If you are Latino, don’t speak English, and call a New York Police Department precinct for help, you may be ridiculed, treated shabbily, discriminated against, or left at the mercy of your potential assailant. That is the conclusion of a study by the Equalizer Foundation, a group of current and former law-enforcement officers led by William L. Acosta, an ex-NYPD Internal Affairs investigator. The nearly month-long study inflamed raw tensions between the Equalizers’ “integrity testers” and combative cops.
When some officers weren’t mimicking callers, saying, “You speakie Spannie, you speakie Spannie,” others were passing them off to colleagues (“Here, talk to this clown”) and cracking racist jokes, according to a transcript of the study’s recorded conversations. Based on the group’s investigations, the Internal Affairs Bureau has been looking into allegations that nonchalant cops at the 115th Precinct station house in Queens mishandled a complaint by a non-English-speaking Colombian immigrant who subsequently was shot to death by her crazed boyfriend.
“The policy of this department is to stress the principles of Courtesy, Professionalism, and Respect,” said Sergeant Andrew McInnis, an NYPD spokesperson. “CPR is working.”
CPR apparently wasn’t working early one morning last December in the Midtown South station house, headquarters of one of the busiest police precincts in Manhattan. The phone had been ringing off the hook—25 times by William Acosta’s count. Acosta hung up and redialed, but as in his 40 other failed attempts to reach out to a Spanish-speaking officer, he got a recorded greeting in English, and finally a police officer who seemed to compare him to that incoherent talking chihuahua in the Taco Bell commercial.
Acosta, posing as a puzzled Latino caller, asked a police officer who eventually answered the phone what time he could call back to speak to a Latino cop. Three p.m., was the brusque reply from the representative of the “Finest,” who would later identify himself as “Police Officer Dwyer.” He chided the Colombian-born private investigator for asking him what time it was—and then hung up. Acosta redialed. At that point, he was immune to rude cops.
Between December 10, 1999, and January 4, the Equalizer Foundation and the Police Complaint Center, headed by Richard Rivera, made 49 calls to 34 precincts throughout the five boroughs. According to a draft report entitled “A Study of Courtesy, Professionalism, and Respect: Telephone Responses to Latinos by the NYPD,” 33 calls were answered by male officers and 15 by females. One call allegedly went unanswered “after several reasonable attempts.” Only four Spanish-speaking officers answered calls, and Spanish-speaking personnel assisted Latino callers in 26 cases. Non-Spanish-speaking personnel assisted Latino callers 22 times, the study found.
In 10 cases, according to a transcript, non-Spanish-speaking personnel told the caller to call back during periods ranging from 10 minutes to the next day. In six instances, English-speaking officers determined the calls were not emergencies and hung up four times. In eight cases, callers were given numbers to the Civilian Complaint Review Board and directed to call the agency. The phone number for the Internal Affairs Bureau was given six times. The Equalizers, whose ultimate goal is to get nearly 40,000 police officers to be more civil, professional, and courteous, claimed that officers ridiculed callers in four cases. Only eight officers, the report concluded, followed department policy regarding the handling of complaints by non-English-speaking New Yorkers.
It was now 8 a.m. In Acosta’s second attempt to strike a more responsive chord with cops at the Midtown South station house, he again encountered Officer Dwyer.
“Me call, you hang up,” the former undercover cop and customs agent complained. His broken English was grating, even to the point of annoying. It seemed like Dwyer would see right through Acosta’s act.
“That’s the worst Spanish accent ever,” Dwyer told Acosta, who is also fluent in English, Portuguese, and German. “You sound Chinese, almost. You know that. . . you sound Chinese. Try to get a Spanish accent, you’re sounding Chinese.” Acosta insisted that he was Spanish and kept haranguing Dwyer to provide him with an officer who spoke Spanish.
“ Eso si que es!” (Yes, this is it) Dwyer said.
“ Que?” Acosta inquired.
“ Eso si que es!” repeated Dwyer, who then put Acosta on hold. Acosta said that he stayed on the line for about four minutes before hanging up and redialing. This time the phone rang 23 times. He hung up, redialed, was greeted by the recording, then by Dwyer.
“Eso si que es!” Dwyer said. Acosta asked to speak to a sergeant.
