Dirty Little Secrets in NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau
Earlier this year, the Voice uncovered a troubling pattern of how the NYPD operates, relying on secretly recorded tapes to show that street cops are under intense pressure to achieve seemingly contradictory goals set down by their superiors. Years of recordings, lawsuits, and testimonies by active and retired police officers reveal that Ray Kelly's police department has been on an intense program that punishes innocent bystanders while intimidating and harassing actual crime victims.
We've heard relatively little, however, about the NYPD wing that is supposed to be watching for these kinds of injustices: the Internal Affairs Bureau. Until now.
More officers have come forward, telling the Voice that the secretive police-department-within-a-department is as troubled as the rest of Kelly's operation. To illustrate this, we will look at three unrelated Internal Affairs cases: One involves a Queens woman who says she was stalked, harassed, and impregnated by an NYPD sergeant; the other, a veteran detective stuck in a dead-end job requiring him to watch surveillance video all day; and the third, a gay cop in the Internal Affairs Bureau itself who faced constant harassment over his sexual identity. (The NYPD did not respond to detailed questions about these cases.)
Taken together, the three cases highlight several themes about the current Internal Affairs Bureau.
For one, all IAB complaints are supposed to be confidential. That rule is necessary because police officers who complain about their colleagues can and do face retaliation. But the reality seems to be that an officer's home command will find out fairly quickly that an Internal Affairs complaint has been made. Several officers have complained to the Voice that shortly after they filed complaints with Internal Affairs, their home commands knew about it and then pursued various types of retaliation against them.
Second, whether big or small, IAB cases seem to plod through the system at the same snail's pace. There doesn't seem to be any mechanism to deal quickly with a minor case—an office dispute, for example. Thus, cases drag on, and aggrieved, frustrated cops turn to the courts to resolve their issues. That, in turn, costs the city more money in legal bills and settlements.
Third, it's impossible—even for the people who file the complaints—to find out what was done and what happened with a complaint. Internal Affairs investigators often don't return complainants' phone calls.
Fourth, it seems that often, very little happens with a complaint—and it takes a long time not to happen.
Finally, the system is fairly capricious, and its decisions are often puzzling. In two cases with similar circumstances, one detective might be allowed to retire without charges, while another might be charged and face termination. And because of the insular nature of today's NYPD, it's not likely you'll find out why. Police officers who fall out of favor are just as likely to receive an unfavorable assignment as face a charge—a point made by a former departmental trial commissioner now in private practice.
The gay detective assigned to Internal Affairs tells the Voice that there were times when IAB bosses did not take complaints seriously, gave them short shrift, wrote out reports to make the complaints seem less serious than they were, and allowed cases to linger on unresolved. He recalls one Internal Affairs detective who often spent time at work using the Internet to shop for clothes and plan vacations, and another co-worker who routinely looked at pornographic photographs at work.
"The classic line of 'It's under investigation' just means it's gathering dust on someone's desk, particularly in my case," says the officer, who asked the Voice not to use his name. "There is no confidentiality. I had no sense that the complaints were taken seriously or treated confidentially."
One of the IAB's primary responsibilities is to protect the public against cops who abuse their positions. Consider, then, the case of Jessica Varney, a 23-year-old African-American woman from Queens who fell prey to a sergeant in a Ridgewood, Queens, precinct, who used his badge to pressure her to date him, then stalked her and ultimately threatened her with violence, according to a notice of claim filed by her attorney, Joel Berger.
Varney was impregnated twice by the sergeant. She had an abortion the first time, but carried the second child to full term.
She tells the Voice that she met Sergeant Robert Ellington in October 2008, a period when she was fighting with her landlord at 1874 Harmon Street in Ridgewood over lead paint in the apartment and other matters.
Ellington was initially helpful about the dispute, she says, and then solicitous, calling her every day, and eventually persuading her to go out with him. "He asked me if I liked Italian guys. He said he wanted to get to know me more," she says. "He got very personal, talking about divorcing his wife. I was shocked. I didn't know this guy."
Ellington eventually persuaded Varney to go out with him, but she expected something simple, in the neighborhood. Instead, he took her to Atlantic City.
Varney says she was very uncomfortable about the whole thing, but she went along with it. Next, he brought her to his house on Long Island. "That's when things got weird," she says. "He has this camera, and he says, I like you, find you attractive. My wife doesn't satisfy me."
