If there were a photo op involved, Giuliani would be handing these two quality-of-life vigilantes the key to the city. Instead, police arrested them. Their crime? Saying the wrong thing to a thin-skinned cop. Furious, they're now suing the city for millions.
Shawn Robbins, a 30-year-old freelance associate director for CBS Sports, was walking along 51st Street on his way to the gym around 7:30 p.m. on November 20, 1997, when he noticed a man cleaning out his car by tossing debris onto the sidewalk. Though he doesn't typically reprimand litterers, Robbins grew indignant as he watched the guy casually throwing trash and, finally, a coffee cup onto the pavement. "It was so blatant," Robbins says. "It got to the point where I had to say something."
For his effort, he got nothing but trouble. Robbins recalls events this way: "I told the guy, 'Hey, there's a trash can on every block in this city, why don't you put it in the garbage?'" The man an off-duty cop began his own interpretation of the police department's "CPR" public relations program. He was "courteous": "You wanna pick it up, you fuckin' pick it up." He was "respectful": "Don't fuckin' put that on my car," he said, as Robbins picked up the nearly empty coffee cup and went to set it on the man's trunk. He was "professional": "You're fucked now, I'm a cop."
As the man, police officer Brian Moran, lunged at Robbins, the coffee spilled on the car. "Turn the fuck around and put your hands behind your back," Moran told Robbins, announcing that he was arresting him.
"I still couldn't believe he was really a cop and littering like that, so I asked to see some ID." Moran refused to produce the ID, yelling for police backup instead. As Robbins countered by urging anyone nearby to help him make a citizen's arrest, Moran upped the ante: "You want me to take my gun out and put it to your head? Will that make you turn around?"
As he did, Robbins says that Moran's backup, Officer Michael Orlando, arrived and pushed Robbins's face toward the iron gate of a store. The cops cuffed Robbins and marched him to the 17th Precinct. At the station, Moran explained his "disorderly conduct" arrest to desk sergeant Kevin Meurer: "This asshole threw coffee on my car." As proof, he put the cup on Meurer's desk. "Sounds like disorderly conduct to me," Meurer concurred. When Robbins tried to explain his side of the story, Moran grew irate again. "You fucking people think they're your streets," he screamed. "They're my fucking streets!"
Robbins was led to a holding cell, then issued a summons for criminal court. He was finally released after several hours of waiting.
On his way out, he swung by the desk for the names of the officers who'd arrested him. Help was not forthcoming. "If I was you, I'd get out of here, and if you don't get out of here, you're going to get fucking locked up again," Robbins recalls Sergeant Meurer saying.
On March 23, a Criminal Court judge quickly dismissed the "disorderly conduct" charge against Robbins. In July, Robbins filed a civil rights suit alleging police brutality, false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution. The case is still pending. Robbins also filed a complaint, days after his arrest, with the Civilian Complaint Review Board.
Though the police department refused to comment on the case, documents obtained by the Voice indicate the complaints against Orlando and Meurer were not substantiated by the CCRB and that Moran has denied all of Robbins's charges. In Moran's version of events, he was simply removing a full cup of coffee he discovered on the hood of his car when he heard Robbins insisting that he should "pick that up because people lived on this street." Moran told the man that the garbage was not his and refused to pick it up. Moran says Robbins deliberately threw coffee on his car and that's why he arrested him. CCRB interview notes say "PO [police officer] Moran states that he never used the word 'fuck' and never called the man an 'asshole.'... PO Moran states that he does not recall yelling anything out loud in the stationhouse... PO Moran states that no officer said, 'if I were you, I'd get the fuck out of here.' "
After hearing both sides of the story and interviewing witnesses, including others in the holding cell that night, the CCRB sided with Robbins against Moran. The substantiated complaint has been forwarded to the police department, which is in charge of disciplining officers. Assistant Police Commissioner Kevin Lubin promised in a letter, dated May 20, 1998, that Robbins would "be advised of the final action taken" against Officer Moran. So far, Robbins has not heard a word.
In November, 46-year-old Ellen Desmond Dumesnil filed a similar civil suit against the cops and the city. A grants manager at the Migration Ministries Program of the Episcopal Church in Manhattan, Desmond Dumesnil was also guilty of slighting the NYPD: on May 13, 1998, she was arrested for calling a cop an asshole.
Her troubles began around 10 p.m., when a Brazilian tourist approached her in the 14th Street subway station asking for directions. He held out a slip of paper with an address Desmond Dumesnil didn't recognize. Not familiar with the neighborhood, Desmond Dumesnil approached a newsstand in the station and asked the clerk for help. The clerk, in turn, told her to ask a man who stood partially obscured in the back corner of the stand. She couldn't see the man clearly, but certainly heard his reply. He called her question "stupid" and asked, over his shoulder, "Do I look like a map to you, lady?"
"Asshole," Desmond Dumesnil muttered, turning away to ask someone else.
Moments later, the man a uniformed cop emerged from the newsstand and demanded, "What did you say to me?"
