Teenager Claims Body-Cams Show the Police Framed Him. What Do You See

A traffic stop in New York led to a young black man being arrested for possession of marijuana. What happened? The New York Times obtained videos that offer a rare window into how far police may be willing to go to make an arrest.

By Joseph Goldstein,

Marijuana arrests are the latest battleground for critics of the police who are fighting to reverse years of racially imbalanced policing in New York. While the Police Department has sharply scaled back marijuana arrests recently, more than 6,000 people were arrested in the first six months of 2018 over small amounts of pot, most of them black or Hispanic.

Until recently, these arrests were rarely taped, but that has changed now that many police officers in New York wear body cameras.

The New York Times has obtained body-camera recordings that document one arrest earlier this year on Staten Island. The videos offer a rare look at a type of encounter the public seldom sees, and show how aggressively the police will pursue a minor marijuana case, in some circumstances, and the subtle social dynamics that shape policing in New York.

But the videos also raise questions about how far the police will go to make an arrest. Lawyers for the defendant, Lasou Kuyateh, argue that the recordings contain possible proof that one of the police officers planted a marijuana cigarette in Mr. Kuyateh’s car. The officer and the Police Department deny the allegation.

It is not unusual for defendants to accuse the police of planting drugs, but rarely does evidence exist to support the accusation. In this case, however, the footage provides ground for heightened suspicion.

Though not conclusive, the recordings were problematic enough that prosecutors abruptly dropped the marijuana charge while one of the officers was in the middle of testifying at a pretrial hearing. The judge expressed concern about the officer’s testimony. Prosecutors encouraged the officer to get a lawyer. An internal police investigation later found no evidence of misconduct.

Mr. Kuyateh maintains that he was framed. His case underscores how difficult it can be to find out what happens during police encounters, even when the officers are wearing cameras.

On Feb. 28, two officers from Staten Island’s 120th Precinct, Kyle Erickson and Elmer Pastran, stopped a BMW sedan. The officers said the windows were excessively tinted and the car had turned without signaling. Four young black men were inside.

It appeared that at least some of the young men in the car had been smoking marijuana, which they admitted during the stop. But the young men told the officers they had just finished smoking, and insisted there wasn’t any more marijuana in the car. “I don’t appreciate being lied to,” Officer Pastran responded. “I know there is weed in the car. I smell it.”

He and his partner searched the BMW. Officer Pastran searched the back-seat area and announced he had found nothing. Officer Erickson, whose camera turned off in the middle of the search, looked in the back seat and apparently found nothing.

After several minutes, Mr. Kuyateh, the driver, shouted that Officer Erickson had put something in his car. He was arrested on the charge of obstructing the police investigation.

Officer Erickson then said he had discovered a marijuana cigarette, which he claimed had been burning on the floor behind the driver’s seat. It was in the same general area Officer Pastran had already searched, leading him to declare, “looks pretty clear.” Officer Erickson’s camera turned back on just before he made the discovery.

Yes, in this case Mr. Kuyateh, the driver, was arrested and spent two weeks in jail, until he made bail.

The New York Police Department has historically aggressively enforced marijuana laws. Marijuana arrests soared to more than 50,000 a year under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, when the police often stopped young men on questionable grounds and searched them for contraband, a practice a federal judge eventually found unconstitutional.

In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio took office on a promise to roll back “stop-and-frisk.”

Yet marijuana arrests still remained an element of the department’s broken-windows policing strategy, which relies on aggressively cracking down on minor crimes and disorder. An average of 17,500 people have been arrested each year for marijuana possession since late 2014.

In June, Mayor de Blasio sought to further reduce marijuana arrests after an investigation by The Times examined the stark racial disparities of marijuana arrests.

Mr. Kuyateh, 19 at the time of the arrest, lived in Park Hill, a high-crime area in northeast Staten Island. Two years ago he pleaded guilty to an assault, according to the Staten Island Advance, though that case was sealed because he was a minor. His lawyers say he has no other criminal convictions.