"We're aware of Ms. Varney's allegations, and we're confident in the end that Sergeant Ellington will be exonerated," Ellington's attorney, Bruno Gioffre, tells the Voice. Gioffre declined to address Varney's specific allegations because the case is still under investigation by the NYPD.
Ellington asked her to "satisfy" him. She refused, but he insisted. Holding a camera, he told her that she wasn't going home until she performed a sex act with him. She says she fled to the bathroom. He convinced her to come out, and then, she claims, he gave her a glass of water that made her feel light-headed. She didn't pass out, she says, but she "felt looser, and kept seeing camera flashes."
"When I came to five hours later—it was 6 a.m.—he was smiling," she says. "He says you really satisfied me. He told me he had taken pictures, and he showed me the camera."
Ellington, she says, brought her home, and then kept calling her, asking for a second chance and even giving her son a toy fire truck.
That January, he appeared at her apartment again, and Varney asked him for the pictures he had taken of her. He insisted that she ride with him to get them.
"I just wanted to get out, but he drove me to his house on Long Island," she says. "He handcuffed me in the bedroom and left me there. Then he comes back, and I tell him I want to go home, but he says you're not going home until you do what I want."
Varney claims that Ellington then took her to his basement and locked her down there for another four hours. He also took her phone and purse. "He's telling me I disrespected him, and this was my punishment," she says. "After that, I gave in and let him do whatever. I didn't know what else he was going to do. I didn't think he would let me leave."
Finally, Ellington drove her home, both apologizing and accusing her at one point of "trying to make him angry." She says she was terrified.
Eventually, Varney went to the 104th Precinct to file a complaint, but it didn't seem to go anywhere. Ellington learned of it and threatened, she claims, to make her life "a living hell."
In the meantime, she began to reconcile with her son's father, Domingo Figueroa. Figueroa ended up getting arrested at their apartment for "violating an order of protection" by officers from Ellington's precinct, the 104th.
She had another bizarre encounter with a cop from the 104th Precinct. A lieutenant, she claims, came to her apartment to talk about her order of protection against Ellington.
"He asks me to use the bathroom, comes out, and says, 'I like the shape of your lips, your eyes—you're an attractive woman," she claims. He says, 'Can we work something out?' I said, 'You're scaring me.' He says, 'Give me a hug and I'll leave.' I told him to leave. He grabs me, puts his tongue in my mouth. He grabs my right hand and puts it on his penis. I'm crying."
Varney claims that when the lieutenant left, he said, "I'm going to leave, but we need to finish this. It's Valentine's Day, and I don't have anyone."
The following day, the lieutenant called Varney to apologize. But that same day, February 15, she was arrested based on a complaint filed by her landlord.
The lieutenant appeared at her cell that day, and told her he was releasing her, she says. "I'm doing you a favor, and you owe me a favor," she says he told her.
At the end of February 2009, Varney moved in with her mother—mainly to get away from Ellington.
In late September 2009, Ellington appeared at her house on Long Island. He told her that if he couldn't have her, no one could have her. He told her that his wife had found out about her. Varney says he slapped her, pushed her against a wall outside her home, and drew his firearm. "He had that gun in my face and against my stomach," she says.
A neighbor called the Suffolk County police. An officer arrived and began questioning them. The officer asked her if she wanted to press charges. She says she was scared of Ellington, so she made up a story that someone else had assaulted her.
But the Suffolk County officer, sensing something was strange, insisted on speaking with her outside of Ellington's hearing. She later went to the 5th Precinct in Suffolk County, made a complaint, and got an order of protection from the court against Ellington.
Ellington was finally arrested in January for menacing with a firearm and endangering the welfare of a child. "He had to be arrested for what he did," she says. "It wasn't even a relationship. It was harassment." He was placed on modified assignment after his arrest, and he was transferred to a housing police precinct. Since then, the case has been pending in the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office.
Varney's attorney, Joel Berger, says he's concerned that the case has run aground mainly because three different prosecutors have been assigned to the case, but none of them will return his or Varney's phone calls.
"Suffolk seems to be dragging its feet on the case," Berger says. "Either they aren't interested or maybe Internal Affairs is giving them a hard time. It would be one thing if the cops didn't believe her, but she impresses me as a total innocent. They believed her. So why—suddenly—aren't the prosecutors believing her?"
Varney says she filed a series of complaints with the NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau about officers at the precinct, including Ellington. She has had no indication that IAB has done anything about those complaints.
Internal Affairs, Berger says, doesn't seem to have looked seriously into any of the complaints his client filed. "With IAB, you just never know what's happening," he says. "In the NYPD, it seems that who you know is more important than what you did."
