The $65,000 Question

Why Is Fred Napoleoni Still a Cop?

His five known victims are black and Jewish. Three of them, neighborhood dirt bike thrill-seekers, were barely teenagers. One was a frightened 12-year-old who urinated in his pants at the 78th Precinct station house in Brooklyn. The others were an interracial couple on a night out-she, a Columbia University lecturer, he, an African American in the company of a white woman. All crossed paths with undercover police officer Fred Napoleoni and suffered from his brutal fists or humiliating rhetoric, the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) has confirmed.

Despite this alarming dossier on Napoleoni, he is still a cop-a white cop who can depend on the Giuliani administration to compensate the victims of his rage. For the second time this year, the city has settled a police-brutality lawsuit against the officer in federal court.

In separate incidents, according to the CCRB and court documents obtained by the Voice, Napoleoni repeatedly punched one of the young blacks, falsely accusing him of attempting to steal the officer's bicycle, and issued trumped-up summonses to the interracial couple who complained during a traffic stop that pulling them over was "a form of harassment." Both incidents occurred seven months apart in 1997. Last month, following a hearing in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, the city agreed to pay the family of Stephen Griffith, the teenager who was beaten, $50,000 for violating his civil rights. In March, it coughed up $15,000 to Daniella Liebling and David M. Rackley for violating their constitutional rights.

Stephen Griffith, at the age of 14: He once liked cops, but a beating from one officer has left him embittered.
photo: Jay Muhlin
Stephen Griffith, at the age of 14: He once liked cops, but a beating from one officer has left him embittered.

In settling the cases, the city did not admit any wrongdoing by Officer Napoleoni. But as part of the settlement in the couple's case, Napoleoni agreed to enroll (at his expense) in a course entitled "Police and Community Relations" at John Jay College. Still pending are the CCRB's recommendations to the police department that disciplinary action be taken against Napoleoni. Six other officers who did nothing to stop this misconduct were not charged.

That Napoleoni is still on the force angers Matthew Flamm, a former assistant city corporation counsel, who represents the Griffith family. "The suits illustrate the police department's flawed disciplinary system," asserts Flamm, "a system that has imposed no penalty despite substantiated CCRB complaints, and a judgement of $65,000 in civil rights settlements for claims against Officer Napoleoni."

How much more the city has doled out as a result of Napoleoni's overly aggressive law enforcement tactics is unknown. The NYPD refuses to release background information on him or to comment on the settlement, citing an internal investigation of the CCRB's charges.

Officer Napoleoni's first known involvement in an allegedly racial encounter occurred on the night of January 20, 1997, after he and three other cops pulled up behind Daniella Liebling's car, which had stopped at a traffic light at the intersection of Fourth Avenue and Union Street in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. The officers trained their patrol van's high beams on the rear window of the car in which David Rackley was a front-seat passenger.

According to court documents, when the traffic light changed to green and Liebling drove off, the turret lights on the van activated, indicating to Liebling that she should pull over. The woman complied. Four officers approached Liebling's car, two on each side. One of the officers allegedly told Liebling that he "had seen Rackley hitting her and believed that she was being abused." Liebling emphatically denied that, but the officer persisted, claiming that he also had observed Rackley reaching for something, which might have been a gun. The officer told her he and his partners were only doing their job and had intervened for her "own good." Liebling rejected the explanation.

When Liebling did not go along with the setup, the officer demanded to see her driver's license. The cops also ordered Rackley out of the car. "He was takenseveral feet away from the car and questioned by officers with their hands on their guns," according to the couple's suit. "He was never questioned about striking Ms. Liebling, or possessing a gun, or even asked his name."

The officers did ask Rackley where he was coming from. "Manhattan," came the terse response, infuriating the officers, who pressed for specific details about the couple's evening together. After responding that he and Liebling had been at a restaurant, the officers demanded to know precisely where the couple were headed.

"As he began to answer that question the officers finally demanded in a hostile and angry way to know what he was doing with her," the court papers state. Meanwhile, Liebling was being peppered with racially tinged questions by one of the officers.

"How do I know who this guy is?" he asked her. "I don't know if he is your husband, your boyfriend, or what."

Unable to intrude on the couple's privacy, the officers hopped back in their van and prepared to drive away. That's when Rackley approached the van and asked for their badge numbers. "The officers at first refused to provide such numbers, saying that they were doing [the couple] a favor by letting them go," the court papers note. "Mr. Rackley persisted, telling the officers that he believed that the stop was a form of harassment."

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