Mr. Kuyateh said in an interview that he works two jobs. He recently bought the BMW used and was taking his friends for a drive on the day of the arrest.

Officer Pastran told his partner in one video that Mr. Kuyateh and his friends were “all OTA,” a local violent youth gang. But Mr. Kuyateh said in the interview this was false.

Officers Pastran and Erickson had been on the force for less than five years and appear to have unblemished records. Officer Erickson declined to comment, and Officer Pastran did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Officer Erickson comes from a family of police officers. In the videos, he appeared quieter and less gregarious than his partner. While searching the car, he expressed frustration and urgency. “We have to find something,” he said. “You know what I mean?”

Officer Elmer Pastran, a United States Air Force veteran, recognized the passengers from past interactions and kept a steady stream of banter with them, even as he searched them. The chatter seemed to work. The young men seemed more inclined to comply with his directions than his partner’s.

Officer Erickson testified over the summer at a pretrial hearing in Criminal Court in Staten Island that his camera turned off on its own, from some “technical difficulty.” This had happened on other occasions, too, he said.

Police officials suggested the camera may have deactivated when Officer Erickson leaned into the driver’s seat while searching the car, possibly sliding the main switch — on the camera’s front — into the “off” position.

Officer Erickson said he reactivated the camera — more than four minutes later — after he realized it was off, senior police officials said. The timing corresponded to the moment he was reaching for the marijuana cigarette.

“All right, this was in the back seat on the floor,” Officer Erickson narrates for the camera. “It’s a marijuana cigarette, it’s lit, just had to put it out.”

No. Mr. Kuyateh appeared in court at least 10 times to fight the charges and even rejected a plea offer that included no jail time.

The body-camera footage was entered into evidence at a pre-trial hearing. Officer Erickson testified that he “observed a brown lit marijuana cigarette on the floor behind the driver’s side.” He maintained that the marijuana cigarette was in plain view.

But in the middle of Officer Erickson’s testimony, something unusual happened. The judge, Christopher Robles, intervened, ordering the lawyers to meet with him in an off-the-record sidebar.

At the judge’s direction, the district attorney’s office informed the Police Department that Officer Erickson might need a lawyer, according to a court transcript and interviews. Officer Erickson did not finish his testimony. Instead prosecutors dismissed the charges against Mr. Kuyateh, citing the gap in Officer Erickson’s body-worn camera as the reason.

At a final court hearing last month, Mr. Kuyateh’s lawyer, C. Taylor Poor, of The Legal Aid Society, repeatedly tried to address what the evidence would have shown had she been able to finish questioning Officer Erickson about what happened during the search. But the judge cut her off.

“This case is dismissed and sealed,” Judge Robles said. “What I’m not going to allow happen is my courtroom to become a political place where these things are brought up.”

Yes. The video does not prove conclusively that Officer Erickson planted anything. But it does raise a troubling question: How did Officer Erickson find a lit marijuana cigarette in plain view on the rear floorboard just minutes after Officer Pastran searched the same area and found nothing?

Officer Erickson declined several requests to be interviewed for this article. Internal investigators at the New York Police Department reviewed the videos and found no misconduct.

“After a thorough investigation, the allegations were determined to be unfounded,” the Police Department’s chief spokesman, Phillip Walzak, said in a statement.

Joseph Goldstein, , NYTimes, Teenager Claims Body-Cams Show the Police Framed Him. What Do You See“, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/19/nyregion/body-cameras-police-marijuana-arrest.html

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Police Officer Is Charged With Lying About Finding a Gun

Police Officer Joseph Moloney, left, arrived at State Supreme Court in Brooklyn on Tuesday. He pleaded not guilty to perjury charges. CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times
Police Officer Joseph Moloney, left, arrived at State Supreme Court in Brooklyn on Tuesday. He pleaded not guilty to perjury charges.CreditCreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

By Joseph Goldstein, March 27, 2018

 

A New York police officer was arraigned on Tuesday on perjury charges after prosecutors said he repeatedly lied about how the police found a gun in a Brooklyn apartment.

