When do police officers face consequences for alleged brutality?

Saheed Vassell's father Eric Vassell protesting police brutality in New York.
Saheed Vassell's father Eric Vassell protesting police brutality in New York.
M Stan Reaves/Shutterstock
Saheed Vassell's father Eric Vassell protesting police brutality in New York.

When do police officers face consequences for alleged brutality?

Pantaleo was fired for his role in the death of Eric Garner. Other NYPD officers in similar cases have faced a range of punishments.
August 19, 2019

New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill announced on Monday that he fired Officer Daniel Pantaleo for his use of a banned chokehold that contributed to the death of Eric Garner in 2014. The decision marks the end of the five-year saga for accountability in the aftermath of Garner’s death, although other officers involved in the fatal arrest have not faced any disciplinary action. 

After the Justice Department declined to press charges against Pantaleo earlier this year, and a Staten Island grand jury failed to indict him in 2014, clearing him of any potential criminal prosecution. His termination from the force became the most severe punishment he could receive. 

Garner’s family and activists had for years called on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to fire Pantaleo, who was desk duty since the incident and even received a raise. But the mayor had long demurred, saying that it is not his place to fire Pantaleo and that the disciplinary process must play out. 

Of course, New York City has had a number of high-profile instances of police brutality, including many cases, like Garner’s, in which an unarmed black man died. Historically, officers have usually managed to avoid guilty verdicts in criminal court, if they faced an indictment at all. There also was no guarantee that they would face punishment for misconduct within the NYPD after criminal avenues were exhausted, although many, like Pantaleo did.

Here’s a look at the most widely covered cases of police-involved deaths and alleged police brutality in recent years – starting with the controversial cases of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s tumultuous second term. 

1997 – Assault of Abner Louima

Abner Louima, a Hatian immigrant, was arrested outside of a Brooklyn nightclub after police were called in response to a fight that had broken out. After bringing him to the station, officers beat and sodomized him with a broomstick in bathroom. He suffered a ruptured bladder and colon, and required extensive surgery to repair the damage. The incident caused immediate outrage, with anger targeted at then-Mayor Giuliani. Many civil rights activists and New Yorkers of color contended that Giuliani’s tough-on-crime stance and use of broken windows policing led to increased police brutality, which Giuliani denied. Giuliani was quick to defend the NYPD in the Louima case.

Then-Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes moved quickly to indict the officers involved in the assault. After a series of lengthy trials and appeals, only one officer actually faced criminal penalties for the incident. Justin Volpe, the officer who physically assaulted Louima, pleaded guilty in federal court and was sentenced in 1999 to 30 years in prison with no chance for parole, a sentence he is still serving. A jury convicted Charles Schwarz of being the other man in the bathroom who beat Louima, but an appeals court reversed the decision. Schwarz and two other officers were convicted in relation to the assault in federal court, but had those convictions overturned in the early 2000’s. A fifth cop was found not guilty. Each of the five total officers faced charges related to the assault lost their job.

1999 – Shooting of Amadou Diallo

With the Louima assault still a fresh wound, four white police officers shot and killed Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea, outside of his apartment building in the Bronx. The officers mistook the unarmed Diallo for a suspect in a string of rapes and shot at him 41 times. When officers saw him reach for his wallet, one thought it was a gun and they opened fire.

A grand jury in the Bronx indicted the offices for second-degree murder and reckless endangerment. All four were found not guilty. One of the officers, Kenneth Boss, was promoted to the rank of sergeant in 2015 and a year later was honored as “Sergeant of the Year.” The other three officers kept their jobs, but lost their service weapons. The NYPD restored Boss’ weapon in 2012.

