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The $65,000 Question

Stephen Griffith, at the age of 14: He once liked cops, but a beating from one officer has left him embittered.
photo: Jay Muhlin

His five known victims are black and Jewish. Three of them, neighborhood dirt bike thrill-seekers, were barely teenagers. One was a frightened 12-year-old who urinated in his pants at the 78th Precinct station house in Brooklyn. The others were an interracial couple on a night out-she, a Columbia University lecturer, he, an African American in the company of a white woman. All crossed paths with undercover police officer Fred Napoleoni and suffered from his brutal fists or humiliating rhetoric, the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) has confirmed.

Despite this alarming dossier on Napoleoni, he is still a cop-a white cop who can depend on the Giuliani administration to compensate the victims of his rage. For the second time this year, the city has settled a police-brutality lawsuit against the officer in federal court.

In separate incidents, according to the CCRB and court documents obtained by the Voice, Napoleoni repeatedly punched one of the young blacks, falsely accusing him of attempting to steal the officer's bicycle, and issued trumped-up summonses to the interracial couple who complained during a traffic stop that pulling them over was "a form of harassment." Both incidents occurred seven months apart in 1997. Last month, following a hearing in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, the city agreed to pay the family of Stephen Griffith, the teenager who was beaten, $50,000 for violating his civil rights. In March, it coughed up $15,000 to Daniella Liebling and David M. Rackley for violating their constitutional rights.

In settling the cases, the city did not admit any wrongdoing by Officer Napoleoni. But as part of the settlement in the couple's case, Napoleoni agreed to enroll (at his expense) in a course entitled "Police and Community Relations" at John Jay College. Still pending are the CCRB's recommendations to the police department that disciplinary action be taken against Napoleoni. Six other officers who did nothing to stop this misconduct were not charged.

That Napoleoni is still on the force angers Matthew Flamm, a former assistant city corporation counsel, who represents the Griffith family. "The suits illustrate the police department's flawed disciplinary system," asserts Flamm, "a system that has imposed no penalty despite substantiated CCRB complaints, and a judgement of $65,000 in civil rights settlements for claims against Officer Napoleoni."

How much more the city has doled out as a result of Napoleoni's overly aggressive law enforcement tactics is unknown. The NYPD refuses to release background information on him or to comment on the settlement, citing an internal investigation of the CCRB's charges.

Officer Napoleoni's first known involvement in an allegedly racial encounter occurred on the night of January 20, 1997, after he and three other cops pulled up behind Daniella Liebling's car, which had stopped at a traffic light at the intersection of Fourth Avenue and Union Street in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. The officers trained their patrol van's high beams on the rear window of the car in which David Rackley was a front-seat passenger.

According to court documents, when the traffic light changed to green and Liebling drove off, the turret lights on the van activated, indicating to Liebling that she should pull over. The woman complied. Four officers approached Liebling's car, two on each side. One of the officers allegedly told Liebling that he "had seen Rackley hitting her and believed that she was being abused." Liebling emphatically denied that, but the officer persisted, claiming that he also had observed Rackley reaching for something, which might have been a gun. The officer told her he and his partners were only doing their job and had intervened for her "own good." Liebling rejected the explanation.

When Liebling did not go along with the setup, the officer demanded to see her driver's license. The cops also ordered Rackley out of the car. "He was takenseveral feet away from the car and questioned by officers with their hands on their guns," according to the couple's suit. "He was never questioned about striking Ms. Liebling, or possessing a gun, or even asked his name."

The officers did ask Rackley where he was coming from. "Manhattan," came the terse response, infuriating the officers, who pressed for specific details about the couple's evening together. After responding that he and Liebling had been at a restaurant, the officers demanded to know precisely where the couple were headed.

"As he began to answer that question the officers finally demanded in a hostile and angry way to know what he was doing with her," the court papers state. Meanwhile, Liebling was being peppered with racially tinged questions by one of the officers.

"How do I know who this guy is?" he asked her. "I don't know if he is your husband, your boyfriend, or what."  

Unable to intrude on the couple's privacy, the officers hopped back in their van and prepared to drive away. That's when Rackley approached the van and asked for their badge numbers. "The officers at first refused to provide such numbers, saying that they were doing [the couple] a favor by letting them go," the court papers note. "Mr. Rackley persisted, telling the officers that he believed that the stop was a form of harassment."

"If you think this is harassment, you haven't seen anything," one of the officers shouted. Alighting from the van, another officer demanded that Liebling hand over her license and registration for the second time. He ordered Rackley and Liebling to return to their vehicle. The couple sat there for about 20 minutes. Then, one of the officers approached the car and handed Liebling her documents along with two summonses for driving without seat belts and one for a defective side-view mirror.

At a hearing in which Officer Napoleoni testified, a judge threw out the summons for the defective mirror but found Liebling guilty of failing to wear a seat belt (she's appealing the conviction). The couple filed a multimillion-dollar suit, naming Napoleoni as the chief defendant, and charging that the traffic tickets were just a sham by the officers to "justify their improper and illegal conduct" in stopping and interrogating them. Liebling and Rackley contend they were ridiculed, shamed, and put through "emotional distress, anguish, and mental suffering."

