By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
In July 1998, two months before Thomas Curto officially learned what really happened in the moments his Uncle Vincent lay dying on the floor of an East Village bodega, the Civilian Complaint Review Board gave police internal investigators the heads-up on its findings. In a stunning ruling, the board substantiated charges by Thomas that police brutally beat Vincent before and after he had been mortally wounded in a hail of gunfire by cops responding to a report of a robbery.
It will be one year on September 11 since the board assured Thomas in writing that the case had been turned over to Police Commissioner Howard Safir "with the recommendation that charges be preferred against the officer(s)." The board did not specify in the letter what the charges were, and its final report is confidential. Since then, Thomas, a 27-year-old dentist's assistant, says he has heard nothing from Safir about the progress of the investigation.
NYPD spokesperson Marilyn Mode told the Voice that "the whole matter was reviewed" by the deputy commissioner for trials, who recommended in May that "no disciplinary action" be taken. While vowing to look into Thomas's claim the department had not reached out to him about the final determination, Mode argued that the board rendered its decision too late a year after the statute of limitation expired on April 10, 1997. "There was an exception the department could make if a penal law crime had been committed, but none was committed," she said.
The department's ruling confirms what critics such as Thomas Curto have long contended: cops accused of brutality often go unpunished. Others say that more complaints, like the one filed by Thomas on behalf of his uncle, will continue to fall into the NYPD's black hole. Safir has been pushing a controversial proposal, which the Daily News reported recently would allow the department to send substantiated complaints back to the board, on the grounds that they do not constitute misconduct or require discipline.
Cries of justice for "Vinny" Curto seemed to echo louder last week in the wake of a "blue streak" of homicides. On September 1, an undercover cop fatally shot 32-year-old Richard Watson in Harlem after Watson allegedly cheated a cab driver out of the fare he owed for a ride from jail. The NYPD claims that the officer's gun went off while he was trying to pull Watson out of a second cab. About 100 people gathered at the scene, chanting, "Killers! Killers!" at the cops.
It was the second time in three days police had shot and killed a New Yorker. On August 30, four officers in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Borough Park fired a barrage of shots at Gary Busch, an emotionally disturbed man who allegedly was beating a police sergeant with a claw hammer and refused orders to put it down. The shooting prompted hundreds of Hasidic Jews to demonstrate into the early morning hours as community leaders questioned whether deadly force was necessary.
Safir and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared that a preliminary investigation had concluded the officers acted appropriately. Other police officials said that the shooting of Richard Watson appeared to be accidental.
Pressure had been mounting on Safir to revamp the department's disciplinary practices after a federal investigation confirmed that it does not properly police its 40,000 officers, some of whom routinely violate the civil rights of New Yorkers.
Zachary Carter, the U.S. attorney for Brooklyn's Eastern District, is believed to be focusing on a plan to create an independent panel to review brutality complaints and oversee the department's response to them. The current Civilian Complaint Review Board, which is controlled by the mayor, is viewed by some as ineffective.
Police critics have repeatedly cited statistics showing that of the roughly 5000 reports of misconduct received by the CCRB last year, only 300 were found to be substantiated and forwarded to Safir. Less than half of those cases resulted in disciplinary action.
In January 1997, Benjamin Lugo, Sigfredo Mendez, and Edwin Rivera pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery and assault in a botched holdup that ended in the friendly-fire shooting of Officer Keith Prunty and the killing of Vincent Curto inside the Lopez Deli Grocery Store, on East 3rd Street near Avenue C.
None of the defendants, according to Rivera's attorney, Lynne F. Stewart, who was interviewed by The New York Times, had prior criminal records and there was no evidence that they had fired on officers investigating the robbery.
"I want to make it very clear that my uncle did not shoot at these officers," Thomas Curto says. "My uncle never owned a gun and the police never presented one."
But that's not how the case originally was reported, resulting in, Thomas contends, a plea bargain for the robbers that was built on "lies and distortions" blaming his uncle for the tragic events.
The October 10, 1995, incident was described in initial reporting by the Daily News as a "wild shootout." Officer Prunty and his partner, Gerald Derby, were on patrol about 11:20 p.m. when a man told them that a robbery was taking place at the bodega, which was known as a drug spot. The cops, both assigned to the 9th Precinct, called for backup.