2000 – Shooting of Patrick Dorismond

Just weeks after the acquittal of the officers who killed Diallo, an undercover cop shot Patrick Dorismond, an unarmed black man, during a scuffle after the officer and two other officers approached Dorismond on the street in Manhattan. The undercover cops were members of the narcotics unit who attempted to buy drugs from Dorismond, who was not a drug dealer, as part of a massive crackdown. Giuliani, who had received a steady stream of criticism over the cases of Louima and Diallo, approved the release of Dorsimond’s juvenile criminal record in the aftermath of the shooting, and suggested it played a role in his death. Now-Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who was then a NYPD officer and co-founder of an organization of African-American cops, was harshly critical of Giuliani’s move. The mayor also said Dorismond was “not a choir boy,” when the victim had, in fact, been literally a choir boy. Giuliani was running for U.S. Senate at the time, but soon after dropped out.

The officer’s case never went to trial after a grand jury failed to indict Detective Anthony Vasquez, who fired the fatal shot. In 2007, Vasquez, who kept his job, was charged with second-degree menacing after allegedly threatening three people with his gun.

2006 – Shooting of Sean Bell

Police shot and killed Sean Bell, a 23-year-old unarmed black man, in Queens, on the eve of his wedding. Officers unloaded 50 rounds when Bell drove his car into an unmarked cop car soon after leaving his bachelor’s party. In sharp contrast with his predecessor, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg did not immediately side with officers in the case, calling the 50 shots fired “unacceptable” and made efforts to reach out to the black community in the wake of the shooting.

Three of the five involved officers faced charges, including manslaughter, although a jury acquitted them of all charges after a trial. Following an NYPD administrative trial, one detective involved in the shooting, Gescard Insaro, was fired in 2012, while three other officers were forced to resign.

2012 – Shooting of Ramarley Graham

Police Officer Richard Haste chased Ramarley Graham, an 18-year-old unarmed black man, into the apartment of Graham’s grandmother, where Haste fatally shot him in the bathroom. Haste did not have a warrant. Graham had been trying to dispose of a bag of marijuana.

Haste was charged with manslaughter, but eventually was found not guilty. In 2017, an NYPD judge declared Haste guilty after a disciplinary hearing and recommended he be fired, although Haste quit before the firing could occur. Later that year, two other cops involved in the shooting faced disciplinary action as well, with one being forced to resign. In 2018, a judge ruled that the NYPD must turn over more records to Graham’s family in relation to the shooting that could shed more light onto what happened.

2014 – Shooting of Akai Gurley

Rookie cop Peter Liang accidentally shot and killed Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man, in a darkened stairway of a Brooklyn housing project.

A grand jury indicted Liang on manslaughter and other charges, and in a rarity, a trial jury found him guilty. However, Liang did not receive prison time. Despite facing up to 15 years, a judge sentenced him to five years probation. Liang had already lost his job on the police force prior to going on trial.

2017 – Alleged rape of Anna Chambers

Anna Chambers, a pseudonym, accused NYPD Detectives Eddie Martins and Richard Hall of raping her in the back of a police van after they had taken her into custody for allegedly possessing marijunana. Footage shows the detectives dropping Chambers off after the arrest had occurred and a rape kit found semen from both Martins and Hall on Chambers. The detectives claimed the sex was consesual – until very recently, it was legal for police to have sex with a detainee.

Martins and Hall resigned from the NYPD and were later charged with rape and kidnapping, including numerous other offenses. In 2019, nearly all those charges were dropped after prosecutors called Chambers’ testimony into question, and the detectives now stand accused only of taking bribes and official misconduct.

2018 – Shooting of Saheed Vassell

Five NYPD officers responded to a 911 call in Brooklyn about a man threatening people with a silver gun. They found Saheed Vassell, whom police had encountered before and classified as an emotionally disturbed person. According to his family, he suffered from bipolar disorder. Four of the officers opened fire when they say Vassell brandished what they thought was a gun, but it turned out to be a metal pipe.

One year after the shooting, state Attorney General Letitia James announced that her office, newly empowered to investigate police-involved shootings, would not bring charges against the officers.

Rebecca C. Lewis
is a staff reporter at City & State.
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