Almost six months later, on July 1, 1997, Napoleoni ran into 14-year-old Stephen Griffith and two of his friends, Ronald, 15, and his brother, Kendall, 12. In a videotaped interview with his attorney, obtained by the Voice, Griffith charged that around 4:30 p.m., while bicycling around Prospect Park, Napoleoni and three other undercover officers on bike patrol began to follow them.

Ronald was riding atop the handlebar of Griffith's new Pacific Black Diamond mountain bike. The boys, diehard enthusiasts of bicycle motocross, had been cruising, looping, doing wheelies, and other freestyle acrobatics, and ogling the dirt bikes of other cyclists. They kept on riding, looking over their shoulders at a white man on a bike who was trailing them. The man then rode off in a different direction. The boys thought nothing of it until they came upon a second white man, who appeared to be fixing his busted bike. A short distance away, a third man with a bike kept staring at Ronald. Then the man who initially had been following them suddenly reappeared. Kendall eyeballed him.

"Do I know you?" the second man shouted, startling the boys, who got back on their bikes and began to pedal like crazy. The man who was fixing his bike, and the other strangers, pursued. Kendall fell behind. The man caught up with him on St. John's Place between Eighth Avenue and Plaza Street in Park Slope.

"He grabbed Kendall off his bike and Kendall had fell," Griffith told his attorney. "Ronald told me to stop and turn around. So I stopped and he got off and went back to see what had happened to his brother."

Griffith said he and Ronald saw Kendall on the ground being handcuffed. It was then they feared that the white men might be cops. Griffith thought the manhandling of Kendall "was kind of wrong" and remained at the scene in silent protest. Suddenly, the boy maintained, one of the men "dragged me off of my bike and threw me on the floor and handcuffed me." By then a crowd had gathered, staring at the boys. According to Griffith, some seemed to be thinking, "Yeah, they did something wrong." But one of the onlookers was suspicious of the police action. "What did they do?" the onlooker inquired.

"Stay back!" Griffith remembered one of the men shouting at the crowd as he flashed a police officer's shield. "Stay the fuck back!" Backup officers arrived, and the undercover cops put the boys and their bikes in separate vehicles. The undercover cop, whom Griffith and his friends later identified as Officer Napoleoni, sat next to Kendall as they drove to the precinct and told him he would never see his bike again.

"Stop looking at me or I'll snuff you!" Napoleoni reportedly told Griffith. Griffith said he kept on looking at Napoleoni "because I was scared, I didn't know what else to do." Napoleoni sneered, "Look at me one more fucking time and I'm going to snuff you."

When the terrified teenager told Napoleoni he wasn't looking at him, the officer "punched me, three times under my right eye." Griffith said the driver and other officers ridiculed him and laughed.

"Kendall was really scared, and Ronald kept asking, 'What did we do?' " Griffith said. Napoleoni's constant refrain was, "One more time and we'll beat you with this nightstick." As the cops debated among themselves what charges to bring against the boys, the suspects kept pestering them for an explanation.  

Then one of the cops accused Griffith of lying about his age. He said Griffith first told him that he was 13. "I should kick your ass!" the cop bellowed.

"I gave my right age," Griffith insisted. "It was you who put the wrong age down." But at 14, even Griffith could see through the cop's attempt to confuse him.

"It seemed kind of humorous because all that was happening, constantly telling him my age, [he was] putting down the wrong thing and blaming me."

When Griffith's mother, Leontine, arrived at the station house, Napoleoni, who stands five feet nine inches tall and at the time weighed about 185 pounds, claimed that Griffith and his friends had tried to wrestle a bicycle from him. A judge later dismissed charges against Griffith that included second-degree robbery and criminal possession of stolen property.

**Before his run-in with Officer Napoleoni, little Stephen Griffith had never been arrested or scolded by an officer. In fact he liked cops and hung around them often at a Police Athletic League center in Flatbush. At the PAL center, Griffith played basketball with the cops, but the motocross whiz always heckled his cool and hip friends about their city-issued patrol bikes, which supposedly were better and faster. "My bike is probably better than yours," Griffith bragged to one officer.

"It would be a good idea if one of y'all raced," the officer replied, challenging the boy. Griffith boasts that, during one competition, he left two of the department's best bicyclists churning in a storm of dust as he sprinted toward the finish.

He recalled that after the race, the officers took him to McDonald's and "I had a lot of food that day." Griffith knows now that there are "certain police I shouldn't trust because as much as you think that police are nice they have some of them that's bad." The experience with Napoleoni, the cop who sucker-punched a kid, has left him embittered.

"Now I'm kind of upset and angry about it, because I always trust police and I thought that police would never do anything like this to somebody, especially little kids," he said. "The one thing that I don't know is why they did this at all."

Additional reporting: Danielle Douglas


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