The officer, Joseph Moloney, 27, is accused of providing several false stories, under oath, about how the police discovered a gun in an apartment in the Red Hook Houses complex in South Brooklyn in 2016. Officer Moloney initially claimed that he had found the gun when it was another officer — a sergeant — who had discovered it, prosecutors said. Ultimately, he came clean, but that did not help him. Prosecutors charged him in a 24-count indictment that includes perjury in the first degree and official misconduct.

He pleaded not guilty Tuesday to the charges before Justice Danny K. Chun in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn. Officer Moloney’s lawyer, John Tynan, declined to comment on the charges.

“Our police officers are expected to be truthful and honest at all times because people’s fates and the integrity of the justice system depend on that,” said Eric Gonzalez, the Brooklyn district attorney. “We allege that the officer in this case failed to do that and instead repeatedly gave false testimony under oath. Such conduct diminishes public trust and is, in fact, criminal. We intend to now hold the defendant accountable.”

Last week, The New York Times published an investigation into police perjury within the New York Police Department that found that false testimony by the police, known as “testilying,” remains a problem. This year, a Queens detective, Kevin Desormeau, has been convicted of perjury and a Brooklyn detective has been charged with fabricating a photo lineup.

Even as Officer Moloney was arraigned, prosecutors offered little explanation about why they believe he lied. They also did not say if they suspect it had been his idea to lie or if he been instructed to lie by superiors. At the time of the gun arrest, Officer Moloney had been a police officer for three years. As contradictions in his account were exposed, Officer Moloney cited his inexperience as the reason for the error, prosecutors said.

The charges against Officer Moloney stem from an arrest he and other officers made on May 6, 2016, in the public housing apartment building where they had been seeking to arrest a man on a warrant for low-level charges. The officers knocked on the door of an apartment and arrested the man when he answered the door, prosecutors said.

Because it was early in the morning, the man was not properly dressed. The officers followed him into a bedroom to allow him to put on clothes. Officer Moloney and a second officer left with the man to process the arrest, prosecutors said, but about 15 minutes later a sergeant who had stayed behind told the officers to come back.

Inside the apartment was an open black box containing a gun as well as a few bags of marijuana, prosecutors said. At that point, the sergeant told Officer Moloney to go get a search warrant. But when Officer Moloney went to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office to apply for the warrant, he claimed that he — not the sergeant — discovered the gun.

He also insinuated that the arrested man had tried to hide the gun.

“As I was assisting Mr. [redacted] to get dressed, Mr. [redacted] kicked a black plastic box under the bed where the baby was sleeping. I then opened the black plastic box and observed a silver pistol inside the box,” Officer Moloney wrote in a search warrant affidavit, according to the indictment.

He repeated this account, with some variations, to a grand jury, and at court proceedings, prosecutors said.

His story came under scrutiny when photographs from the apartment showed that the bed was set on the floor. At that point, Officer Moloney said the suspect had been trying to push the box away from the bed — rather than toward it, prosecutors said.

“When we were getting him dressed we’re noticing he’s pushing the box away from the actual bed and we realize that it’s open a little and we see that there’s also a firearm in the box,” Officer Moloney testified on Feb. 1. in a family court hearing.

Asked about the discrepancy, Officer Moloney said it was an error based on a lack of experience. It was, he said in Supreme Court, a “mistake on my part, being my first search warrant that I’d sworn out alone, and just a rookie mistake.”

But in July 2017 Officer Moloney admitted that he had not been the one to open the black box, prosecutors said. He also said that he did not observe the moment that the box was being opened, prosecutors said.

“I want to come clean to you,” he told officials, according to the indictment. “I did not open the black plastic box. I did not see the box being opened by someone else. I wasn’t in the room.”

