February 1, 2015

Non-Accountability, or Why Things Never Change

In mid-January, a jury in Brooklyn's Supreme Court returned a verdict in favor of Christopher Graham in the amount of $3.95 million. The number ought to rise about $4 million once legal fees and costs are considered. According to the NY Daily News, Graham, a Chaplain with the State Department of Corrections alleged that he was assaulted by police when they responded to a call at his apartment. He claimed that the officers deliberately twisted his leg until it broke, and then beat him some more, pulling his dreadlocks from his head, slamming him to the floor, and standing on his face and head. Graham also noted that the officers did not know what he did for a living until after the fact.

The Brooklyn jury deliberated for just 50 minutes before finding the officers and the City liable. For those of you unfamiliar with jury turnaround times, that is fast. It means that there was no doubt whatsoever in the jury's mind that the officers had done just what Graham said they did. 

What struck me when I read the News article was not simply that the primary offender -- an officer named Paul Aparo -- had a bit of a history with NYPD's IAB. Rather, it was this comment by NYPD Deputy Chief Kim Royster:
We review, in a variety of ways, all allegations of officer misconduct. A [verdict in] a civil case does not constitute a finding or even evidence that an officer has engaged in any misconduct.
Wow. Yes, Royster is technically correct that the civil jury's verdict is not an exact substitute for a departmental hearing. But that begs the question as to why there was no departmental hearing in the first place.

Here, a police officer is accused of deliberately twisting and forcibly breaking a man's tibia and fibia, resulting in two surgeries and post-traumatic arthritis, all without any justification (his defense sought to blame either Graham or Graham's girlfriend for causing the injuries). This is precisely the sort of gross misconduct that the NYPD ought to be interested in preventing, so surely they would have thoroughly investigated Graham's claims immediately.

Sadly, as is usually the case, the NYPD -- meaning the City, which knows it will be responsible for paying out to compensate the victims of police misconduct -- made no real effort to find out if Aparo and his colleagues engaged in this conduct. The NYPD then proceeds to dismiss the verdict, as though it ought to carry no weight and is unworthy of consideration. In other words, the NYPD stands by its man, regardless of the jury's verdict, regardless of the evidence, regardless, regardless, regardless.

This happens time and again. Officers misbehave. Badly. The City makes no effort to corroborate the claims. Instead, they deny and defend. Juries return verdicts finding that the plaintiffs have proven their allegations, and the City still does nothing.

The message to those cops that misbehave could not be clearer: there is no penalty for using excessive force, there is no penalty for arresting people without probable cause, there is no penalty for lying to prosecutors and courts, there is no penalty for deliberately violating the constitution. And if a jury find yous civilly liable? No problem, the City will pay the tab.

To face any real negative consequence, the officer would have to be criminally charged and convicted, and we know how unlikely that is.

Parenthetically, just to make a point, a couple of years I had a civil case following an arrest of my client where he spent several days at Rikers Island. During a later suppression hearing, the officers admitted there that they had lied to the grand jury and prosecutor, resulting in the ultimate dismissal of the criminal case. Even though there was no dispute that the officers had committed perjury, a fact now known to the prosecutors as well, no criminal charges were sought, and there were no consequences to the officers, even after the City paid my client. In other words, even in a perfect storm, criminal prosecution is unlikely. Just ask Eric Garner's family.

Every year, NYC releases figures showing how many millions of dollars were paid out to settle police misconduct cases. The City would like you to believe it's because us shysters, us shameless ambulance chasers, are bleeding New York dry. In actuality, the source of the City's woes is the ongoing misconduct itself. If the City wants to stop paying out such large amounts of money in compensation for their officers' misconduct, maybe New York ought to focus on its employees' behavior, rather than the litigation that such deliberate, unconstitutional behavior brings about. Just a thought.

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