gun stance," but the city's medical examiner found that he was shot in the back.199 In another case, the D.A. failed to bring a case against an officer accused of shooting and killing fifteen-year-old Frankie Arzuega, who was a passenger in a vehicle approached by three officers in Brooklyn. The driver of the car, according to the police, attempted to drive off as an officer questioned him, allegedly dragging the officer along. Another officer fired through the back window of the vehicle, killing Arzuega. No weapons were found in the car. The shooting was not recorded in the police department's log of major incidents and was only acknowledged three days later,after Arzuega's family spoke with reporters.200 The district attorney reportedly said there was only one story - that of the three officers; he disregarded witnesses' statements and did not present the case to a grand jury.201
In the state of New York, defendants may waive their right to a jury trial for charges other than first-degree murder.202 This is a common practice when police officers are accused on criminal charges, because officers know some judges are particularly sympathetic toward the police, while juries may contain local residents who are less so.
In early 1998, federal prosecutors announced their intent to pursue Livoti and the 70th Precinct officers involved in the Louima case. But these were exceptions; federal civil rights prosecutions are rare in New York, even though advocates report serious cases to the U.S. Attorney's office and have also helped federal investigators in identifying "problem" precincts.203 The CCRB may refer cases to local or federal prosecutors, but the CCRB's reports do not mention such referrals so there is no way to assess their frequency or effect.
In New York City, of the twenty-two cases decided by federal prosecutors for the federal districts containing New York City (Eastern and Southern districts of New York), five were prosecuted (presented to a grand jury to seek an indictment) in 1996.204 Between 1992 and 1995, ninety-four cases were decided, with nineteen leading to prosecutions.
The U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York announced on August 18, 1997 that the Justice Department would initiate a "pattern or practice" investigation of the NYPD under new federal civil powers.205 This announcement was later modified by Attorney General Janet Reno to an investigation to decide whether to open a "pattern or practice" investigation.206 The scope of the investigation was not known at the time of this writing, but the investigation should certainly include police precincts renowned for abusive and corrupt behavior. The CCRB's semi-annual reports provide detailed information about each precinct's rate of complaints. In the January-June 1996 report, for example, the CCRB ranked precincts using the location of the incident and found that (adjusting for the uniform personnel at each precinct) the 44th Precinct in the Bronx, the 120th Precinct in Staten Island, and the 75th and 71st Precincts in Brooklyn ranked in the top ten in complaints per officer in both 1995 and the first half of 1996.207 During the first six months of 1997, the 79th, 67th, and 73rd precincts ranked highest for location of incident.208
198 Former Transit Officer Paolo Colecchia, who had been convicted for second-degree manslaughter for fatally shooting Nathaniel Levi Gaines, Jr. in July 1996, was sentenced to one and one half to four and one half years in prison in July 1997. A New York housing authority officer was convicted of criminally negligent homicide in August 1995, for a fatal shooting that occurred in March 1992, before the housing authority merged with the NYPD. In 1977, Thomas Ryan was convicted of criminally negligent homicide for the beating death of Israel Rodriguez in July 1975; the Ryan homicide conviction was the first recorded in the city of an on-duty policeman. Judith Cummings, New York Times, November 6, 1977.
199 Amnesty International, "Police brutality," p. 44; Leonard Levitt, "NYPD's legacy of distrust," Newsday, April 14, 1997.
200 Amnesty International, "Police brutality," p. 43, and interviews with Richie Perez of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, August 23, 1996 and August 26, 1997.
201 See Yong Xin Huang, Vega/Rosario cases above as other examples of failure to indict.
202 New York State Consolidated Laws, Criminal Procedure, Article 320.10.
203 In New York, as in other cities, a case can be tried by federal prosecutors if local prosecution is not initiated or fails, but the New York State Constitution does not allow the reverse, so if a case goes to federal court and the officer is acquitted, state prosecutors may not try it. See Louima case, above.
204 According to data obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse from the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys, Justice Department. Cases prosecuted or declined represent only a portion of the total number of complaints alleging federal criminal civil rights violations in each district in a given year. Several steps prior to this decision narrow down the number of complaints actually received to those considered worthy of consideration.
205 Blaine Harden, "Civil rights investigation targets N.Y. Police," Washington Post, August 19, 1997.
206 Justice Department press release, dated August 26, 1997.
207 CCRB, January-June 1996, p. 29.
© June 1998
Human Rights Watch