Based on this, prosecutors dismissed the gun charges against the man, whom prosecutors did not identify. The Brooklyn district attorney’s office referred the matter to the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau, which led to perjury charges being filed against Officer Moloney.

Joseph Goldstein, March 27, 2018, NYTimes, Police Officer Is Charged With Lying About Finding a Gun”, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/27/nyregion/police-officer-perjury-new-york.html

Judge Blasts City for Delays in Queens Police Abuse Case

By Alan Feuer,

Late one evening in January 2015, the police arrested Rosie Martinez on a charge of selling heroin and held her overnight at their station house in Queens.

Ms. Martinez, now 52, professed her innocence and asked for a lawyer, but a group of officers questioned her for hours. When she told them she knew nothing, the officers grew furious, she said. She claims they punched her, choked her and pried her fingers back so violently, it permanently damaged her right hand.

But that was only the start of Ms. Martinez’s ordeal, according to a judicial order issued Wednesday. One year after her arrest, when Ms. Martinez sued New York City alleging excessive force by the police, its lawyers said that she had made the whole thing up and dragged their feet in identifying the officers. Over the next two years, a federal judge in Brooklyn authorized 11 depositions, held 13 separate hearings and issued 14 orders for discovery, trying repeatedly to force the city to reveal what it knew.

Then last month, lawyers for the city dropped a bombshell: the police, they admitted, had actually conducted three investigations into Ms. Martinez’s claims. But even though the inquiries had generated more than 1,000 pages of evidence and included interviews with a captain at the precinct, several lieutenants and at least one sergeant, no one had mentioned them to Ms. Martinez’s lawyer.

On Wednesday, having finally lost her patience, the judge considering the suit, Cheryl L. Pollak, issued a blistering decision, accusing the city’s Law Department of “complete and utter failure” to investigate the case and hinting that commanders and officers at the 107th Precinct may have engaged in a cover-up. Citing an “unprecedented and disturbing pattern of delay,” Judge Pollak recommended that the case skip its fact-finding stage and go straight to awarding Ms. Martinez damages. She also urged the city to review its policies for producing discovery and investigating police misconduct claims.

It was not the first time that has happened. Twenty years ago, a federal judge in Manhattan issued a similar opinion, accusing the Law Department of “a cavalier attitude” toward discovery requests and saying that it treated them with the “lowest priority.” The judge in that case, John S. Martin, ordered the city’s top lawyer at the time, Michael D. Hess, to devise a method for “systemizing and streamlining” its discovery procedures.

But Judge Pollak’s decision, which still requires approval from a senior judge, seems to suggest that Mr. Hess’s improvements were not entirely successful.

“I fear that there has been a relapse of such misbehavior,” Joel Berger, the lawyer who argued the case before Judge Martin, wrote in an email Wednesday night. Mr. Berger, who once served on the Law Department’s executive staff, called Judge Pollak’s decision “a watershed opinion revealing misconduct that many of us have been experiencing in other police misconduct cases.”

“Victims of police misconduct are made to suffer twice,” he wrote. “First by the officer who abused them, and then by a Law Department that subjects them to a nightmare of virulent opposition.”

Nicholas Paolucci, a spokesman for the Law Department, said on Thursday that its lawyers take their discovery duties seriously and acted in good faith in the Martinez case to “promptly produce all information known to them at the time.”

“We will vigorously oppose this recommendation,” Mr. Paolucci said, “which we believe is not supported by the record.”

While the production of discovery might seem like a minor aspect of the law, it is in fact crucial, allowing lawyers in a civil case to get a full picture of the facts before making motions or taking depositions. Judge Pollak’s decision strikes that note, saying that the Law Department’s serial excuses and delays had Ms. Martinez’s lawyers “chasing their tail.”

From the beginning of the case, her chief lawyer, Gabriel Harvis, tried to get the city to give him the names of the officers who had questioned her, a process that took seven months and four court orders. Yet even when he got the first two names — Lt. Jason Weitzman and Sgt. Jason Forgione — both men claimed that they had nothing to do with Ms. Martinez.

