By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
While NYPD officials boast about what they claim is a steady drop in crime on the streets, crimes committed by cops may be on the upswing.
In the past couple of years, the city's cops have not only been caught up in steroids investigations, like the one revolving around Lowen's Pharmacy in Bay Ridge; they've also been nabbed for running a Canada-to-Long-Island dope ring, stealing guns from their evidence rooms and selling them, providing muscle for an Albanian stick-up crew, pimping out teenaged girls, ratting out their own department to gangster pals, and stealing drugs to give to their informants. Oh, and then there was a New Jersey home invasion by two NYPD cops hoping to steal drugs—not bust the bad guys. Months before, the department's Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB) had dropped the ball on one of the cops, but things turned out OK: The cops botched the home invasion.
In one of the recent cases, cash-strapped Washington Heights cop Krisix De La Cruz helped her drug-dealing uncle rip off cocaine stash houses in 2005. The cop had borrowed money from her uncle so she could take a prep course to bone up for the sergeants' exam. Luckily for New Yorkers, the FBI busted her before she could take the test and advance in rank. De La Cruz was sentenced this past December 5 to five years in prison for robbery and cocaine conspiracy.
Whether she is an aberration or part of a trend is difficult to determine, because the NYPD—always eager to release stats on what it says is a steady decrease in crime during the past 13 years—refuses to release stats on crimes inside the station houses. The IAB even drags its feet on requests from the City Council.
"We do eventually get what we need, sometimes not exactly when we want them," says Peter Vallone Jr., head of the council's Public Safety Committee. But Vallone, a former prosecutor, contends that the NYPD gets a lot of scrutiny.
"What people don't realize," he says, "is that the NYPD is a 36,000-officer force that right now has more oversight over it than any other police force in the nation. In a force of 36,000, there's always going to be some corruption. There has to be."
During what seems to be a current spate of bad-cop cases, the IAB has been conspicuously absent on the arrest front and let slide at least one suspected cop crime that later broke wide open. At the same time, the so-called "rat squad" has spent a lot of time chasing media leaks. While the IAB has played a relatively minor role in such scandals as the current one revolving around cops and steroids—the Albany and Brooklyn DAs and the State Department of Health broke that one—the IAB has spent considerable time and resources hounding an openly gay cop named Jai Aiken, even after a jury acquitted him of any crime.
Here's a partial list of cop crimes that have come to light in just the past year:
May 2007: The Queens District Attorney's Office notified IAB in November 2006 that rookie police officer Hector Alvarez testified at a murder trial on behalf of a defendant—one who already had a criminal record—without first notifying the department, as NYPD rules dictate. Alvarez violated another departmental rule by admitting during testimony that he was friends with another known criminal in the case. Either infraction could have resulted in his being fired, but no disciplinary action was taken against him. Such action could have saved the department a lot of trouble, because this past May, authorities say, Alvarez and another rookie NYPD cop attempted a home invasion in New Jersey.
On May 18, according to investigators, Alvarez and Miguel Castillo, both 28, traveled to a Rutherford, New Jersey, apartment that was supposed to have a large cache of drugs and where no one was supposed to be home that night. When the duo, dressed in business suits, knocked on the door, a man answered. The surprised cops pressed on with their plan to talk their way in, but their argument with the man drew the attention of a neighbor. They told the neighbor that they were federal agents doing a terrorism investigation, but when the neighbor told them he had called the police, they jumped in their car and drove off. The neighbor passed on their license-plate number to local police, who stopped the two NYPD cops a short time later. The rookie cops tried to claim they were conducting an undercover narcotics operation, but, authorities said, they eventually confessed. They're now awaiting trial.
July 2007: Darren Moonan, a 28-year-old Queens officer, is alleged to have used his badge to help a crew of Albanian mobsters commit at least four robberies totaling more than $1 million. Moonan was basically a police escort for the loot, according to the FBI complaint: "After the crew committed a robbery or burglary, Moonan drove the proceeds of the crime away from the scene, so that if he were stopped, he could tell the officer who stopped him he was himself a police officer."
October 31, 2007: Glen Smokler, a 13-year NYPD veteran assigned to Harlem's 30th Precinct, is charged on Halloween with being one of the leaders of a Canada-to-New-York marijuana ring that authorities say generated about $2 million a month. Police from Suffolk County, Long Island, make the case, arresting 28 people and seizing $3 million in cash, 23 luxury cars, a 44-foot yacht, 10 assault rifles, and more than 100 pounds of pot.
