The Killing of Kenneth Banks

Madison Avenue between 124th and 126th streets is part of "the new, new Harlem Renaissance." The avenue cuts a wide swath across 125th Street, where Elvy Simon's Flavored With One Love, a West Indian restaurant, and A Taste of Seafood, a mom-and-pop fish-and-chips joint run by Rickey Thomas's family, symbolize the culturaland economic rebirth of the fabled community.

But some things haven't changed, including the events that led to the alleged police murder of Kenneth Banks.

For years these two blocks also have been home to the ubiquitous hard knocks—down-on-their-luck black men who earn a living dealing marijuana and crack. Some say that the 36-year-old Banks, a reputed drug dealer who was convicted of criminal trespass in 1997 and petty larceny in 1984, was a hard knock who "did what he had to do" to survive.

As Rickey Thomas intimated to an assistant district attorney, for all he knew, Banks, who was "sometimes homeless," sold bootleg videotapes. He had no proof that one of the desperate moves of his childhood friend involved dealing in drugs.

"Kenny wasn't doing too good," recalls the 38-year-old Thomas, a devout Christian who attended Julia Richmond High School with Banks and his brother Benny in the early '70s. "I sensed when Kenny was slipping," he adds. "Was it drugs? Being that I used to live that life before, I can tell who was using and who was not. But like I told [the prosecutor], I don't know that he was using or selling drugs."

Police say that on October 29 cops observed Banks in a drug transaction and when officers tried to arrest him he fled. Witnesses say that Officer Craig Yokemick came within a few feet of Banks as he tried to get away on a bicycle and threw his two-pound walkie-talkie at the suspect. Banks fell from the bike. He died at Metropolitan Hospital Center on November 10. Twelve days later, the medical examiner ruled that the thrown radio had killed Banks.

With a toxicology report pending, Yokemick's attorney, Bruce Smirti, alleged that Banks swallowed vials of crack to destroy evidence as he was fleeing. "I still believe that a contributing factor to his death—or the most important factor—was the voluntary ingestion of cocaine," Smirti said.

Rickey Thomas has not wavered in his belief that Officer Craig Yokemick alone is responsible for killing Kenneth Banks. Unlike Yokemick's attorney, Thomas says he saw what happened on that sunny day as he sat in his Ford Explorer, double-parked outside of his family's restaurant, impatiently looking for a parking spot.

Thomas says that around 3:30 p.m. (others put the time at 2:30), he heard sirens, then saw a police van, lights flashing, speeding up Madison.

It seemed like routine police business; cops are always "jackin'" suspects on the avenue. "Around here a lot of guys sell reefer," says Thomas. "I don't know if they sell anything hard, but you have a lot of Jamaican brothers who are into the weed. Ain't nobody stoopid. The police are doing they job. You out there standing too long, they're gonna make you move, search you."

About 15 minutes later, Thomas "sees Kenny shooting around the corner and this cop on his tail." Banks was pushing hard on a tiny dirt bike and Officer Yokemick, who Thomas describes as about six foot three and heavyset, seemed breathless.

"As Kenny gets to the corner, he starts pulling away from the cop," Thomas recalls. "The cop sees he is not gonna catch him."

Thomas says that without missing a step, Yokemick allegedly grasped his two-way radio like a football and threw it at Banks as he rode into the crosswalk. The radio struck Banks in the back of the head; the blunt force of the impact sent him sprawling. "I saw in Kenny's eyes that he was knocked out. Once he was out he proceeded to fall."

Banks fell off the bike in front of the restaurant. "The first thing he hit was his head," says Thomas, reiterating that he believes his friend was out cold from Yokemick's brutal pass. "If you're falling and you're conscious you gonna put your hands out," he reasons. "He was unconscious and when he fell he hit his head."

Yokemick picked up his radio, straddled the suspect, and radioed for backup. According to Thomas, the officer searched Banks's pockets, then turned him over and handcuffed him behind his back. "The cops didn't remove nothin' from Kenny's pocket," he insists. "They didn't find no drugs on him. If they had found it they woulda held it up to the people and yelled, 'Look what we found!'"

An angry crowd of about 70 people gathered around Yokemick and his partner, who had responded to his call for assistance.

"You muthafuckaz!" Thomas heard an eyewitness shout.

"Fuck you! You fuckin' whiteys!" declared another. "That's why y'all be gittin' kilt now 'cause y'all always be doin' stuff like that."

Thomas remembers the beleaguered cops responding, "Get back! Get back!" Banks, he insists, was unconscious. "Kenny was laying flat on his face," he says. "I saw blood coming out of his mouth, and where he had scraped his nose, his head, and his eyes from falling flat on his face."

Moses Stewart was manning the crisis center of Al Sharpton's National Action Network when a man rapped on the door of the second-floor office overlooking Madison Avenue. He told Stewart that a white cop had "knocked a brother out" with his police radio; a crowd was surrounding two officers "and he was afraid there might be an ugly situation."

