As Giuliani’s NYPD wages its overzealous war against crime, even civilian witnesses are sometimes treated like perps.
For 23-year-old Sophie Torres*, who witnessed a stabbing at the Union Square subway station on January 31, offering to cooperate with police by giving a statement was a decision she would quickly regret. Sophie was taken upstairs to the transit police office at 1:45 a.m. and then trucked off to the 13th Precinct, where she was held captive in a room, guarded by an armed officer, for the next 22 hours. For the first 16 hours she was given nothing but a buttered roll and coffee to sustain her. It would be nine hours before she could make a single phone call.
It all began around 1 a.m. as Sophie stood waiting for the Brooklyn-bound L train to arrive.
An actor who moved to New York City eight months ago when she graduated from Yale, Sophie was on her way home from a rehearsal. She had just decided it would be faster to walk than to wait for the subway, and as she turned toward the stairs she heard a group of kids yelling. She realized a fight was in progress.
“At least two kids were fighting right near me and with each punch they were advancing toward me,” Sophie recalls. “I was watching for a minute and then I realized they were coming right at me, so I started to walk away. I went about three steps and a gun went off.” Sophie dropped to the ground and crawled behind a pole. When she peered out, she couldn’t see anybody with a gun; what she saw instead was a hand holding a blood-speckled knife aloft.
Moments later, another young man dropped onto a bench clutching his bloody side. When someone yelled for an ambulance, Sophie ran to the phone a few yards away on the platform and called 911. “Everything— all the clichés about New York City— were coming true before my eyes,” Sophie says. For her, the crime was bad enough. But the aftermath would be a comedy— or tragedy— of errors.
“The first thing I said to 911 was, ‘I’m at the 14th StreetUnion Square subway station on the L-train platform and sombody’s just been stabbed.’ ” The 911 dispatcher wanted to know which direction the L train was going and couldn’t seem to understand that it didn’t matter; the L departed in both direction from the same platform. Next, the dispatcher demanded “the booth number” for the station. Sophie asked whether this was posted somewhere or if civilians were supposed to carry such information around in their heads. But the dispatcher failed to explain, continuing to insist she needed the booth info before sending EMTs.
Then, cops arrived on the scene, guns drawn, prepared to shoot. (“It was scarier than the whole incident to have the cops flipped out and waving their guns around,” Sophie says. “It was pretty clear that the way you react to their presence is how they decide whether to fire or not. You want to act right, but what’s right?”) Sophie begged the cops to please put their guns down because “there are innocent people here.” They eventually complied.
Meanwhile, the dispatcher was still on the phone asking Sophie for “the booth number,” telling her the cops would know; she should put a cop on. But when Sophie tried to hand the phone to a nearby officer he shrugged her away, saying he didn’t know the booth number. Sophie was increasingly indignant. “Nobody knows the booth number,” she said. “And a guy is dying.”
It was 20 minutes, by Sophie’s estimation, before EMTs arrived on the platform.
When the dust cleared, one teen was dead and three had been stabbed in what cops discovered was a gang fight between rival Mexican groups. “You know, it’s really hard to get people to stay and tell us what they saw,” an officer told a cluster of witnesses, “so if you could stay here a couple of minutes, that would really be a help.” Sophie was reluctant— it was almost 1:30 a.m.— but thought that helping out, by sharing what she saw, was the right thing to do. “I was thinking, ‘Damn, it’s not going to be a couple of minutes, I’m going to be here another hour. It’ll probably be 2:30 before I get home.’ ”
Sophie and approximately 15 others were bused to the 13th Precinct. “I did not see the light of day for another 20 hours,” Sophie says. Somehow, although she had voluntarily offered to give a statement, she became a prisoner, forcibly detained by the cops she was trying to help.
Sophie was put in a holding room with gang members and other witnesses. Detectives took down her name and number— five times. She was briefly questioned once, at 4 a.m., and then ordered back into the holding room. An armed officer was stationed outside the door. Every time Sophie asked to leave, or at least make a phone call, her request was denied. Worried that her roommate would be frantic, she persisted. Finally, at 9 a.m., she was allowed to use the phone. She called her roommate to let him know where she’d been all night and her stage manager to let her know she would be late for that morning’s rehearsal. Cops returned her to the holding room.