As discovery continued, however, “it became apparent,” Judge Pollak wrote, “that despite all of their efforts” Ms. Martinez and her lawyers “had not been given the full story.” First, Mr. Harvis learned that the city had not turned over Sergeant Forgione’s entire personnel file, which was missing records about a previous abuse complaint, the decision said. Then he learned that the city had not disclosed detective reports about the heroin deal that led to Ms. Martinez’s arrest. When Mr. Harvis got those reports — after more delays and orders — they showed that she was not the dealer. Ms. Martinez, a housekeeper, wasn’t even there.

It was then, in November, nearly two years after the lawsuit had been filed, that Judge Pollak held a hearing and asked the city’s lawyer, Paul H. Johnson, why it took so long for the reports to be produced. “I do not know,” Mr. Johnson told her. “The client produced these documents, not me. I wasn’t the one, like, searching for them.”

But the worst was still to come, Judge Pollak wrote. One month later, the city committed what she called its “most critical failure” — one that, as she put it, “cast a completely different light on what may have occurred.”

On Dec. 18, a new city lawyer — Mr. Johnson was replaced — suddenly provided Mr. Harvis with more than 1,000 pages from three police investigations of his client’s claims. The inquiries not only cast doubt on the officers’ contention that Ms. Martinez had hurt her hand while punching the wall of her cell, the decision said; they were also never mentioned by anyone, including the 11 officers who had been through depositions.

“None of them came forward with information about this incident or the investigations for almost two years,” Judge Pollak wrote. “This suggests either a failure to conduct even the most superficial investigation by counsel or, of deeper concern, that counsel was deliberately not informed due to a cover-up perpetrated by the N.Y.P.D.”

Alan Feuer, NYTimes.com,Judge Blasts City for Delays in Queens Police Abuse Case“, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/25/nyregion/judge-queens-police-abuse.html,

NYPD Union’s Lawsuit Could Reverse-Engineer Body Cameras Into Surveillance Tools

By Michael Sisitzky, Lead Policy Counsel, New York Civil Liberties Union

Police Body Camera

New York City’s largest police union doesn’t believe in public accountability for its officers. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association made this abundantly clear again last week when it sued the city in an effort to block the release of NYPD body camera footage, citing a state civil rights law that bars the release of certain personnel records.

If the union’s lawsuit is successful, it will create a nightmare scenario for police reform advocates, like the New York Civil Liberties Union, who hoped body cameras could increase transparency and accountability for police departments across the state.

The lawsuit argues that section 50-a of the New York State Civil Rights Law, which limits the release of certain police personnel records, prevents the city from releasing body camera footage, unless an officer consents to the release. The suit contends that body camera footage qualifies as a type of personnel record because it could be used as part of an officer’s performance evaluation.

In reality, this is another ploy to keep the public in the dark about what police officers are up to and to make an already opaque police disciplinary system even more inaccessible. Police shootings and other police activities deserve close public scrutiny, and it is a gross distortion of state law to claim it bars the release of body camera video. This lawsuit is bad for police accountability and without legal merit.

It’s worth remembering why the NYPD got body cameras in the first place. The current body camera pilot program was ordered by a federal judge, who found that the department’s stop-and-frisk policy violated the rights of hundreds of thousands of Black and Latino New Yorkers. The cameras were intended to provide the public with a window into what NYPD officers were up to and to rebuild the badly damaged relationship between officers and the communities they are supposed to serve.

If a judge were to side with the PBA, it could mean that the public would be kept from accessing footage of police misconduct. Journalists could be barred from getting the footage and reporting on it. Family members of people killed by officers could be prevented from seeing video of deadly encounters. Under the PBA’s misinterpretation of the law, if the killing of Eric Garner had been recorded on a body camera instead of a bystander’s cell phone, the footage may have never reached the public eye.

