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 Village Voice has learned that New York City's Police Department has spent nearly two years covering up an ugly, alcohol-fueled street brawl in which 10 rookie cops beat up a taxi driver outside a trendy Upper East Side bar. The NYPD has allowed the rookies' boss—a captain who witnessed the fight but didn't act to stop it and left the scene without speaking to investigators—to escape scrutiny.
None of the rookies were charged criminally with the December 2008 assault. Instead, it was the cab-driver victim who was arrested, records show. Meanwhile, the captain, William Pla, was subsequently promoted to commanding officer of the 23th Precinct in East Harlem.
And Sergeant Anthony Acosta, the man who waded into the melee and broke up the assault—a highly decorated sergeant who has made more than 1,000 arrests in his 20-year career—was slapped with administrative charges and chained to a desk without his gun or his shield for almost two years.
"I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how this happened," Acosta tells the Voice. "I did everything right. I feel like the lesson is, you know what, mind your business, stay in your house, don't get involved. I'm not one of those conspiracy people, but how the hell did I end up in this position?"
The cover-up and punishment of the officer who tried to break up the fight is another glaring example of how internal justice is meted out in Ray Kelly's NYPD. In the "NYPD Tapes," published earlier this year, the Voice showed how another whistleblower who has tried to bring NYPD injustice to light, Adrian Schoolcraft, was punished by being forcibly put into a hospital mental ward.
This new case also offers lessons about the byzantine world of One Police Plaza, where miscreants are promoted and do-gooders are punished by an arcane, plodding bureaucracy that operates almost entirely outside of public scrutiny. The Voice sent a detailed e-mail to the police department press office. There was no response.
In conversation, Sergeant Anthony Acosta, 44, is so professional that he insists on addressing civilians with the word "sir," even when he's off-duty. He is a stocky man, five-foot-six, 195 pounds, inked with a series of tattoos down his thick forearms that reference his days as a United States Marine.
He grew up in the Polo Grounds public housing development and East Harlem. His mother left him and his siblings when he was 10 years old. They then lived with his father in an abandoned building on East 103rd Street. When he was 14, Acosta moved alone into an apartment provided for him by his uncle, and started working to help pay the rent. He worked in the city's summer youth jobs program, and actually lied about his age to work in an ice cream parlor and a movie theater.
Acosta had planned to go to college after he graduated from Murry Bergtraum High School, which happens to be located next door to police headquarters. But his girlfriend—later his wife—got pregnant, so he joined the Marines to help pay for the expenses.
Acosta was a Marine for five years, from 1984 to 1989. He worked embassy security details in Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, and was also assigned to a task force that responded to terror incidents. (Years later, he would take a 2005–2006 leave from the NYPD to go to Iraq and help train its new police force.)
From the Marines, he went straight into the police academy. While he was still a cadet, Acosta responded while off-duty to a fire in a building next to his apartment. A mother had fled the apartment, leaving her two kids behind. Acosta climbed the fire escape, got into the apartment, and carried one of the kids to safety. He went back to rescue the second child, but fell ill from smoke inhalation. Fortunately, firefighters arrived and made the second rescue.
After he graduated from the academy, he went from patrolman to sergeant and worked in a succession of precincts in Manhattan and the Bronx. He worked in both uniform and plainclothes anti-crime units. Currently, he is the field intelligence officer for the 30th Precinct in Washington Heights, a highly sensitive and coveted post that involves "debriefing," or interviewing, suspects for information about other crimes.
During his NYPD career, he has amassed more than 1,000 arrests—a large number relative to most other officers. He has also earned 76 medals, including the Medal of Valor, one of the department's highest honors. He routinely receives high ratings in work evaluations.
He earned the Medal of Valor for arresting two men involved in a home-invasion robbery, after exchanging gunfire with one of the men. In another notable case, he arrested a pimp who had kidnapped a child to force her mother to prostitute herself. He set up a sting in which the mother convinced the pimp to meet with her. Once the pimp was arrested, the child was found unharmed in a Bronx motel.
In another case, he spotted a naked woman staggering away from a taxi cab. She had been raped by a pimp. Acosta arrested the cab driver for fleeing the scene, and helped catch the rapist, which led to the seizure of firearms from an apartment in the Polo Grounds Houses.