“What sergeant?” Dywer retorted. The sound of muffled laughter was audible in the background. “Hello,” Dwyer continued, “you want the sergeant? What time is it, do you know?” He put Acosta on hold. Someone who claimed to be the sergeant took Acosta’s call. But the Equalizer insisted on talking to a cop who spoke Spanish.
“Nobody here!” the sergeant claimed.
“Me want complain officer,” Acosta said.
“Yeah, hold on,” the cop responded. Acosta’s call was transferred to a female officer.
“I do not speak Spanish,” she said. “I speak English.” Tired of being passed around in the cops’ telephone relay, Acosta demanded to speak to Officer Dwyer. But for any face-to-face with Dwyer, Acosta was informed, he would have to come to the station house. Acosta called back. Dwyer answered. Now Acosta wanted to file a complaint against a bad cop. Dwyer and other officers in the background erupted in uproarious giggles.
“You need to make your complaint to the ‘officer no good’?” Dwyer mocked.
“Me need to know how make complaint.” Acosta said. The officers continued laughing.
“Alright, what happened?” asked Dwyer, relenting. “You’ve been robbed? Where are you right now? Donde eh you?” As Dwyer’s fellow officers snickered, Dwyer accentuated the obvious: “You need an officer that speaks Spanish.” It’s what Acosta had been trying to get through to the station house jester.
“We don’t have any officers that speak Spanish,” Dwyer said.
“This is America!” someone shouted. “Speak English!”
“What’s your name, sir?” Dwyer asked.
“John,” Acosta replied humbly.
“John?” Dwyer scoffed. His buddies chortled.
“Yeah, Juan,” Acosta confirmed.
“John?” asked the torturous interlocutor.
“Juan, that’s better,” Dwyer said. “Okay, I didn’t think it was John to begin with. Let me ask you this, you ready?”
“Yeah,” Acosta said.
“How come, no matter what color the soap is, the suds are always white?” The cops roared.
“No understand,” the dumbfounded, role-playing Latino replied.
“No? Hang on a second,” Dwyer said. The phone cut off. Acosta redialed. A female officer answered. Acosta mentioned the CCRB, suggesting that he wanted to file a complaint. She transferred the call and Dwyer picked up. Dwyer put Acosta on hold and could be overheard conferring with someone Acosta believed was the sergeant. In essence, Dwyer told the sergeant, Acosta wanted to file a complaint against him. According to Acosta, the sergeant ordered Dwyer to take the complaint.
“l can’t take a complaint against a cop,” Dwyer protested. “I can take a complaint against a cop, really?” He then told Acosta, “Hold on, okay? Hold on. . . . ” Dwyer got back on the phone: “Hello. Sir? Okay, I’m going to take the complaint, okay?” But for the umpteenth time, William Acosta wanted a Spanish-speaking officer.
“We don’t have one,” Dwyer proclaimed, adding, “Where do we go from there?” The officer then conferred with someone. Acosta remained persistent. What time should he call back to talk to a cop who speaks his language?
“Are you sure you’re not Chinese?” Dwyer said, ribbing the Latino. “Call back at three o’clock,” he suggested. “l can take your report from you in partial English, partial Spanish, half Chinese or. . . you can call back at three o’clock and speak to the Spanish officer.” Acosta said he would call back.
“Okay, buenas noches,” said the dismissive Dwyer, and hung up.
Unsatisfied with the way he was treated, Acosta called back. When Dwyer answered, he asked the officer for the number to contact the Spanish-speaking liaison. Dwyer put Acosta on hold for several minutes, then asked, “What do you need?” Acosta was put on hold again, while Dwyer asked someone in the background for the number of the CCRB. Shortly after that, Acosta was given the number.
In his review of the banter, the Equalizer determined that Midtown South did not have a Spanish-speaking officer available at all times; that despite the fact that three supervisors were present, Dwyer and another unidentified officer “humiliated [the] caller and made a racial remark”; that the officers did not provide the caller with the CCRB’s number until 28 minutes into their conversation; that the caller was put on hold 12 times and kept waiting for more than eight minutes; and that at no time did Dwyer or his superiors ask the caller if he had an emergency.
William Acosta and the Equalizer Foundation decided to conduct the “integrity tests” after Adela Buitrago Escobar, who spoke little or no English, allegedly was brutally murdered by her deranged fiancé.
