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The NYPD's Version of Thabo Sefolosha's Arrest Makes No Sense

More information is coming out on Thabo Sefolosha's arrest by the NYPD and all of it stands in opposition to the NYPD's side of the story.
April 17, 2015, 4:25pm
Image via WikiMedia Commons

The suspicion that something is wrong with the story of a late-night triple stabbing outside New York's 1OAK Nightclub has broken into plain view, and the aftershocks are rattling the windows of 1 Police Plaza. The frenzy of tortured logic, resentment, and humiliation which allegedly drove the brutal assault of Indiana Pacers forward Chris Copeland and two young women has metastasized to envelop one of the most powerful police forces on the planet: the NYPD.

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The circumstances of the New York Police Department's arrest of Atlanta Hawks players Thabo Sefolosha and Pero Antić near the scene of the stabbing on April 8 were murky from the outset. But with the exposure of more video documenting the NYPD's actions that night—including the apparent breaking of Sefolosha's leg on-camera by a baton-wielding police officer—it appears that this story is far from over, and far from a freak one-off. It is, instead, a new chapter in a familiar story that occurs in daylight, in every borough of New York, every day. It is the story of a police force eager to take offense, often against black and brown New Yorkers, and lacking in restraint.

Read More: Everything About the Chris Copeland Stabbing Is Wrong

The charges against Sefolosha and Antić allege that both players threatened the integrity of the stabbing investigation before physically attacking NYPD officers, leaving the police no choice but to forcibly restrain, arrest, and criminally charge both. The official police report, as obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, begins with the claim that, in the wake of the knife attack by suspect Shevoy Bleary-Murdock, "officers six times asked Antić and Sefolosha to clear the area to establish a crime scene before they were arrested," and that Sefolosha and Antić "moved a couple of feet away but did not clear the area."

This seems unlikely. As previously reported by Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling, a source close to Copeland stated that the two Hawks, in New York for an upcoming game against the Nets and coincidentally socializing at 1OAK that night, were merely shielding the wounded Copeland from onlookers. Even more damning, as VICE Sports reported and as ESPN now confirms, a bystander's video footage of the arrest of Sefolosha and Antić places the fracas not at the site of an active, bloody crime scene, but over 100 feet away from the site of Copeland's stabbing, at the intersection of West 17th Street and 10th Avenue. If Sefolosha and Antić were not in fact violating the sanctity of a police investigation, why were they physically assaulted and arrested?

Noted super-villain Thabo Sefolosha taking on two men at once. Who will end his reign of terror? Image via Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

"We never believe police accounts about serious injury," says Robert Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) at the Urban Justice Center, an organization devoted to exposing discriminatory policing in New York City. "Big institutions will almost instinctively rally around an incident."

In addition, the persistence of illegal "quota systems" within the NYPD, as exposed by multiple police whistleblowers, means that while a suspect can be arrested on dubious of charges that will be thrown out in a later court appearance, the officer will still have earned his quota credit with a commanding officer. Indeed, the two charges levied against both Sefolosha and Antić, "Resisting Arrest" and "Obstruction of Governmental Administration," are largely spurious charges often employed, says Gangi, "after the police have beaten someone up."

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It is only in this light that the official story becomes understandable. Putting aside the confused notions of location, the report states Sefolosha charged officers in an "aggressive manner," leaving the arresting officer, one Johnpaul Giancona, with simply no alternative:

"When I approached the defendant to place him under arrest for the above described conduct, I observed the defendant flail his arms, twist his body, kick his legs, and struggle against me making it difficult for me to place handcuffs on him and complete the arrest. It took four officers to place the defendant in handcuffs."

Tortured prose has usually been tortured for a reason. And more convincing than the poetic stylings of Officer Johnpaul Giancona is the newest video footage released of the incident, taken only a few feet away from the fateful physical encounter.

