VICE News is closely watching policing in America. Check out the Officer Involved blog here.
Outrage over the arrest of a black mailman in Brooklyn has escalated following the disclosure that the officers involved have a history of alleged civil rights violations. New York City officials are now weighing in and expressing concern about the incident, which began when an unmarked police vehicle nearly struck Glen Grays, a 27-year old postal worker, as he was delivering a parcel to a Crown Heights address.
In a radio interview on WNYC, Grays walked listeners through the details of the incident that led to his arrest on March 17. After he was nearly hit, the mailman said he told the driver of the car, who turned out to be a plainclothes officer, "You should watch where you're going."
As he crossed the street, Grays recalled, he looked over his shoulder and noticed the car backing up. An officer jumped out, "aggressively pull[ed] his pants up," and began yelling at him to get his identification. "It didn't matter that I had a uniform on," Gray said, "that I was a federal employee."
"I told him 'my fiancée's a cop,' and he just waved it off like it wasn't anything," Grays said. The officers — Luis Machado, Lazo Lluka, Miguel Rodriguez and David Savella from the 71st precinct — arrested Grays and bundled him into their unmarked police vehicle. A bystander captured the entire incident on video.
Grays was forced to leave his United States Postal Service truck unattended and double-parked on a busy street. New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said that detail would be "a significant issue of concern in terms of the investigation going forward."
Grays said the officers failed to put a seatbelt on him, and that an officer was "turned in the seat, cursing me out" while they were on the way to the 71st precinct. At one point, the driver reportedly lost control of the vehicle and rear-ended the car in front of it.
Grays was discharged from the precinct not long after his arrest.
At a press conference last week, Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president and a former NYPD captain, presented the video footage showing the arrest. "It is not a crime for someone to voice outrage after almost being struck by a vehicle," Adams said. "It is not a crime to state that you're angry at someone who almost hit you. That is not a crime."
Adams has urged the NYPD's internal affairs division to take swift disciplinary action against the officers responsible for the arrest. "If it can happen to the mailman, it can happen to anyone in the community," Adams said.
"We have become desensitized to seeing black men being arrested, men like Glen that live life right," the borough president added. "He's the poster of what we want our men to be. Family of six. Oldest of the six, all his brothers look up to him, watch him get up every day, put on his uniform and go do a job."
While Grays has a clean record, his arresting officers do not. In the last six years, three of the four officers involved in his arrest have been named as defendants in federal civil rights suits alleging false arrest and other forms of misconduct.
'If it can happen to the mailman, it can happen to anyone in the community.'
In May 2014, just a few blocks from where Grays was arrested, Officer Lluka and other cops approached a man who was working on his car and demanded paperwork for the vehicle, according to a federal civil suit filed last year. The man, Reigge Edward, went inside as asked, and when he returned, he said Lluka informed him he was under arrest and that he should phone someone to look after his children — or Child Protective Services would be summoned. Onlookers who protested the arrest said that the officers used excessive force in response to their complaints. One other person was arrested at the scene, and the lawsuit is still ongoing.
In another incident in April 2009, Lluka joined other officers responding to a noise complaint at location not far from where Grays was arrested. According to the resulting lawsuit, a woman refused to let the officers into her apartment because there were children present. Lluka and two other officers allegedly "slammed her into a wall, threw her to the ground, kneed her on her back, and handcuffed her." When the woman's brother insisted there had been a misunderstanding, a fourth officer hit him in the head with a baton, inflicting an injury that required hospital treatment. The city paid $14,000 in damages and $75,000 in legal fees to settle the lawsuit two years ago.
So far this year, civilians have filed 15 complaints against officers from the 71st precinct, which includes the predominantly black Crown Heights neighborhood. Six of those complaints involve excessive force allegations, and 13 people accused officers of abusing their authority. Last year, a total of 78 complaints were filed against officers from the 71st precinct, eight more than the previous year.
Bratton said at a press conference on Tuesday that the officers involved belonged to the NYPD's Conditions Unit, a "troubleshooting division" that responds to specific neighborhood conditions. The commissioner said the position is particularly coveted by officers, and that members of the unit are expected to work in uniform. "Part of the investigation into that incident will be, why were they in plainclothes — for what purpose, who authorized it," Bratton said.
Bratton also said othat the officers had been removed from their posts and put on patrol duty due to the ongoing investigation. An NYPD spokesperson told VICE News on Wednesday that there has been "no change in duty status" for the officers involved.
Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen
Photo via Wikimedia Commons