Cop Watchers Beware
Even as the cop approached him, Dennis Flores kept shooting. He took photo after photo with his digital camera, documenting the plainclothes transit officer's face.
Moments earlier, Flores says, he and friend Raybblin Vargas, both counselors at W.E.B. Du Bois high school in Brooklyn, had noticed the cop and his partner shoving a handcuffed black teenager face-first into a metal gate alongside the turnstiles in the Kingston-Throop C train station in Crown Heights. Flores fished the Kodak DC3200 from his backpack and from about 10 feet away started snapping.
But soon he and Vargas were snarled in their own tangle with police. Before it was over, they claim, they were unjustly maced, assaulted, and imprisoned. In fact, before they could request it, NYPD Internal Affairs initiated a probe that night. A police spokesperson had little comment last week, saying only, "It's an active investigation. We take the allegations very seriously."
As a result of the events that began at about 5:30 p.m. on October 10, Flores is facing criminal charges. But he claims he was merely recording a scene of apparent police abuse and was punished for it. Now he and Vargas are suing the city for violating their constitutional rights, among other claims. Meanwhile they wonder how the camera, with its cache of police images, is faring in NYPD custody. They are also waiting for the city to release the recording of a 911 call Flores placed from a subway pay phone as their troubles began. They say the receiver dangled off the hook throughout the incident and may have picked up key information.
Flores, 27, and Vargas, 30, were escorting two of their students into the Manhattan-bound side of the station when they noticed cops holding the teen, a 19-year-old high school senior named Bryce Sanders.
Asked for his account of the evening in a separate interview with the Voice last week, Sanderswho neither attends the counselors' school nor knew them before that night, and is not presently involved in any related legal actionsaid that police repeatedly overreacted. He says the cops accused him of using a MetroCard that had been tampered with. (Charges against him were dropped within 24 hours.) A young African American male from Crown Heights, Sanders says he is used to being hassled by police. But that night, he says, they were rough, cuffing his hands behind him and then "throwing" him against the token booth and the metal gate.
When he realized Flores was taking pictures, Sanders was glad. "The guy said, 'I see what's going on. I got your back,' " he says. "The cop said, 'Stop taking them f-ing pictures, get out of here.' " But Flores's camera kept flashing. "Then the cops double-cuffed me to the gate," Sanders says, and headed toward Flores.
But Flores says he didn't relent. He called out to the rush-hour crowd, "I have two cops who are beating this kid. I'm taking pictures as evidence."
The criminal complaint against Flores, signed by an officer, Christopher Ballaera, bears out part of the counselors' story. It reads, "[The] defendant, while taking pictures of police officer, did yell at passengers coming onto the subway that police officers are beating up a young kid and stating in sum and substance: fuck the police, the police are assholes, the police can't be doing this shit, don't let them get away with this, enough is enough." The statement continues, " . . . when [I] instructed the defendant to step back and walk away that defendant refused to do so."
An NYPD spokesperson confirmed that Ballaera is one of the officers under investigation but would not confirm the other name the Voice had obtained. Reached by telephone last week at the 33rd Transit District, Ballaera said, "I'm not allowed to comment on anything right now, especially for a newspaper." When the Voice mentioned the serious allegations being made against him, he said only that he wasn't aware of them.
Without much input from police, an account of the most troubling moments of the evening could be gleaned only from the three civilians. Flores claims that, as one of the officers approached him, the other said, "Hide your badge," which was hanging from the cop's neck. Says Flores, "That's when I picked up the phone," all the while snapping photos with one hand. "I knew the shit was on."
Vargas says she stepped between her friend and the cop. "I thought because I was a woman he would respect and back off a little bit." Instead, she says, with Flores on the phone with 911, the two officers planted themselves some six feet away and started spraying mace.
Says Sanders, who watched the whole scene while chained to the nearby gate, "I couldn't even believe that. They emptied out their cans of mace, on their face area and all over. They was helpless." He recalls hearing Flores on the phone: "He was saying, 'Help, help, the police is macing me.' " Flores and Vargas say they huddled together over the phone receiver as mace seared their skin and nearly blinded Vargas, whose contact lenses became saturated with the irritant. "The 911 operator was telling me, 'Don't hang up. Stay on the phone. Say everything that is happening,' " says Flores. He says he did, and he also thinks he managed to snap a few shots of the cops macing him.
Then, the three say, about 20 police officers descended both staircases to the station and surrounded Flores and Vargas. "Right then, the cop came up to me and took the camera and slammed it into the ground," says Flores.
Says Sanders, "He actually intentionally tried to break it. He dropped itboomon the ground." The NYPD had no comment on the state of the camera, which the department continues to hold.
The counselors were handcuffed, and Vargas says that she was grabbed by the shoulders and thrown against the token booth so hard she bounced off and fell. Someone then pushed her head back hard onto the cement floor, she says. She was carried up the stairs facedown, she says, repeatedly lifted at the arms and ankles and then dropped several times on the way up.
Police pinned Flores on his stomach on the floor, he and Sanders say. Then, they say, an officer struck Flores's headwith a police radio, according to Sanders. "He just brought it up and brought it right down on his head," he says with a sweep of his arm. Flores later received four stitches on the top of his head.
Says Flores, "The cops left the phone off the hook recording the whole thing." The NYPD, citing the ongoing investigation, would not release the 911 records to the Voice last week.
Flores and Vargas spent the night shuttling between holding cells in the 33rd Transit District, Brookdale Hospital, and Brooklyn central booking. At one point, Flores says, he was sitting in the transit holding cell when "a cop comes over and says, 'You ever worked for the TA [Transit Authority]?' I said no. He said, 'Well, we found in your possession keys that belong to the system. Huh,' and walked away. I didn't know what the hell he was talking about." The next day Flores was arraigned on charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and criminal possession of the keys. "We obviously think it's a plant," says his lawyer, Kamau Karl Franklin. "That's very suspicious, that they happened to find transit keys on him when he was in the subway complaining about police brutality."
Vargas was released without being charged. She and Flores say Internal Affairs interviewed them twice that night, and Flores has met with investigators since. They say that, if their claims of abuse go unanswered, the city will be affirming the ability of cops to intimidate civilians who would scrutinize them.
Already, young Sanders is getting that message. "I was glad to see somebody helping my situation out," he says, "but if I'd known what would happen, I would have told them to stay away." Still, he expressed hope for the Internal Affairs probe, saying, "I know not all cops are bad, but I don't think the police should get away with what they did."
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