Jailhouse Shock

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

Her troubles began around 10 p.m., when a Brazilian tourist approached her in the 14th Street subway station asking for directions. He held out a slip of paper with an address Desmond Dumesnil didn't recognize. Not familiar with the neighborhood, Desmond Dumesnil approached a newsstand in the station and asked the clerk for help. The clerk, in turn, told her to ask a man who stood partially obscured in the back corner of the stand. She couldn't see the man clearly, but certainly heard his reply. He called her question "stupid" and asked, over his shoulder, "Do I look like a map to you, lady?"

"Asshole," Desmond Dumesnil muttered, turning away to ask someone else.

Moments later, the man— a uniformed cop— emerged from the newsstand and demanded, "What did you say to me?"

"Oh, no," thought Desmond Dumesnil. But she told Officer Robert Ripp the truth. "I'm trying to help this guy who is a tourist and you were rude, and yes, I think you're an asshole."

According to Desmond Dumesnil, Ripp pulled out his handcuffs, told her she was under arrest, and threw her roughly against the wall. As he began cuffing her, another officer approached. Desmond Dumesnil pleaded with him to get the Brazilian man's phone number; no one did. When a woman said, "I saw what happened, do you need a witness?" Desmond Dumesnil says Ripp told the woman to"move along," nudging her in the back and intimidating her into leaving the scene.

Desmond Dumesnil was arrested and taken into police custody, where she would spend the next 18 hours in her private little circle of hell. Because she had a California driver's license instead of a local one, police said they needed someone to vouch for her New York residency. (She gave them phone numbers for two friends. Cops told her they couldn't get hold of them; the friends said they were home all night and received no calls and no messages on answering machines.) Because her residency couldn't be verified, cops sent Desmond Dumesnil downtown to Central Booking. There police asked her if she was suicidal. When she glibly remarked that the situation might cause her to feel suicidal, she was sent to Bellevue for evaluation. After handcuffing her to a wheelchair, Ripp terrified her by repeatedly telling her she was "my prisoner." When she met the first sympathetic ear of the night, a psychiatric nurse, she broke down, sobbing, "No, I'm not suicidal but I'm afraid of being strip-searched and I'm really afraid of this cop." Desmond Dumesnil says the nurse felt bad for her, and believes that Bellevue staff may have deliberately held her there until Ripp went off duty. After several hours, another cop relieved him and took Desmond Dumesnil back downtown. Finally, at 4:30 p.m. the day after she was arrested, police released her.

Exhausted and relieved, Desmond Dumesnil returned to the 6th Precinct to retrieve the purse cops had taken upon arresting her. But because she didn't have any ID on her— it was in the purse— police at the precinct wouldn't return her bag when she presented them with the receipt for her possessions. They told her she would have to go home to her apartment and bring back identification. But her keys were in her purse, so she couldn't get into her apartment. At that point, Desmond Dumesnil gave up in despair. (A friend succeeded in eventually getting her purse back from the police.)

Police declined to comment on the case. But filings from the criminal suit back up the basic facts. Officer Ripp's disorderly conduct charge declares that "Def screamed A/O [at officer] 'you asshole. Tell Giuliani about it.' " (Desmond Dumesnil admits that this is what she said, but denies screaming it.) Further, he insists that "Def caused a crowd togather [sic] creating a hazardous condition and obstruction passage traffic [sic]." Because the purpose of disorderly conduct charges is to prevent acts that are "undertaken with an intent to create a risk of public disorder or breach of the peace, where both the audience and the speaker are inevitably proceeding toward an eruption of civil strife," the judge dismissed the case. With typical judicial understatement, Judge Neil E. Ross ruled on September 23 that "the words 'you asshole' shouted under the circumstances which Officer Ripp recounts do not establish prima facie defendant's culpability under Penal Law section 240.20." In other words, calling a cop an asshole is not a crime.

What kind of recourse do New Yorkers like Robbins and Desmond Dumesnil have?

"Very little," says Joel Berger, the attorney representing them. "The system is basically a joke."

When a New Yorker files a complaint against a cop with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, as Robbins did, the CCRB substantiates the claim only 5 percent of the time. And while the CCRB announced last week that the number of police misconduct complaints shot up this year— from 4769 in 1997 to 4976 in 1998— the number of cases that were substantiated dropped from 448 last year to 300 this year. When these few substantiated claims are forwarded to the police department, the NYPD conducts its own internal investigation. It is then up to police brass to decide what kind of punishment to mete out. Or whether to punish officers at all.

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