November 2007: Hubertus "Dutch" Vannes, who had recently resigned from the NYPD, is arrested by Nassau County cops after they find in his home a gun stolen from the Queens precinct where he had been a cop, 11 other loaded pistols, more than $37,000 in cash, and almost 2,000 prescription pills he was allegedly peddling.
January 31, 2008: The FBI gets an indictment charging Brooklyn cop Luis Batista with conspiring with a crew of cocaine dealers.
February 2008: Detective Wayne Taylor is charged with pimping out a 13-year-old girl whom he and his hooker girlfriend were allegedly holding against her will in his Queens home. According to a published report, Internal Affairs had looked into Taylor back in 2003 after the police were called to a domestic dispute involving him and a young runaway who had turned to prostitution. But IAB ultimately passed, deeming it a "misconduct case" and letting Taylor's unit investigate him. Taylor later received a slap on the wrist—he was docked a few days' vacation—after the girl refused to cooperate, the report states.
Not everyone in the IAB, however, is sitting around doing nothing. The January 31 Batista indictment relates how Sergeant Henry Conde of the IAB tipped off Batista and another cop that the rat squad was investigating them.
Maybe IAB investigators aren't finding more crooked cops these days because more and more of their time is being spent "dumping" (i.e., tracing) the cellular phones of detectives and making other efforts to uncover leaks to the media in high-profile cases, according to police sources speaking to the Voice on the condition of anonymity. Those were the orders, sources say, after word was leaked to the media that the NYPD suspected bouncer Daryl Littlejohn in the February 2006 murder of Imette St. Guillen, a 24-year-old John Jay graduate student who had been drinking at the Falls, a Lafayette Street bar. A source says some cops in that case subsequently received punitive "letters of instruction" in their files and were docked days of pay. Such phone traces were at least threatened in the cases of the accidental overdose of actor Heath Ledger and, most recently, the grisly murder of Upper East Side psychologist Kathryn Faughey, sources tell the Voice. And in both cases, detectives were called in for questioning about leaks to the media.
Sometimes the IAB spends a lot of time and money on big cases, and sometimes it pays off.
This past September, in a case that fell into the IAB's lap, Brooklyn narcotics detective Sean Johnstone told another undercover cop—who apparently didn't know that a hidden recording device was on—that he had vouchered only 17 of 28 ziplocked bags of cocaine seized from a man he'd arrested earlier that day. Johnstone told the other officer that he used the pilfered coke to pay off informants. Police officials claimed that Johnstone was only "cutting corners," avoiding the usual departmental paperwork to obtain money to pay informants who likely would just wind up buying drugs anyway.
The recording was eventually turned over to the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office as part of the drug case, and prosecutors notified the IAB. A sting was set up to determine whether other Brooklyn narcotics cops were doing the same. On January 18, Sergeant Michael Arenella and Officer Jerry Bowen were arrested after failing to voucher 40 bags of cocaine seized from an undercover IAB agent.
This investigation has led to four cops being arrested, six others suspended, and two placed on modified duty. The citywide narcotics commander has been replaced and the head of Brooklyn South Narcotics transferred. The Brooklyn DA has already tossed out 202 cases and expects that number to perhaps double, according to Jerry Schmetterer, the district attorney's spokesman.
This result was in stark contrast to another recent case that the IAB considered big.
In December 2004, a confidential informant accused Officer Jai Aiken of being a gun runner and drug dealer. After nine months and 3,000 man-hours, the IAB couldn't substantiate the charges. So in August 2005, the rat squad sent an undercover agent to a popular cruising spot near City College in Harlem to try to get the goods on the openly gay Aiken, who had a clean record during his 13 years on the force. The officer later testified that whenever he spoke about guns or drugs, all Aiken wanted to talk about was sex. (An IAB sergeant leading the Aiken probe testified that it was first time he could recall that an undercover cop posed as a potential gay lover.)
Five months into the new operation, the focus on guns and drugs was dropped. Instead, the undercover cop sold Aiken an iPod for $150. Then, in February 2006, he sold Aiken a $3,000 flat-screen television for $1,200, saying he needed the money to move his mother out of the projects. IAB officials said it was clear that Aiken knew these items were supposedly stolen. Aiken tells the Voice that the undercover explained that he had a friend who worked at Best Buy and was getting a store discount.
In February 2007, a Brooklyn jury sided with Aiken, acquitting him on charges of attempted criminal possession of stolen property and attempted grand larceny. Nevertheless, Aiken, 40, was fired in December after an NYPD judge found him guilty of similar departmental charges stemming from the IAB investigation. Aiken has since filed a $15 million suit against the NYPD for wrongful imprisonment and malicious prosecution.