A win for the PBA would turn body cameras, paid for with millions of dollars in taxpayer funds, into yet another NYPD mass surveillance tool to be used against vulnerable New Yorkers. Public support for body cameras will not last if the police accountability aspect of the devices is erased and they simply become public surveillance devices.This would be a devastating blow for holding officers responsible for their actions and would negate the potential value body cameras could add to improving police-community relations.

The litigation also has the potential to neuter and warp body camera programs being implemented by departments across the state, as section 50-a applies statewide. And body cam footage isn’t the only kind of public record that the police want to push down the memory hole. The NYCLU currently has a case pending in the state’s highest court arguing that 50-a does not prevent the release of redacted judicial opinions in NYPD disciplinary trials, and we balked at the city’s attempt to suddenly hide NYPD decisions relating to officers’ mistreatment of New Yorkers.

But organizations like the NYCLU, the media, and members of the public shouldn’t have to spend years in court fighting for the right to access these public records. That’s why the NYCLU is calling on state lawmakers to get rid of 50-a. The law is unnecessary and has been used by opponents of transparency to keep important information about police misconduct shrouded in darkness.

The PBA’s lawsuit is based on an erroneous interpretation of the law. But so long as 50-a remains on the books, the police will attempt to hide behind it and twist the law in ways that undermine the public’s right to hold government power accountable.

Michael Sisitzky, New York Civil Liberties Union, January 19, 2018, “NYPD Union’s Lawsuit Could Reverse-Engineer Body Cameras Into Surveillance Tools”, https://www.aclu.org/blog/privacy-technology/surveillance-technologies/nypd-unions-lawsuit-could-reverse-engineer-body

Off-Duty NYPD Officer Beaten by Police in His Home Awarded $15M by the City

By Jack D’Isidoro | February 4, 2016 1:49pm

 NYPD Officer Larry Jackson was awarded $15 million by the city after he was falsely arrested and beaten by police inside his own home in 2010, according to his lawyer.

NYPD Officer Larry Jackson was awarded $15 million by the city after he was falsely arrested and beaten by police inside his own home in 2010, according to his lawyer.

QUEENS — An off-duty NYPD officer who was falsely arrested and beaten by fellow officers inside his own home was awarded $15 million by a federal jury on Wednesday.

Officer Larry Jackson was beaten with batons, choked, kicked, sprayed in the face with pepper spray and had his hand fractured during the 2010 attack, according to his lawyer, who blames race biases on escalating the incident.

The confrontation began after Jackson’s wife called 911 to resolve a dispute outside their home, where they had just held their daughter’s birthday party.

When police arrived, they mistook Jackson for one of the agitators and began to physically subdue him, ignoring his repeated attempts to identify himself as a member of the NYPD, according to the lawsuit.

“Dude, it is my house and I am a police officer too,” Jackson told the arresting officers, according to the complaint. Jackson was then handcuffed and taken to the 113th Precinct stationhouse even after officers found his NYPD shield, which had been in his front pocket the whole time, the lawsuit says.

“He’ll never be compensated for the disrespect he’s received from the police department,” says Jackson’s attorney, Eric Sanders.

The Brooklyn Federal Court jury found Jackson entitled to punitive damages from 12 individual officers totaling $2.6 million, in addition to $12.5 million in damages.

The Queens District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute the arresting officers following an investigation, the New York Post reported.

Jackson’s hand is still recovering from the attack and he can’t hold a gun and may have to retire, according to the lawsuit.

The city’s Law Department called the verdict “excessive,” and said it may still be overturned, according to the Post.

“Nothing is final. Indeed, the judge’s post trial review could lead to the verdict being set aside or a new trial,” the city Law Department said in a statement to the Post.

 

Jack D’Isidoro | February 4, 2016, DNAInfo.com, “Off-Duty NYPD Officer Beaten by Police in His Home Awarded $15M by the City”, https://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20170316/chinatown/de-blasio-laurence-laufer-broken-election-law-campaign-finance