He filed a notice of claim on Varney's behalf in February.
Robert Clifford, a spokesman for the Suffolk County District Attorney, did not respond to Voice e-mails requesting comment. Mary Skiber, the prosecutor currently assigned to the case, also did not return Voice e-mails.
Ellington is facing another lawsuit for falsely arresting one of Varney's neighbors, Gerardo Mayol, who then suffered a stroke in custody that left him with slurred speech and an unsteady gait.
Mayol claims he was about to testify against Varney in an eviction case brought by their landlord. He claims she got Ellington to send police officers to arrest him on a stalking charge. He claims Ellington threatened to "put my fucking foot up your ass," the lawsuit alleges.
Mayol says he subsequently fell ill, but no ambulance was called until he keeled over from the stroke. He spent 20 days in the hospital. When he returned to his apartment, Ellington visited several times, banging on his door and threatening to arrest him. Mayol's arrest was dismissed.
The lawsuit claims that both Ellington and a "Lieutenant John Doe #1" "were involved in a furtive relationship with Varney." The lawsuit alleges the two officers have "shown themselves to be morally unfit to hold such important and powerful positions in our society."
Varney, for her part, claims that Mayol was harassing her over a period of months. Berger says that she will be dismissed as a plaintiff under the rules for court deadlines.
Mayol is suing Ellington, four other NYPD officers, and Varney for $540 million. Mayol's lawyer, Brian King, has alleged in court documents that the city is dragging its feet in the case, and is demanding a default ruling from the court.
The city has denied the allegations and has asked the judge to delay proceedings until the completion of the Internal Affairs investigation. Earlier this month, a judge agreed to stay the case, but the NYPD Department Advocate's Office has filed preliminary charges against Ellington.
"The Mayol incident occurred in February 2009, and his lawyer filed a notice of claim on May 1, 2009, so Ellington was probably on IAB's radar screen at the time he allegedly pulled his gun on Varney in September 2009," Berger says. "How could a guy like Ellington have gotten away with so much for so long? Who does he know in IAB or elsewhere in the NYPD who has protected him?"
If the mystery in the Ellington case is why IAB took so long to act against him, for Detective Michael DePaolis, the mystery is why IAB acted at all.
For the past six years, DePaolis, an 18-year veteran of the NYPD from Staten Island, has been marooned in a unit where officers spend all day sitting at desks and watching video screens. He gets paid close to $100,000 a year to do that.
DePaolis, however, is on full duty, unlike every other officer in Viper Four, a unit that is mainly staffed by officers on desk assignment with open disciplinary cases. The Viper Four unit monitors video cameras in public-housing developments in Lower Manhattan—and the NYPD also trains cameras on Viper Four to make sure the officers don't wander away from those screens.
DePaolis says the Viper office is dirty, dark, and ridden with rats and mice. He acknowledges that he has struggled with cancer and has bouts of chronic fatigue syndrome, but he has been cleared to work full duty.
Even stranger, he has been repeatedly instructed not to take police action, even when he sees a crime take place right in front of him. He has actually received reprimands for taking action, including responding to a stabbing and an assault.
DePaolis tells the Voice that he desperately wants to return to a detective squad and work cases. So far, no one in the NYPD is listening. "Even if you see someone being raped, you can't do anything," he says. "You can't go anywhere. You can't 'do a great job' and be advantageously transferred. You have a scarlet letter on your head."
So why is he in such limbo? DePaolis says he dared to go outside the department to complain about the way he was treated in a disciplinary case. He made a complaint to the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), the moderately effective oversight body that has a $10 million annual budget to oversee more than 6,000 complaints a year from New Yorkers. The NYPD budget is more than $4 billion.
He made the CCRB complaint as a result of how he was treated over an issue about real estate. While he was an NYPD officer, he also owned property in Staten Island and was accepting tenants from the federally funded Section 8 program. Since Section 8 is technically operated by city government, he was accused of doing business with the city while a city employee.
DePaolis was never charged with a crime, and the disciplinary charges were eventually settled for a minor penalty. Unhappy with how he was treated in the dispute, however, he complained to the CCRB, which then made him a target of the Internal Affairs Bureau, he says.
"He made a complaint to the CCRB, and for that reason, they have been torturing him," says DePaolis's lawyer, Rae Downes Koshetz. "That's the way they send a message. And it's certainly a poor use of taxpayers' money to be paying someone $100,000 to stare at a video screen."