As for the number of cops arrested for crimes, it's tough to say whether it's an "aberration"—as Commissioner Ray Kelly calls it every time a cop is arrested—or a trend. In October, the New York Post, citing the NYPD's "Internal Affairs Bureau 2006 Annual Report," said that arrests of NYPD officers rose from 91 in 2005 to 114 in 2006, a 25 percent hike. It also said that officers placed on modified duty for disciplinary reasons rose 55 percent, from 137 to 212. Interestingly, at the same time, the number of cops suspended fell 11 percent, from 159 to 142.
NYPD spokesman Paul Browne didn't respond to a request from the Voice to provide this or any of the other IAB annual reports. Nor did he respond to a request to provide the number of police officers arrested in each of the past five years.
Asked about the apparent rash of current corruption cases and the fact that the IAB doesn't seem to have played a role in most of them, Councilman Vallone replies: "When we have our next hearing, we may be able to ask about that." Vallone spokesman Andrew Moesel says the Public Safety Committee "does not regularly receive anything from IAB" but does hold periodic "oversight" meetings.
Vallone says he doesn't know whether the number of cops being arrested is rising or whether such events are just being reported more in the press. "I just want to clarify that we do oversight—we don't do police investigations," he says, adding with a laugh: "I'm not able to send undercover council members into precincts."
But other watchdogs aren't necessarily laughing. In the past, police administrators have stonewalled the city agency set up to study police corruption. The Commission to Combat Police Corruption (CCPC) was created in February 1995 after a highly publicized police-corruption probe by the Mollen Commission, which recommended a fully staffed official watchdog bureau. The Mollen Commission said such an independent oversight agency should include a full-time staff of about 20 lawyers and investigators. The CCPC has never come close to having that—instead, as one former board member described it, "it's just a fig leaf." The CCPC has only two full-time paid staffers, a pocket-change budget of $422,000, no investigators, and no direct subpoena power.
CCPC chairman Mark Pomerantz told the City Council on April 30, 2005, that because police officials know the CCPC lacks the authority to investigate such issues as abuse in police overtime pay and falsifying crime statistics, the NYPD simply ignores the commission's requests for records. "We write letters, we have meetings, and nothing happens," Pomerantz told the council. The next day, he resigned. He declined to talk to the Voice about his tenure with the CCPC .
Last week, 22 months since the CCPC issued its previous "annual" report, the agency released another one. Among its conclusions was that "IAB investigations continue to be conducted in a thorough and effective manner." But the devil's in the report's details, which don't back up that conclusion.
The commission noted that some cases dried up because IAB investigators were too slow to contact complainants or witnesses. When it came to cops and alcohol abuse, the CCPC chose to examine 35 investigations of off-duty officers in which alcohol was directly related, such as DUI arrests, or indirectly related, such as cops getting into bar fights. In nine of those 35 cases, the commission found that no alcohol-related charges were filed even though they should have been. In the 35 cases, at least 11 of the cops were armed. But that number could be higher, because in the other 24 cases, there's no indication either way in the IAB paperwork whether the cops were carrying guns. Any officer who was could be fired from the force.
The commission also looked at nine cases in which cops improperly displayed or fired their weapons and found that in eight of the nine cases, the IAB made no determination of the officers' "fitness for duty" and didn't note whether any of them had been drinking.
Though he has long been an advocate of providing the CCPC with more teeth, current chairman Michael Armstrong insists that the IAB "appears to function very smoothly and very professionally" and that "the current conditions don't cry out for a change now." Armstrong says he met with the IAB early last month and was briefed on the ongoing cases. "It's not fair to say that all the recent cases were made without IAB's involvement," says Armstrong. "It's often the fact that the IAB people are the ones that develop the case. Then they give it to another law-enforcement agency or a prosecutor and step back" without getting the credit.
As to whether he thinks there's a spate of cop crimes right now, Armstrong says: "The flurry in the press is often just that."
As expected, Jai Aiken doesn't share such a sanguine view of the IAB. Homophobia would seem to be the obvious reason for the rat squad's intense probe of his activities, even after a jury acquitted him. But Aiken was openly gay, even in the station house, so he concedes that he's not really sure why the department went to such lengths to try to get him.
"They came at me with so much aggression," he says. "They was digging—digging deep. If they dig the way they did on me, do an investigation like that for every cop, the force would be empty."