Just Following Orders

The NYPD’s ‘Nuremberg’ Defense

Comparing the tactics of NYPD officials to the infamous Nazi defense "exposed in the judgments at Nuremberg" (they were just following orders), a federal court judge in Manhattan last week ordered the department and the city to hand over more than $2 million to a former police officer and her lawyers. Last October, a jury awarded $1.25 million in compensatory damages to Gloria Gonzalez after finding that top brass retaliated against her for filing a sexual-harassment lawsuit against the department.

In addition to denying the department's appeal for a new trial, Justice Victor Marrero ordered Dr. Stanley Edelman, head of NYPD medical services, and captains Anthony Kissik and Nicholas Witkowich to cough up $75,000, $25,000, and $10,000 respectively in punitive damages. The department and the city also must pay Gonzalez's attorneys nearly $900,000 in legal fees, plus interest on three years of back pay.

Finally, Gonzalez seemed to have her life back.

Glory days: After battling the NYPD for 11 years, Gloria Gonzalez raises the victory flag.
photo: Michael Sofronski
Glory days: After battling the NYPD for 11 years, Gloria Gonzalez raises the victory flag.

"It's over," said the 40-year-old Latina, who considered killing herself in 1998. "I didn't have a gun so I visualized putting one to my head. When I couldn't get a gun, I decided to overdose on Xanax—pills I was taking to control panic attacks. The day I was going to commit suicide, I remember faxing a note to my friend, Jennie Williams, a senior police administrative aide. I told Jennie I couldn't take it anymore. She called me after receiving the fax, and immediately we started to pray. I invited God back into my life and let him take over from there."

Gonzalez claimed that former lieutenant Joseph Powell sexually harassed her while the two worked at the 45th Precinct in the Bronx during an 18-month period, starting in 1992. She filed an internal complaint against Powell with the NYPD's Office of Equal Employment Opportunity in May 1994. OEEO officials said her complaint was "unsubstantiated." And at the trial, the jury did not find that Gonzalez had been sexually harassed by Powell, who retired in 1999. Gonzalez also alleged she was retaliated against by NYPD officials for filing the complaint, and during the trial, a former police sergeant testified that Gonzalez was placed on a "hit list" of officers who were to be fired.

In a 69-page decision, Justice Marrero, criticizing the NYPD officials for playing the blame game, recalled similar strategies used by the nearly two dozen men who helped run Adolf Hitler's Third Reich and carry out the Holocaust, when they were brought to the dock at Nuremberg in 1945 to answer for war crimes. The defendants all sought to minimize their importance in the chain of command.

"This argument is familiar," Marrero contended. "Each time it is heard it raises the same fundamental issues, often inducing profound tremors of concern when pronounced by high-ranking public authorities. The defense is officialdom's way of saying, 'The Butler did it,' and then erecting a now-infamous circle of pointing fingers in an effort to wall off accountability for misdeeds in high places. Behind the barricades, the commanders, if they acknowledge that any wrong occurred at all, play out a well-worn script typically shifting blame to indistinct powers-that-be above, or, more likely, to subordinates below."

In turn, Marrero wrote, department underlings argue that "they did nothing but serve as pawns, merely following orders of distant authorities known or unknown—the same commands the chiefs deny they uttered. And so, the argument holds, no one shamed in this circular chain of blame may be held liable for grievous wrongs that never happened, though their corporeal reality is all too manifest and painful.

"The dangerous lengths to which this line of defense is sometimes taken, as well as the dark regions on which it may border, were all definitely exposed in the judgments at Nuremberg," the judge added. "For the reasons there so tragically witnessed, longstanding safeguards against misuse of executive prerogative to push blame up and down official ranks in order to diffuse culpability have been embodied in our civil rights jurisprudence."

On a humid summer morning last week, Gloria Gonzalez caressed her freshly shampooed tresses, brewed coffee, and barked orders at Papillon, a porky, six-year-old English bulldog that was whimpering and pawing at a storm door. On that nearly tragic day when Gonzalez thought about putting a gun to her head, she could not shake Papillon's hangdog image. "He knew when I was upset," she said. "He was just so loyal to me. When I found someone I knew would love my dog the way I did, I felt it was okay to commit suicide. Still, I couldn't end my life, partly because of that dog."

But Gonzalez's biggest worry was for her 24-year-old daughter, Nikki, an actress who once worked as Jennifer Lopez's body double. She knew that no one could love Nikki more than her. There were times, she said, when her tormentors almost drove her over the edge by hinting that Nikki might be harmed. "Cops would make reference to the fact that they knew that my daughter was out of state and that she was 'a hot babe,' " Gonzalez recalled.

Gonzalez's 11-year ordeal at the hands of NYPD officials would break even the most hardened cop. "I lost my self-esteem," said the former beat cop who aspired to be a detective. "I was scared of what they could do to me. I was fighting a war." Gonzalez felt she had been dumped in a ditch naked: Every time she tried to get out it was like the entire force of 40,000 cops was kicking her 90-pound frame back into the ditch. "I had malnutrition. I had whittled down to nothing and couldn't think anymore. I was being tailed. I was alone. I became a recluse. I wore a mask, a cap, and put on dark glasses and came out only at night."

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