For many years, Koshetz was the deputy commissioner of trials for the department. She says that in recent years, the department has found ways to get around the adversarial disciplinary system in which officers get to defend themselves.
"The courts have let the police commissioner have a lot of discretion in assignment," she says. "There really has been an institutionalized circumvention of due process [in the NYPD]. They use punitive assignments to punish people."
Most recently, DePaolis received a favorable write-up in the Staten Island Advance in a story about a woman who committed suicide by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry. The woman, who had no next of kin, was going to be buried in Potter's Field, but DePaolis and the director of a local funeral home have offered to put up the money to bury her properly. Since the article, he was able to track down a relative of the dead woman. "During the wake, they actually gave me a round of applause," he says. "It was a feeling I couldn't even explain to you."
In a period when the NYPD is down thousands of officers, one has to wonder why a career guy like DePaolis is sidelined, yet listed as full duty. One would think he could be useful as an investigator.
Finally, there is the story of a gay detective in Internal Affairs, who filed a lawsuit against the NYPD and persuaded a judge to allow him to file it anonymously under the name "John Doe."
John, a 33-year-old former stockbroker who grew up on Long Island, claims that he has been harassed repeatedly for his sexual identity since he started as a police officer in the 103rd Precinct in Queens. The harassment got so bad that he asked for help in a letter that was hand-delivered to the police commissioner by his father.
"I wanted out of that environment," John says. "They said, go to IAB."
In May 2007, John transferred to Internal Affairs, but not before a fellow cop told him, "This will follow you wherever you go," the lawsuit says.
John, who was asked to take complaints from the public, describes a "frat-house" environment in IAB, where flirting between male and female cops was commonplace, and terms like "fudgepacker," "meat gazer," "homo," and "faggot" were used constantly about civilian complainants, and often directed at him. At one point, a sergeant came over to him with a banana between his legs and asked him, "Is this the size you like?"
John claims in his lawsuit that he told these co-workers not to use the epithets, and even suggested they shouldn't handle complaints filed by gay people because they were so intolerant toward them.
At another point, a co-worker walked over to John's desk and said, "You're a meat gazer. I just caught you looking at my package." For more than a year in 2008 and 2009, this co-worker called John a "meat gazer" several times a week, the lawsuit says.
Another time, John claims, a police officer simulated a vagina with two fingers and told him, "Your kind does not know what to do with it."
"The most disturbing thing is that it has been continuing for years," says one of John's lawyers, Ishmael Secondas. "They don't have tolerance for gay people. The comments were outrageous. Humiliating, degrading comments."
John began filing complaints about the anti-gay remarks and his claims of harassment. "I was upset and stressed out about the harassment and abuse, and so I filed an IAB complaint," he says. "After I filed the complaint, they told me they were taking my gun and shield, and ordered me to see a department psychiatrist."
The first question that the psychiatrist asked him was whether he was going to bring a lawsuit, he says. "My first thought was, how is that question relevant?" he says.
After that, John got his gun and shield back, and was moved to a unit that issues parking placards for NYPD employees. Even though he was a detective, he was given a clerk's duties. "Half the place is staffed by detectives, but they aren't even performing detective duties or functions," he says. "They actually have clerks doing the same work."
His bosses, he says, started giving him a lot more work than the other people in the office. He complained, and his supervisor brought charges against him for insubordination. "They made my life miserable," he says. "There was a backlog, and I was given 1,700 parking-related complaints to follow up on."
Rather than being credited for coming forward, John instead found himself targeted by his bosses, he says. He says they knew very quickly that he had filed a complaint. A lieutenant told him, "You know what I'm talking about. You called [Internal Affairs Bureau] Chief [Charles] Campisi's office and complained about me."
And a sergeant told him, "If you make any more complaints, it's not going to be good for you."
On a third occasion, a different sergeant told him, "Why don't you call Chief Campisi's office and complain as you did in the past?"
"They can't prevent the confidential information from being leaked," Secondas says. "He was basically punished for making a complaint."
Subsequently, he says, he requested at least five different transfers out of the unit, but those requests were ignored over a period of months, until he was finally moved to the IAB records unit at the beginning of October. He has since transferred to the court section.
Meanwhile, John was himself charged with a department infraction of duplicating his shield. He described the charge as "trumped-up" and further evidence of retaliation against him. He has never received any response for his various complaints to IAB. None of the officers he complained about have been disciplined, he says. And last September, he complained to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly's liaison to gay and lesbian officers. He got no response.
"I've never had a case like this," Secondas says.
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