When Cops Run Amok
In the annals of the NYPD, there are good arrests, bad arrests, and downright bizarre arrests. The case of Luis Veras, a recent Lehman College graduate, might fit into the latter category.
What started as a routine, if dubious, traffic stop on Prospect Avenue in the Bronx, somehow resulted in police officers smashing Veras's car window, slapping him with five misdemeanors, a violation, a summons for reckless driving, and five traffic tickets, and manhandling the motorist to the point that, a year later, he still suffers back pain. Veras also got a face full of pepper spray and 16 hours in a holding cell. Police officers processed him through the system; he spent only two hours in the precinct and the rest in booking. And all that happened after Veras called 911 because he was so disturbed by the officers' behavior.
Veras's lawyer, Eric Milner, maintains that the officers were trying to hit their monthly ticket allotment when they initially stopped him.
"He was stopped to fill a quota," Milner says. "Two different officers wrote him tickets. One ticket was for not signaling a lane change on a road that had only one lane. The tickets were ridiculous. I've never seen anyone ticketed for anything like that in my life."
Lawsuits making this quota allegation are becoming more and more common in the city, a trend fueled by several factors, including media reporting on police officers confirming the existence of quotas for tickets and stop-and-frisks and the ticket-fixing scandal that led to the indictment of 16 officers and will likely lead to administrative charges against more than 100 others.
In February, to cite one example, a Brooklyn jury ruled that the department indeed had quotas, and they were used to violate the plaintiff rights. In addition, a larger class-action lawsuit alleging several dozen New Yorkers were wrongfully given tickets based on quotas is working its way through the courts.
The arresting officer in the Veras case was Gaetano Fundaro of the 41st Precinct in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. Fundaro, as the Voice has reported, lost his title as a police union delegate for pressuring his colleagues to hit ticket quotas mandated by the precinct commander. Those allegations were aired by 41st Precinct officer Adil Polanco, whom the Voice profiled last year. After he reported the allegations, Polanco was himself served with department charges. He claimed that there were quotas for stop-and-frisks and tickets and that crime reports were being downgraded. For two years, Polanco has been on paid suspension, and the department is now trying to fire him.
In his account, Veras, a supermarket seafood clerk with no prior arrests, says he was driving his mother home from a relative's house when he noticed a patrol car was following him. The officers ordered him to stop. Veras turned off the car, placed the keys on the roof, and put his hands on the steering wheel.
The officers accused him of running a red light and "almost crashing into" their car. Veras protested that there was no red light for him to run. The only thing there was was a stop sign, and he had followed the law. A second patrol car arrived. The initial officer gave Veras a reckless driving summons. Veras was told to "stop being a smart ass."
Veras retrieved his keys and pulled into traffic. Just then, the second patrol car screeched alongside him and ordered him to stop again. Veras asked why he was being stopped. The officer said, "You're being arrested for being a smart ass."
Veras asked him to call a sergeant to the scene. "I figured something would happen to me," he says. "He was aggressive, hitting the window with his flashlight. They weren't listening to my requests, so I called 911."
The 911 operator eventually said she was going to transfer Veras to Internal Affairs. More officers arrived, haranguing him to get out of the car. "Get the fuck out of the car, asshole," one officer said.
"I rolled the window down a bit and asked for time for a sergeant to arrive, and one of the officers started tapping on the glass with what looked like a blackjack," Veras says.
Then, for reasons that defy explanation, an officer pepper-sprayed Veras, and another broke the window glass. Veras took off his seat belt and emerged from the car. As he did, they grabbed him. He dropped the phone and was tackled until he was face down on the ground. He was handcuffed on his right hand, and his left was pinned under him. But police accused him of resisting arrest, and the kicking and punching started, Veras says.
"Three or four officers were hitting and kicking me," Veras says. "I was hit many times, on the head, back, and neck. I had cuts on my hands and forehead."
The officers dragged him into a patrol car and took him to the precinct. When he was asked why he didn't get out of the car, Veras repeated that he wanted to speak with a sergeant. "He said there were two sergeants there," Veras says. "I didn't see them. Then he said, 'When a police officer tells you to do something, you don't question it.'"
Veras was held for 16 hours in the precinct and released with a fistful of tickets. Later, when his back pain persisted, a doctor told him that his vertebrae had been damaged. "I've never had problems in the past with my back," Veras says. "Now I feel nervous around police. When you do things like they did, you lose the trust of the people who are supposed to protect you. No one tried to calm the situation. No one said anything positive."
Veras says he was an honor student who graduated magna cum laude from Lehman while also working full-time jobs. "This might jeopardize my career," Veras says. "Everything I worked for could be thrown in the garbage over this."
Milner noted that police also charged Veras's mother with disorderly conduct, even though she was just a passenger in the car and did nothing.
Veras's complaint is backed up by a recording of the disturbing 911 call, which was obtained by the Voice. In the call, Veras can be heard saying: "A lot of cops are harassing me in front of my house. I would like to speak with a sergeant. They are banging on my car window."
The 911 operator asks where he is but then says she will connect him to Internal Affairs.
"You hear that? I'm scared right now," Veras replies. "They are banging on my window, and they want to break my glass."
A few seconds later, you can hear yelling by the officers and Veras screaming and coughing. "My legs, they are going to take me out right now. Oh, my God."
An officer shouts: "Open the door. Open the fucking door."
And then the recording ends.
More than a year later, the misdemeanor charges are still pending. Veras is appealing the traffic tickets.
The Voice will post the disturbing 911 call to our website at villagevoice.com.
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