Brutal Force

A suspicious death in police custody and a comatose prisoner raise new charges of misconduct as Amnesty International blasts the NYPD

The outcry from the activist community might have been muffled by City Hall's dismissive spin had it not been for the coincidental release last week of an Amnesty International report, which concludes that New York City under Rudy Giuliani is plagued with killer cops and abusive prison guards. The report singles out the NYPD for last year's horrific attack against Haitian immigrant Abner Louima and the 1994 choking death of Anthony Baez. It also criticizes the department for excessive use of deadly force. Giuliani responded with his usual inflated rhetoric, claiming that the force has one of the lowest per capita shooting rates in the country. He also said that the report looked at only a few incidents, and to call his cops among the worst in the nation was an "outrage."

Three days after the report was released, federal judge Shira Scheindlin sentenced former Bronx police officer Francis Livoti for using an illegal choke hold, which resulted in Anthony Baez's death. In sentencing Livoti to seven and a half years in prison, Scheindlin berated the officer for showing little remorse over the killing, and added that the NYPD "knew [Livoti] was dangerous" and did nothing about it.

Under fire, Safir—clearly acting on orders from the mayor—pulled off what many activists viewed as a cosmetic racial hustle. Over the weekend, Safir axed Officer Joseph Locurto, a white cop who donned blackface and rode on a float in a Labor Day parade in Broad Channel, Queens, parodying the brutal and racist killing of a black man. In a statement, Safir, who downplayed the charges in the Amnesty International report, said Locurto does not deserve to wear the shield of a New York police officer and should be dismissed. He added that Locurto's behavior at the parade set a poor example, which brought shame to the NYPD.

Norman Siegel, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, countered that if the dismissal of Locurto is intended to cover up the Giuliani administration's embarrassing record of combating racism within the department, that act of "self-righteous hypocrisy" will backfire.

"This is the same NYPD that does not fire cops who beat people up while on duty, call them racial names, have disciplinary records, and lie," charges Siegel, who represented Locurto at his departmental hearing. "The decision is utterly baffling and irrational. Moreover, it demonstrates that both the mayor and the NYPD leadership still do not get it when it comes to realistically ameliorating racism within the NYPD."

Racism allegedly turned the American dream of Jean Charles—who was only trying to obey the law—into a nightmare on a recent fall morning. Today, the 53-year-old father of three, who emigrated from Haiti 18 years ago, languishes in a coma in Brooklyn Hospital. His family and lawyers are appalled by the circumstances surrounding his arrest and what subsequently happened to him.

Around 9 a.m. on September 24, police said in a statement, Charles went to the headquarters of the Brooklyn South Task Force on Coney Island Avenue to turn himself in on a very unusual warrant.

Forty minutes later, he was taken to Criminal Court in downtown Brooklyn. "While at court," according to the police statement, "Mr. Charles suffered a seizure and was transported to Brooklyn Hospital by EMS." Four days later, Internal Affairs investigators who went to the hospital to interview Charles were told by a doctor that he was in "critical condition following surgery to relieve pressure which caused a blood clot [on] his brain. As a result of the blood clot, Mr. Charles had suffered a stroke."

Police said that when the investigators "specifically asked...if there were any signs of force," the doctor replied that "there were no signs of trauma to his head." Charles's condition "was related directly to his hypertension," they quoted the physician as saying.

Veteran civil rights attorney Eric G. Poulos, who is representing the family, says a doctor at the hospital told Charles's son, Jean Charles Jr., 26, a different story. "When he arrived at the hospital, he was told by the doctor that the police said they had to use force on his father," Poulos says. "When Jean Charles Jr. began to question the doctor, a police officer who was in the room reading a newspaper confirmed that officers had to use force."

Whatever happened to Jean Charles, the questionable circumstances surrounding his arrest infuriate Poulos and his colleagues, Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Michael Smith. Jean Charles Jr. told the lawyers that in late May two white cops pulled up outside of his father's auto-body shop in East Flatbush, saying they had come to issue a summons because he had improperly displayed a certificate to operate an air compressor. According to Poulos, the cops noted that Charles had affixed a copy instead of the original to a wall in the shop.

When the younger Charles said they lived nearby and he could get the original, one of the cops replied that it was too late and wrote out a summons. Poulos says Charles "went to court on the date he was supposed to, but the police weren't there and it was put over. He returned the next day; the police still weren't there. So he went home. Apparently, it was when he didn't show on the third day that a warrant was issued for his arrest."

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