"Oh, no," thought Desmond Dumesnil. But she told Officer Robert Ripp the truth. "I'm trying to help this guy who is a tourist and you were rude, and yes, I think you're an asshole."
According to Desmond Dumesnil, Ripp pulled out his handcuffs, told her she was under arrest, and threw her roughly against the wall. As he began cuffing her, another officer approached. Desmond Dumesnil pleaded with him to get the Brazilian man's phone number; no one did. When a woman said, "I saw what happened, do you need a witness?" Desmond Dumesnil says Ripp told the woman to"move along," nudging her in the back and intimidating her into leaving the scene.
Desmond Dumesnil was arrested and taken into police custody, where she would spend the next 18 hours in her private little circle of hell. Because she had a California driver's license instead of a local one, police said they needed someone to vouch for her New York residency. (She gave them phone numbers for two friends. Cops told her they couldn't get hold of them; the friends said they were home all night and received no calls and no messages on answering machines.) Because her residency couldn't be verified, cops sent Desmond Dumesnil downtown to Central Booking. There police asked her if she was suicidal. When she glibly remarked that the situation might cause her to feel suicidal, she was sent to Bellevue for evaluation. After handcuffing her to a wheelchair, Ripp terrified her by repeatedly telling her she was "my prisoner." When she met the first sympathetic ear of the night, a psychiatric nurse, she broke down, sobbing, "No, I'm not suicidal but I'm afraid of being strip-searched and I'm really afraid of this cop." Desmond Dumesnil says the nurse felt bad for her, and believes that Bellevue staff may have deliberately held her there until Ripp went off duty. After several hours, another cop relieved him and took Desmond Dumesnil back downtown. Finally, at 4:30 p.m. the day after she was arrested, police released her.
Exhausted and relieved, Desmond Dumesnil returned to the 6th Precinct to retrieve the purse cops had taken upon arresting her. But because she didn't have any ID on her it was in the purse police at the precinct wouldn't return her bag when she presented them with the receipt for her possessions. They told her she would have to go home to her apartment and bring back identification. But her keys were in her purse, so she couldn't get into her apartment. At that point, Desmond Dumesnil gave up in despair. (A friend succeeded in eventually getting her purse back from the police.)
Police declined to comment on the case. But filings from the criminal suit back up the basic facts. Officer Ripp's disorderly conduct charge declares that "Def screamed A/O [at officer] 'you asshole. Tell Giuliani about it.' " (Desmond Dumesnil admits that this is what she said, but denies screaming it.) Further, he insists that "Def caused a crowd togather [sic] creating a hazardous condition and obstruction passage traffic [sic]." Because the purpose of disorderly conduct charges is to prevent acts that are "undertaken with an intent to create a risk of public disorder or breach of the peace, where both the audience and the speaker are inevitably proceeding toward an eruption of civil strife," the judge dismissed the case. With typical judicial understatement, Judge Neil E. Ross ruled on September 23 that "the words 'you asshole' shouted under the circumstances which Officer Ripp recounts do not establish prima facie defendant's culpability under Penal Law section 240.20." In other words, calling a cop an asshole is not a crime.
What kind of recourse do New Yorkers like Robbins and Desmond Dumesnil have?
"Very little," says Joel Berger, the attorney representing them. "The system is basically a joke."
When a New Yorker files a complaint against a cop with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, as Robbins did, the CCRB substantiates the claim only 5 percent of the time. And while the CCRB announced last week that the number of police misconduct complaints shot up this year from 4769 in 1997 to 4976 in 1998 the number of cases that were substantiated dropped from 448 last year to 300 this year. When these few substantiated claims are forwarded to the police department, the NYPD conducts its own internal investigation. It is then up to police brass to decide what kind of punishment to mete out. Or whether to punish officers at all.
How swift and judicious is the law at monitoring its own? According to a 1998 New York Civil Liberties Union report analyzing the CCRB's own data, the police had yet to act on 528 out of 834 substantiated cases sent to the department between January 1996 and June 1998.
Among the 635 complaints that were acted on in the last two and a half years (many of which were filed before January 1996), no disciplinary action whatsoever was imposed in 447 cases. In other words, in 70 percent of the cases, Police Commissioner Howard Safir rejected the CCRB's finding of police misconduct. Where disciplinary action was taken, it was lax. Nearly 60 percent of these cases were disposed of with "instructions" or "command discipline," which can mean anything from sitting down to review procedures with a supervisor, to receiving a verbal warning, to being docked vacation days.
Furious about this feeble response to police misconduct, more and more New Yorkers are turning to the courts. In 1997, there were 45 percent more lawsuits against the NYPD than there were in 1993. And in the last four years, the city has spent $97 million settling police misconduct lawsuits. (A figure that doesn't include the dollars spent defending cops.)
For Robbins and Desmond Dumesnil, pressing civil charges seems their only avenue for justice. "You think you have rights," says Robbins. "But when you're in the precinct and this guy has a badge and gun and can do what he wants and he wants to misuse his power well, there's nothing you can do about it."
Later, if you're determined and savvy enough, you can file a lawsuit. "If anything, what I did was right," says Robbins. "I'm going after this guy."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.