By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The words "rogue cops" are usually enough to get news desks humming. And the announcement this month by state attorney general Eliot Spitzer that he was suing the entire town of Wallkill in upstate Orange County for failing to rein in its errant police force brought national media rushing to the rolling, snow-covered hills of the mid Hudson valley.
Spitzer's lawsuit was an even easier news sell because it suggested the possibility of an all-important "trend," coming as it did amid well-publicized reports about Long Island cops demanding sex and ordering women to disrobe in exchange for leniency for traffic violations.
So on Thursday night, at the Wallkill Town Hall next door to the sprawling Galleria shopping mall on Route 211, there were half a dozen cameras from network news magazines on hand for a meeting of the town's board.
When the meeting was done with the regular business of water, sewer, and zoning issues for this town 70 miles north of Times Square, where suburbia is relentlessly overtaking rural pastures, a man named John King strode to the microphone and excoriated town supervisors for failing to stop the police misconduct detailed in Spitzer's lawsuit.
"You've done a disservice to this town and made us the laughing stock of Orange County," said King to loud applause from the back of the room.
Indeed, the language in Spitzer's lawsuit is startling. The town's police department, he said, is "a continuing danger to both citizens of Wallkill and all other New Yorkers who travel through the jurisdiction." His complaint cites a series of incidents in which police allegedly pulled over female motorists "just to see who they are and what they look like"; falsely accused women of drunken driving in order to get dates with them, and fondled 16-year-old girls at fast food restaurants.
"You've done a disservice to this town and made us the laughing stock of Orange County."
But by the time those incidents were revealed, the attorney general's staff already knew a lot about law enforcement abuses in Orange County. It had filed a separate lawsuit against high-level county police officials there, one with disturbing echoes of Wallkill's problems. That case, however, got no media attention outside Orange County.
Spitzer v. Orange County Sheriff's Foundation, Inc. et al, filed on September 15, 2000, in State Supreme Court in Dutchess County, alleges the embezzlement of more than $100,000 from a fund established to benefit volunteer deputy policemen for the county. It also cited a series of illegal police roadside pull-overs of young women, eerily similar to those by the Wallkill police. The civil suit named seven individuals including Orange County's powerful sheriff, H. Frank Bigger, and most curiously, an on-again, off-again government public relations official and TV newsman named Harry Ryttenberg, who headed the county's volunteer deputy sheriff unit.
The Times Herald-Record,which had broken earlier stories about misconduct in the volunteer unit, put the lawsuit on its front page. But south of Bear Mountain, Orange County's easternmost point, the story died. Even though Harry Ryttenberg is a well-known figure to New York City reporters, editors, and politicians, not a whisper of the troubling allegations against him made it into the city's papers or onto its airwaves until the Wallkill lawsuit.
Not that news people hadn't heard of Ryttenberg's legal troubles. He had quietly slid out of his job as a Pataki administration spokesman in early 1999 when his Orange County activities were cited by the state's inspector general. He was working for a television news bureau when the suit was filed. But it probably wasn't hard to decide against doing the story. For one, it was a minor civil suit against a person unknown to the general public. Plus, a lot of news people like Harry Ryttenberg and owe him for past tips. Also, since Harry had long claimed poor health, it would be easy to feel sorry for him and not want to cost him his job as an investigative reporter for UPN-9 News.
Either way, as a member of the news fraternity, Harry Ryttenberg caught a big break, the kind granted few others by a business quick to invoke its "people deserve to know" defense when criticized for relentlessly focusing its cameras and columns on the foibles and failures of others.
The news business is rife with cop buffs. Cop talk and attitude are infectious given the constant interplay between police and newspeople. Earnest, graduate-school-trained reporters casually open sentences with "This shithead." Others adopt cop-world regalia: radios, lights, sirens, even pistolsgizmos that provide practical benefit to those chasing cop stories on a daily basis. Still, most news peoplewith a handful of exceptionsknow the dividing line between the business of law enforcement and that of reporting.
Harry Ryttenberg, who turned 50 this month, was always an exception. The trunk of his big, dark, police-style sedans always bristled with antennas from his radios. He had a police light on his dashboard and a siren and loudspeaker under the hood. He carried a cop's standard-issue .38 caliber pistol, and let you know he had it.
"I always wanted to be a cop," he acknowledged recently. It was his father, a newsstand operator, who wouldn't hear of it, he said. His family paid for a private school education, sending him to the progressive Little Red School House in the Village and the Baldwin School on the Upper East Side. But he wound up at Lehman College in the Bronx, where he dropped out after two years.