Stewart raced to the scene. "When I got there, the officer that had hit brother Banks was standing over him in a gesture of humiliation, as though he had captured an animal," says Stewart, whose son, Yusuf Hawkins, was shot and killed by a gang of white thugs in 1989. Then Yokemick allegedly did something that confirmed Stewart's worst stereotype of police officers.

"The police began dragging brother Banks, unconscious, to the van," claims Stewart, who says he told the same story to Detective Stanley Mahabeer and Sergeant Nicholas Rivera, the two cops who investigated the alleged attack on Abner Louima in the 70th Precinct station house. "They literally dragged the brother to the van and threw him in as though he was a dead deer who had been hit crossing the street," adds Stewart, who provided the investigators with names of other witnesses. "They just dropped him in there. I don't know whether they really knew that he was never going to regain consciousness."

As the crowd shouted racial epithets at the officers, Stewart says he confronted Yokemick. "I asked him why he had knocked brother Banks out in the manner that he did, and why was he being so rude to the people." Yokemick, he says, told him to stay out of police business. Stewart responded that he was an aide to Sharpton and that it was his job to monitor allegations of police brutality.

"Immediately after identifying myself as working for Reverend Sharpton he took on a very arrogant attitude," Stewart charges. "He didn't like my presence there."

The officers cautiously backed away from Stewart and the crowd, got into the van, and sped off. Neither Stewart nor Thomas heard them radio for medical assistance. Police said Banks was conscious when they took him into custody, but that he suffered three seizures at the 25th Precinct before slipping into a coma on October 30.

Allegations of police brutality once again divided the city. The day Kenneth Banks died, Reverend Sharpton appeared on NY1's Inside City Hall expressing outrage over yet another example of the NYPD's senseless approach to apprehending black suspects. Although there have been complaints about police using radios as weapons, there is no specific policy about the practice. The Civilian Complaint Review Board, which monitors police misconduct allegations, has a separate category for such incidents, called "Radio as Club."

One irate viewer dispatched this angry e-mail to the station the next day:

"I understand Reverend Sharpton's motives when he questions how some officers overstep their bounds. So, I am not against Reverend Sharpton questioning the manner in which the officer chose to apprehend an alleged drug offender. However, Mr. Sharpton needs to ask himself how many black and Hispanic people truly care that this drug dealer was hit in the back of the head and suffered a seizure because he swallowed his own poison? Reverend Sharpton must also recognize black and Hispanic people are tired of seeing these people in our community selling their drugs, endangering the well-being of our children, and making life more uneasy. He should talk more about how we can take back our community from people who don't pay taxes and roam around the neighborhood as if they own it."

Sharpton says his critic is ignorant regarding his history as an anti-drug crusader, pointing out that in the 1980s he recruited celebrities and politicians who roamed drug-infested neighborhoods painting red crucifixes on suspected crack houses. And today his message has been heard in hundreds of public schools, including the one Kenneth Banks attended.

He concedes that black communities should have zero tolerance for drug dealers, but argues that such an attitude will not change what happened to Banks. "We cannot allow the police department to use an alleged drug dealer to set a precedent—the use of police radios as lethal weapons," says the civil rights activist. Since cops allegedly used a toilet plunger to sodomize Abner Louima, Sharpton has been speaking out against "the new weapons of choice.

"We've seen how brutal they can be with anything they put their hands on. If we don't cry out, they will be throwing radios with the intention to kill."

Sharpton says he feels close to Banks because he has a half brother, also named Kenny, who was a drug addict jailed for a drug-related offense. "You put drug dealers like Kenny banks in rehab; you don't kill them," asserts the reverend, who recently ended a two-decade-old feud with former mayor Ed Koch, with whom he is about to launch a "second chance" program for first-time offenders. "If one of the Kennedy boys was caught buying drugs uptown and a cop threw his radio at him, there certainly would have been a different reaction."

Sharpton declared that cops like Yokemick should have been kicked off the force a long time ago. In 1993, Yokemick was accused of excessive force and discourtesy, and lost 10 vacation days. A year later, he was reprimanded for using a police scooter without permission. In 1995, he was docked 15 vacation days for assaulting a Department of Transportation employee.

Sharpton contends that Yokemick might have been identified as an officer prone to commit acts of misconduct had the NYPD not blocked the CCRB's request for the files of hundreds of officers suspected of misconduct or brutality. (Public Advocate Mark Green had requested the files after learning that police officials in the first half of 1996 took no action on 53 of 96 police brutality and misconduct cases that were substantiated or recommended for discipline by the independent review board. An appeals court ruled recently that Green was entitled to the files.)

The debate over whether Yokemick intended to kill Kenneth Banks still rages at the corner where he died.

"Being that Kenny was sitting down on the bike, it was easy for [Yokemick] to connect to his head," Thomas explained to reporters after the medical examiner's ruling. "You figure you hit somebody in their back with a police radio it will hurt, but it's not gonna stop them. His intention, to me, was to stop him. If you're riding a bike and not maneuvering and I throw a radio at you, intending to hit your head, it's gonna hit your head."

Research: W. Michelle Beckles

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