Two and a half hours later, on her way back from a trip to the bathroom, she spied her roommate waiting for her in the precinct lobby. When she tried to hug him, an officer interrupted— “You can’t do that”— and ordered her back into the holding room. Sophie’s roommate demanded, “What kind of crime am I committing by hugging her?” The cop didn’t answer. Sophie asked if her roommate could wait with her. The officer said no. Sophie’s roommate was incredulous, urging her to leave the police station. “If I can’t even talk to you, how can I leave?” Sophie asked, as the cop ushered her back into the room.
As time went on, Sophie’s principal preoccupation became food. She had long since used up whatever cash she had in the room’s solitary vending machine— as had most folks being held. The police had delivered buttered rolls at 9 a.m., but by 4 p.m. Sophie was famished. “You can’t hold us here without feeding us,” she said, pleading with the guard. “Can’t I at least make a phone call to my roommate so he can bring me some food?” The cop said no. Desperate, Sophie began screaming, “You’re keeping us like caged animals. We have no way of eating unless you feed us, we have no way of leaving unless you let us. We have no way of making phone calls— even to our bosses— and we’re jeopardizing our jobs. Is this justice?” Then she began crying, “How can I put this to you in a way you can understand? I need food; we need to eat.”
At 6 p.m., a cop who was going off duty relented and brought the group of witnesses a pizza.
At 9:30 p.m. a new guard allowed Sophie to make a phone call. She called her roommate, interrupting a Super Bowl party going on at her house, sobbing and screaming into the phone, “I’m just here because I was trying to help. They’re keeping me like a prisoner.” A couple of officers walking around the station took notice of her breakdown.
“I was pretty much accusing them of holding me wrongfully,” Sophie recalls. “So immediately a cop came over to me and said the detectives were going to be down any minute to question me. ‘Why don’t you go into the bathroom and wash up?’ ”
An hour later, at 10:30 p.m.— approximately 21 hours after Sophie first offered to give a statement— she met with detectives. “How long you been here?” one asked. She told them. “They were shocked. ‘You’ve been here that long?’ ” They said she must have “fallen through the cracks” and apologized: “Sometimes when it’s homicide and gang intelligence and the local police force, when we all come together it’s just not that organized.” Sophie concurred, “That’s pretty apparent.”
At 11:30 p.m., after giving her statement for the second time, she was released.
A police department spokesperson, Gerry Falcon, confirms that Sophie was “held for an extended period of time” but explains that this was due to the large number of people involved: “In an effort to sort out who were perpetrators and who were witnesses, it took a while.” Before being asked, Falcon added, “You should know she was fed, though.”
When Sophie’s situation was described to him, civil rights attorney Ron Kuby called it “illegal detention.” Grand juries can compel witnesses to testify, and judges can order that crucial witnesses be held in custody if prosecutors feel they may flee, but police have none of these rights. “Of course, as a practical matter— being men with guns— they can do anything they like,” Kuby says, observing that cases like Sophie’s happen fairly frequently.
“This violates the constitutional rights of the witness herself to be free from police intimidation when making a statement,” Kuby says. And there is an additional danger. “Eventually, your inclination is to tell police what they want to hear— or to identify a particular person you never actually got a good look at— just so you can go home.” Kuby is emphatic: “It’s a practice that serves the interest of no one.”
Sophie, who had told the police all along that she was willing to return to the precinct for further questioning whenever detectives summoned her (she lived only a few blocks away) was called back in the following day. She showed up, as requested, and gave another statement.
While she may yet be called to testify before a grand jury or a trial, Sophie says she has learned her lesson. “The only thing this taught me is to never, ever say you are a witness to anything; don’t ever cooperate with the cops because they will not cooperate with you. And that is not the kind of person I was before this happened.”
Sophie has already had an opportunity to put this lesson to the test. “I actually saw a guy get hit by a car last weekend and called an ambulance.” She pauses. “I called the ambulance, and then I just walked away.”
*Sophie’s name has been changed; police advised her that gang members might retaliate if they learned her identity.
Research assistance by Hillary Chute