An NYPD lieutenant debriefing officers, possibly on how to best phrase their readily disproven reports. Image via WikiMedia Commons

The claim that Sefolosha "charged" the officers is crucial, here; it establishes that he, in essence, commenced the physical assault. "We know the initial incident with [Eric] Garner," says Gangi, "was the NYPD spinning it as self-defense." An excuse mirrored in South Carolina police officer Michael Slager's initial claims following his filmed and fatal shooting of motorist Walter Scott. While the incidents leading up to this violent takedown are not recorded on film, Sefolosha's calm demeanor, Antić's position sitting on the sidewalk, and the concerned cries of onlookers simply do not cohere to give the impression of a two-way brawl.

To rephrase the verbiage of the police report in comprehensible terms, Sefolosha behaved like somebody who, having broken no law, did not want to be handcuffed. Sefolosha does not strike any officers or verbally threaten anyone, as the video shows; the "flailing" action Officer Giancona describes comes after six men have begun grabbing Sefolosha's limbs, and even then conveys all the potential danger and aggressiveness a wet mop might pose. The video footage of the encounter depicts six police officers struggling with Sefolosha, who is heard saying "relax, man, relax," in an even voice. This is right before the police cuff his neck, force him to the ground, and, with an audible crack, strike his lower body with a collapsible baton.

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It is this baton strike which most likely shattered Sefoshola's fibula and damaged his leg's ligaments, an injury which ended his season. "The baton can be a very effective and injurious weapon," says Gangi. Perhaps even more disturbing is the revelation that while all NYPD officers are trained in the effective use of their batons, the matter of when to use these weapons is of less concern; on this, NYPD policy seems non-existent. The NYPD Patrol Guide section "Use of Force"—besides being a disturbingly scant one and a half pages long—contains no guidance on when it is appropriate for an officer to use a baton.

This is not to say the NYPD's nightsticks are gathering dust in a storeroom. Professor Amanda Geller of New York University, using publicly available statistics, found that, from 2005 to 2011, anywhere from .01 to .02 percent of all NYPD "Stop & Frisk" incidents involved the use of a baton by a police officer. Most such usages, however, are perhaps never recorded; incidents such as the bludgeoning in the head of an alleged fare-beater by a baton-wielding officer, or the sodomizing of a 24-year-old man with a nightstick on a subway platform, only bubble to the surface by dint of how nakedly abusive they are.

Indeed, it is not either NBA player who appears out of control in the video of their arrests; it is the patrolmen. As Gangi says, for policemen in the heat of the moment, "there is a need for action coursing through their bodies." I suppose it is possible that Sefolosha charged the police so rapidly, while off-camera, that they were knocked 100 feet clean down 17th Street, whereupon they joined forces to manfully subdue a barely-human juggernaut.

But more plausible, I feel, is another theory: that in offering aid and comfort to a hurting peer, Sefolosha, a black man, and Antić, a Macedonian immigrant, somehow annoyed NYPD officers, in some barely discernible affront to their power and authority, and thus had to pay a price. Perhaps, as a source close to Sefolosha told Sports Illustrated writer Greg Hanlon, an angry police officer followed Sefolosha "like a D-back tracking a receiver" as the two Hawks walked away from the scene, provoking the player until he finally "asked in substance what the officer's problem was with him." And there, the trouble began. "There's a madness to it," says Gangi. "The badge, the gun, and the knowledge you can get away with anything…the only way to curb excessive violence is to seriously sanction the officer."

Time will tell if such a sanction can be effected here. Both players are fighting the charges, and Sefolosha released a defiant statement, squarely blaming the NYPD for his broken leg. Support has been widespread in the league, with Hawks teammate and National Basketball Players Association Vice President Kyle Korver stating, "justice is going to happen and the full story will be told." Players Association spokesperson Tara Greco stated, "we are still investigating the events and are working closely with Sefolosha's legal team to gather and analyze information on a daily basis," as Sefolosha and Antić prepare a complaint against their arresting officers. An NYPD spokesperson confirmed "the allegation have [sic] been reported to the Internal Affairs Bureau and there is an active investigation into this matter."

Good luck to them. I hope the Internal Affairs detectives can crack this case. Unfortunately, it is too late for the Hawks' postseason, and Sefolosha's damaged leg. As Gangi concluded, "the police got their pound of flesh."