Jailhouse Shock

Or, what happens when an honest citizen calls a cop an asshole

If there were a photo op involved, Giuliani would be handing these two quality-of-life vigilantes the key to the city. Instead, police arrested them. Their crime? Saying the wrong thing to a thin-skinned cop. Furious, they're now suing the city for millions.

Shawn Robbins, a 30-year-old freelance associate director for CBS Sports, was walking along 51st Street on his way to the gym around 7:30 p.m. on November 20, 1997, when he noticed a man cleaning out his car by tossing debris onto the sidewalk. Though he doesn't typically reprimand litterers, Robbins grew indignant as he watched the guy casually throwing trash and, finally, a coffee cup onto the pavement. "It was so blatant," Robbins says. "It got to the point where I had to say something."

For his effort, he got nothing but trouble. Robbins recalls events this way: "I told the guy, 'Hey, there's a trash can on every block in this city, why don't you put it in the garbage?'" The man— an off-duty cop— began his own interpretation of the police department's "CPR" public relations program. He was "courteous": "You wanna pick it up, you fuckin' pick it up." He was "respectful": "Don't fuckin' put that on my car," he said, as Robbins picked up the nearly empty coffee cup and went to set it on the man's trunk. He was "professional": "You're fucked now, I'm a cop."

As the man, police officer Brian Moran, lunged at Robbins, the coffee spilled on the car. "Turn the fuck around and put your hands behind your back," Moran told Robbins, announcing that he was arresting him.

"I still couldn't believe he was really a cop and littering like that, so I asked to see some ID." Moran refused to produce the ID, yelling for police backup instead. As Robbins countered by urging anyone nearby to help him make a citizen's arrest, Moran upped the ante: "You want me to take my gun out and put it to your head? Will that make you turn around?"

Robbins turned.

As he did, Robbins says that Moran's backup, Officer Michael Orlando, arrived and pushed Robbins's face toward the iron gate of a store. The cops cuffed Robbins and marched him to the 17th Precinct. At the station, Moran explained his "disorderly conduct" arrest to desk sergeant Kevin Meurer: "This asshole threw coffee on my car." As proof, he put the cup on Meurer's desk. "Sounds like disorderly conduct to me," Meurer concurred. When Robbins tried to explain his side of the story, Moran grew irate again. "You fucking people think they're your streets," he screamed. "They're my fucking streets!"

Robbins was led to a holding cell, then issued a summons for criminal court. He was finally released after several hours of waiting.

On his way out, he swung by the desk for the names of the officers who'd arrested him. Help was not forthcoming. "If I was you, I'd get out of here, and if you don't get out of here, you're going to get fucking locked up again," Robbins recalls Sergeant Meurer saying.

On March 23, a Criminal Court judge quickly dismissed the "disorderly conduct" charge against Robbins. In July, Robbins filed a civil rights suit alleging police brutality, false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution. The case is still pending. Robbins also filed a complaint, days after his arrest, with the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

Though the police department refused to comment on the case, documents obtained by the Voice indicate the complaints against Orlando and Meurer were not substantiated by the CCRB and that Moran has denied all of Robbins's charges. In Moran's version of events, he was simply removing a full cup of coffee he discovered on the hood of his car when he heard Robbins insisting that he should "pick that up because people lived on this street." Moran told the man that the garbage was not his and refused to pick it up. Moran says Robbins deliberately threw coffee on his car and that's why he arrested him. CCRB interview notes say "PO [police officer] Moran states that he never used the word 'fuck' and never called the man an 'asshole.'... PO Moran states that he does not recall yelling anything out loud in the stationhouse... PO Moran states that no officer said, 'if I were you, I'd get the fuck out of here.' "

After hearing both sides of the story and interviewing witnesses, including others in the holding cell that night, the CCRB sided with Robbins against Moran. The substantiated complaint has been forwarded to the police department, which is in charge of disciplining officers. Assistant Police Commissioner Kevin Lubin promised in a letter, dated May 20, 1998, that Robbins would "be advised of the final action taken" against Officer Moran. So far, Robbins has not heard a word.

In November, 46-year-old Ellen Desmond Dumesnil filed a similar civil suit against the cops and the city. A grants manager at the Migration Ministries Program of the Episcopal Church in Manhattan, Desmond Dumesnil was also guilty of slighting the NYPD: on May 13, 1998, she was arrested for calling a cop an asshole.

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