On November 1, last year—according to an account of Escobar’s last days, as told to the Equalizers by her brother, Gabriel Buitrago—Escobar, 35, discovered that her beau, Pedro Game, 41, to whom she had been engaged, was married with three children and residing in Astoria. Eighteen days later, Escobar told Game—an immigrant from Ecuador who drove a cab—that their December 23 wedding was off. Game allegedly went to Escobar’s home in Jackson Heights and threw her on a bed and choked her. He threatened to kill Escobar, her two-year-old daughter, and her brother if she told anyone about his marriage. On the evening of November 21, as she left her job at a Queens pool hall, Game allegedly grabbed Escobar and forced her at gunpoint to lie on the floor of his Lincoln Continental. He drove to an isolated area in Astoria where he detained her for seven hours.
“He started reciting things from the Book of Revelations and squeezed one of her breasts and punched her in the back on a couple of occasions,” Acosta said. Game released her about 5:30 the next morning and drove her back home. Afraid Game would return to kill her, Escobar begged her brother, Gabriel Buitrago, not to go to work. Buitrago agreed on the condition that she’d later accompany him to the 115th Precinct station house to lodge a complaint against Game. At the station house they met a white cop. “My sister. Problem. Violence. Boyfriend,” Buitrago said excitedly in his limited English.
“Please, Spanish!” Escobar said, intervening. She was asking for a cop who spoke Spanish. “Please, speak Spanish!” The officer allegedly wrote down the name of Albert Lugo, a Latino who handled domestic-violence complaints, and told them to contact him later. “At no time did the officer try to ascertain what the problem was or made any notes—any efforts to ask if the victim was okay, if she needed any medical attention,” Acosta charged. (McInnis, the police spokesperson, reiterated that the department will investigate “any allegation that an officer has failed to be courteous to any citizen.”)
Escobar and her brother tried to reach Lugo over a two-day period, leaving several messages in his voice mail. On November 24, Lugo responded and invited the brother and sister to meet him at the station house. Escobar told Lugo about her ordeal, but Lugo, according to Acosta, “did not pay her any mind and continued to joke around with another officer . . . not taking the complaint serious.” Finally, Lugo, Acosta claimed, determined that Escobar’s complaint did not fall into the category of domestic violence.
“He gave her a piece of paper, did not refer her to Criminal Court, did not notify the detectives in the precinct [where the attacks on her occurred], and didn’t follow through as he is supposed to when dealing with a very sensitive issue like this,” Acosta railed. The Equalizer said that “the torment continued, the man was calling the house, harassing them.” Escobar and her brother tried in vain to contact Lugo. Her neighbors told Acosta later that, three days before Escobar was killed, Game staked out her block because she was not returning his calls.
Police said that around 10:30 a.m. on November 28, Game shot Escobar three times in the face in the basement of Alex Pool Hall in Astoria after they argued. Three witnesses interviewed by Acosta said that after Game gunned down Escobar he dragged her body in front of them, stood over her, and screamed, “I told you I was going to kill her! I told you I was going to kill you, and I killed you!” After a standoff with police, Game turned the gun on himself. Authorities said he tried to commit suicide by shooting himself in the stomach, but suffered only a graze wound.
“To add insult to injury, the police [were] negligent in letting Game use the telephone at the hospital,” Acosta charged. The suspect allegedly called Gabriel Buitrago, trying to explain to him why he’d killed his sister. When Buitrago complained, the cops apologized and advised him to change his number. With the Equalizers on his side, Buitrago demanded that Internal Affairs launch an investigation into the alleged refusal by Lugo to arrest Game. “Mr. Game would have been arrested,” Acosta told the Voice. “Their [contention] that he would have been released and would have found a way to kill her is not good enough.”
Escobar, Acosta asserted, did not have to die. Among the recommendations the Equalizers proposed that the NYPD adopt are: that sensitivity and cultural awareness training be expanded; that the phone numbers for the Civilian Complaint Review Board and the Internal Affairs Bureau be made readily available to officers and posted in clear view for people entering station houses to file complaints; that cops take a crash course in “emergency linguistic training” and that they “receive incentive pay” for speaking additional languages; and, of course, that English-only phone messages on the station houses phones be eliminated.
Additional reporting: Danielle Douglas