Cyclist slam renews calls for special prosecutor
August 15, 2008
By Laurie Mittelmann
Advocates are using video of an officer tackling a bicyclist in Times Square to renew their call for a special prosecutor focused on police misconduct. And they say the state’s new governor seems more likely than any of his predecessors to listen to them.
Three weeks ago, Police Officer Patrick Pogan pushed a New Jersey man off his bicycle during the monthly Critical Mass group ride. The officer said the cyclist, Christopher Long, rode into him, but video captured by a tourist shows Pogan walking out of his way to body slam Long onto the sidewalk.
David Paterson, who was sworn in as governor of New York after Eliot Spitzer resigned in March, is the only person with executive authority to create the special prosecutor’s office; the office would have the power to replace the city’s five district attorneys in corruption cases or appoint special prosecutors to individual cases.
Although he’s saddled with a yawning budget gap and myriad other legislative issues that are dominating his attention, many advocates believe that Paterson may well see fit to issue the order.
“Paterson probably understands these issues better than anyone else,” civil rights lawyer Normal Siegel said. “He’s been supportive of these kinds of reforms. If he doesn’t change things, I would expect no one would.”
In 1999, police arrested Paterson, then a state senator from Harlem, along with then-N.A.A.C.P. President Kweisi Mfume and 57 others for blocking the entrance to Police Headquarters in protest of the shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant killed by four plainclothes police officers in the Bronx. Paterson, who was charged with disorderly conduct, was then demanding the creation of a special prosecutor to look into the case, among other things.
Erin Duggan, a spokesperson for the governor, said that Paterson is currently considering appointing a temporary special prosecutor to investigate the bicycle incident and is also looking at proposals for a permanent office.
Last week, Councilmember Rosie Mendez held a press conference in front of Police Headquarters to draw attention to the issue. She said that the District Attorney’s Office does not do an adequate job of prosecuting police officers.
“What I want to show is that there is support all across New York from a variety of groups to hold police accountable for their actions,” Mendez said.
The last special prosecutor’s office was created in 1972, when Governor Nelson Rockefeller formed the Office of the Special State Prosecutor for Corruption. This office followed the recommendation of a commission headed by Whitman Knapp that documented allegations of widespread and organized police corruption during its investigations into the department during the 1960s and early ’70s. Governor Mario Cuomo abolished the agency in 1990 because he said the need that justified it had been abated.
Dan Castleman, chief of investigations for Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, said that a present-day special prosecutor’s office was not only unnecessary, but also counterproductive. Morgenthau, who has been in office since 1975, has prosecuted more than 200 police officers and private citizens involved with police officers.
“We’ve never had a problem doing those cases,” Castleman said.
He added that whenever an office exists with that focus, it becomes “captive” of that subject matter.
“Every year they have to justify a budget,” he said. “They’re so intent on making cases that sometimes they overreach.”
The office is much harder and much more expensive to put together than advocates probably realize, Castleman said. It could also create conflict with other law enforcement agencies.
“If we’re running an undercover sting operation and a special prosecutor is not aware of it, it could get dangerous,” he said. “There’s a certain amount of coordination that has to happen.”
For the case of Pogan, the officer who pushed the bicyclist, calls for a special prosecutor may be premature given that the incident took place only a little under a month ago. The District Attorney’s Office is investigating the case, said spokesperson Alicia Maxey-Green.
“I don’t understand how, at this stage in the game, the case indicates a breakdown in the system sufficient to necessitate a special prosecutor,” said Michael Armstrong, chairperson of the city’s Commission to Combat Police Corruption, a government-created panel independent from the Police Department. “If the officer is not charged at all and there is reason to believe that machinery set up to evaluate cases is not adequate, then O.K., go look at it.”
Armstrong said that a special prosecutor’s office would “serve a very worthwhile function,” but that the Police Department now has a very active Internal Affairs Bureau designed to assume a lot of the burdens that a special prosecutor’s office would meet.
He added that people sometimes jump too quickly to the conclusion that the Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office are not working hard enough on a case, when in fact, they’re ardently investigating it. “It’s more fair to wait,” he said.
Bicyclists who participate in the monthly Critical Mass ride that Long was attending have complained about harsh police tactics since a crackdown right before the Republican National Convention in 2004. Cyclists often encounter swarms of police at the rides who give tickets for minor infractions, like a lack of bells or lights.
Siegel, former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that Paterson might decide against appointing a special prosecutor because, as a statewide elected official, Paterson will be wary of creating the perception that he is against the Police Department.
“Now that he’s the governor, he’s the governor of everyone and might not want to make policies not in favor of the police, who don’t want a special prosecutor,” Siegel said. “They like the status quo.”
But advocates who have long called for a special prosecutor see a unique opportunity with the tape of Pogan’s actions.
The videotape shows Pogan standing in the middle of Seventh Ave. as bicycles pass by him and another officer. He takes a few quick steps toward Long, before violently shoving him to the ground. Pogan later wrote on his police report that Long had been “weaving” in and out of traffic, “thereby forcing multiple vehicles to stop abruptly or change their direction in order to avoid hitting” him.
The Village-based environmental group Time’s Up! bought the footage for $300 and uploaded it to YouTube, where it has now been viewed 1.5 million times. Newspapers and television outlets picked up the story and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Mayor Mike Bloomberg have both criticized Pogan’s actions.
“The introduction of video technology changes the dynamic,” Siegel said. “No longer can the police officer put out a complaint that says A-B-C when footage shows X-Y-Z.”
Mendez said that the video is essential to break a pattern of police protecting fellow officers instead of serving the public during an investigation.
“There has always been and continues to be a blue wall of silence,” Mendez said. “A blue wall that cannot be torn down even by two commissions on police misconduct. This blue wall cannot continue to exist after videotapes expose police malfeasance.”
Gabriel Chin, a professor at the University of Arizona College of Law who worked in New York for years as a lawyer and wrote a book on police corruption in the city, said that he believes police ethics would be improved if the state had a standards-and-training commission to uniformly test and certify police officers. Such commissions are used in 40 states, he said.
“It’s a method of promoting professionalism,” Chin said. “New York could do more and for whatever reason it hasn’t.”
The city’s Police Department, which is the largest in the country with more than 37,000 officers, has been known for its susceptibility to internal vice, Chin said.
“Mayor Robert Wagner said a little prayer each night nothing happened in the Police Department,” Chin said.
That lingering reputation has left many, including some lawmakers, with little hope that change will come easily.
“Until the people rise up, people in power will not pay attention,” said Councilmember Charles Barron, who also believes that there should be a special prosecutor’s office.