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 Acostas of 47th Street in Sunset Park hold their heads high. When they believe someone is disrespecting one of theirs, they bristle. Even when that someone is a police officer.
The three-generation clan freely admit to objecting when a cop interrupted July 4 festivities in front of the three-story walk-up where the grandparents Acosta, natives of Puerto Rico, moved into the first-floor apartment 24 years ago. Some 15 friends and family, including several young children, had congregated on the stoop and sidewalk, spending the humid Friday evening outdoors like many in the neighborhood.
At about 10, a car pulled up, and a police officer emerged. Without a word, the family says, he strode over to a boombox emitting reggae and yanked out the power cord that extended through a window. The machine belonged to 14-year-old Orlando. His mother, Elena, says she confronted the officer, shouting, "Hey, what are you doing? That's my kid's radio!"
Whether Elena swore or said pretty please, her kin say police reacted with unacceptable violence. They claim the Acosta attitude was met with brute force by a swarm of officers from Brooklyn's 72nd Precinct. (A teenage relative, with some quick footwork and a few clicks of the family camera, managed to capture some of the action.)
The dispute escalated into a melee that ended in the injury of at least eight Acostas, ages 12 through 62, and the arrest of five. Four, including grandmother Margarita, are now facing charges of assaulting officers, obstructing justice, and resisting arrest. But their claims of police misconduct have prompted ongoing investigations by the police Internal Affairs Bureau and the Civilian Complaint Review Board. The family is gearing up to sue the city for brutality and false arrest.
Five officers have claimed their own injuries, including an ankle sprain, bruises, and bites. "It escalated when one of the officers was pushed, possibly pricked, although that may have been accidental," says Coan. Told of the family's photos, he says, "it would be good for us to have them."
The Acostas deny assaulting police and say the interaction never had to get so hostile. Says Elena, 35, "[The officer] didn't ask no questions. No, 'we'll give you a ticket' or nothing. He says, 'I'm the law. Shut up or I'll arrest you.' "
Says the family's civil lawyer, Matthew Flamm, who litigates police brutality cases, "They justifiably were offended by the police conduct. Every single police case I handle comes from disrespect that civilians took from police. Given the offense the Acostas took, it's no surprise the police showed them who's boss."
Although all but one of them had spotless records, according to the Brooklyn district attorney's office, the family say they were treated like thugs. While the details of the incident are unique and complicated, some Acosta supporters say it speaks to wider tensions between the area's sizable Latino population and local law enforcement.
Flamm says, "I have a feeling, if it was me, a white guy, the police would have said, 'Hey buddy, turn the radio off.' Because this was a family of color, they were treated differently."
One recent evening the Acostas reenacted their side of the story for a reporter.
Elena claims the cop who unplugged the radio ordered another officer to arrest her after she confronted him. "My mother says to me, 'Go inside, forget about it,' " says Elena.
Her mother, Margarita, who looks all of her 62 years and is about five feet tall, stepped between the officer and her daughter. Elena, who is not much larger than her mother, turned and started up the stoop.
Margarita insisted it was "el capitán" himselfdescribing a white man in a white shirt and gold-ornamented capwho unplugged the boombox. Later, she and other members of the family identified him from his color photo on the 72nd Precinct's Web page as Captain Dominic Gentile. He also appears in some of the family's snapshots from that night and is cited in the criminal complaint against Elena. Gentile did not respond to queries the Voicerelayed in a phone call and a visit to his station house last week.
Police got past Margarita, and Elena says she was seized on her way up the stairs by the back of her shirt. "I fell onto the sidewalk," tumbling over the stoop's railing, she says, and breaking her left elbow. Hospital records and her cast confirm the break.
From there events dominoed quickly. A large number of officers suddenly appeared, the family says at least 20. One of the photos shows 12 cops surrounding one person who is down on the ground. Another shot, of part of the nearby intersection, captures half a dozen NYPD vehicles.
As Elena fell, Margarita, who continued to struggle toward her daughter, had her shirt torn entirely off, leaving her in just a white lace bra, according to the photos.
Margarita's son Jose, 40, was inside the apartment. "I heard a commotion and looked out the window," he says. "I came outside. I got dragged from the top of the stairs," of which there are seven, concrete. "As I hit the stairs, I get cuffed." His knees were scraped raw in patches the size of eggs. His front right tooth, on the top, was knocked out from the root. (Family members discovered the tooth later, on the sidewalk next to bloodstains, and snapped pictures.)