We believe that Curtis was beaten before he either fell or was pushed off the roof. . . . When I saw the pictures I felt he was beaten. He looked like someone who was banged up. His face was swollen and his nose looked dislocated. Was this all from the fall?
—Pamela Jacobs, aunt of alleged police brutality victim Curtis Harmon
As the men were being questioned, one of them fled. The officers pursued. He ran up the stairs. They followed but lost sight of him. When they get to the roof, they don’t see him. As they are searching the roof for him, they see a hand hanging off the side of the building. Then he slipped and he went down, falling to the courtyard below.
—NYPD spokesperson Tom Antenen
The Internal Affairs Bureau of the NYPD and the Civilian Complaint Review Board have launched separate investigations into the alleged death in police custody of a mildly retarded black man.
The family of Curtis Harmon Jr. has challenged a police claim that Harmon, 35, “slipped” and fell off a building on May 22 after he ran from cops. Police were investigating a report about a stabbing in the University Heights section of the Bronx. The medical examiner has classified Harmon’s death as an accident due to a “fall from [a] height while fleeing police.”
“I feel in my heart that he was beaten by the cops,” says Pamela Jacobs, one of Harmon’s aunts, who is a registered nurse at New York Hospital in Queens. “We need to know the truth about what happened on that roof. The police chase after someone who just drops off a roof? I don’t get it. How did he slip?”
According to Jacobs, an unidentified cop at the 46th Precinct station house seemed to have all the answers, but told her family “next to nothing” about an investigation that had been conducted. The day after Harmon died, says Jacobs, who is a spokesperson for the family, two relatives went to the station house, demanding an explanation. She says the officer read from a report. “He said the cops had received a report of a stabbing, and as two officers were walking past a building, one man ran into the building,” Jacobs claims. “He said the cops chased the man, who ran up several flights of stairs. It was raining. It was slippery. The man fell five stories and died of his injuries. End of story.”
Jacobs feels uneasy about the police version setting forth such an abrupt end to her nephew’s life. She contends that the cops have the missing chapters with all the gory details, and she can’t—at least not yet—let them close the book. Her persistence finally prompted a phone call from a 46th Precinct cop identified only as Detective Tierney. She says he invited the family to a meeting at the station house, but she insisted that he tell her on the phone how Harmon died. Tierney reportedly told Jacobs that Harmon’s death was “an unfortunate accident” and apologized on behalf of the NYPD. “He also read from a report; but one thing stuck in my mind,” she recalls. “The EMS states that one of his arms was broken ‘seemingly by a baseball bat.’ ”
She says that Tierney refused to divulge the names of the officers involved in the fatal chase. And when she asked if the cops were black or white, he allegedly replied, “Right now, it does not matter. We have investigated it, and it is just an unfortunate accident.” When the detective asked Jacobs if Harmon wore dentures, she told him she wasn’t sure. But Jacobs recalled an unnerving conversation she had with two alleged witnesses. They told her that after authorities left the scene they found several bloodied teeth on the roof. “We believe that Curtis was beaten before he either fell or was pushed off the roof,” Jacobs says. Several attempts by the Voice to contact Detective Tierney proved futile. In fact, a detective at the station house refused to confirm that there was a Detective Tierney assigned there. For that kind of information, he scoffed, “you will have to go through channels.”
Initially, according to the family, police classified Harmon as a John Doe but later matched his fingerprints with a set they had on file from a turnstile-jumping offense when he was a teenager. Investigators then went to Rikers Island, where Harmon’s brother, Gregory, was being held, showed him a medical examiner’s photo of a bloated and bloodied face, and asked him to make a positive ID. “When I saw the pictures I felt he was beaten,” says Jacobs. “He looked like someone who was banged up. His face was swollen and his nose looked dislocated. Was this all from the fall?”
Harmon’s family questions the police theory that Harmon may have gotten into a fight with someone before fleeing from the cops. Jacobs claims that a man told them that he was “hanging out” with Harmon when the cops approached, and Harmon had not been fighting. “I don’t know if he was really involved in a fight before he died,” says Jacobs, sobbing. “But how was his arm broken if it wasn’t as a result of the so-called ‘fall’? People are telling us that he wasn’t in a fight.”
On May 31, Jacobs filed a grievance with the Civilian Complaint Review Board. She says she was later contacted by Lieutenant Ray Daniels of the NYPD’s Internal Affairs division, who told her he was looking into the circumstances surrounding her nephew’s alleged death in police custody.
Jacobs says her family is perplexed by Harmon’s violent end. She describes the son of a deceased Panamanian immigrant and U.S.-born father as a “simple-minded, gentle man” who held down a steady job as a security guard at a Duane Reade pharmacy in Brooklyn. “Uncle Butch” or “Butchy Boy,” as some called Harmon, was “very muscular and strong when he was young,” according to an obituary. This “quiet and humble person,” who was “very easygoing and willing to help in any way he could,” played high school football.
“Although he never married or had any kids, he would have been a great husband and father,” the obituary stated. “He loved kids and was very good with them. His favorite pastime was television and taking his nieces and nephews to the movies.”
Police maintain there is no foul play in Harmon’s death. “The deceased fell in an attempt to elude police personnel,” insists NYPD spokesperson Tom Antenen.
He says three cops responded to an anonymous call about a stabbing in a fight involving three men at 1715 Walton Avenue. But the officers only found two men in the lobby of the building. “As the men were being questioned, one of them fled,” Antenen claims. “The officers pursued. He ran up the stairs. They followed but lost sight of him. When they get to the roof, they don’t see him. As they are searching the roof for him, they see a hand hanging off the side of the building. Then he slipped and he went down, falling to the courtyard below.”
Antenen says that at the time of the chase “it was raining steadily,” implying that inclement weather may have contributed to the fall. He would neither confirm nor deny a claim by a law-enforcement source that Harmon ran because he “had a small quantity of marijuana on him.” He refused to name the officers.
Ellen Borakove, a spokesperson for the medical examiner, says an autopsy concluded that Harmon died of “multiple fractures and visceral injuries due to blunt impact to head, torso, and extremities.” Antenen could not ascertain whether the report of a stabbing was accurate, adding that the investigation by Internal Affairs “is routine.”
What’s routine about this “accident” is that another unarmed black man has died under suspicious circumstances. And again, the police have made the victim the fall guy. “All Detective Tierney kept telling me is that the police were sorry for what happened,” says Pamela Jacobs. “Sorry for what? Sorry won’t bring him back.”
Additional reporting: Skye McFarlane