New York

Overheated in Sunset Park


The Acostas of 47th Street in Sunset Park hold their heads high. When they believe someone is disrespecting one of theirs, they bristle. Even when that someone is a police officer.

The three-generation clan freely admit to objecting when a cop interrupted July 4 festivities in front of the three-story walk-up where the grandparents Acosta, natives of Puerto Rico, moved into the first-floor apartment 24 years ago. Some 15 friends and family, including several young children, had congregated on the stoop and sidewalk, spending the humid Friday evening outdoors like many in the neighborhood.

At about 10, a car pulled up, and a police officer emerged. Without a word, the family says, he strode over to a boombox emitting reggae and yanked out the power cord that extended through a window. The machine belonged to 14-year-old Orlando. His mother, Elena, says she confronted the officer, shouting, “Hey, what are you doing? That’s my kid’s radio!”

The NYPD’s version of the outburst, according to spokesperson Inspector Michael Coan, is, “The officers were verbally abused.”

Whether Elena swore or said pretty please, her kin say police reacted with unacceptable violence. They claim the Acosta attitude was met with brute force by a swarm of officers from Brooklyn’s 72nd Precinct. (A teenage relative, with some quick footwork and a few clicks of the family camera, managed to capture some of the action.)

The dispute escalated into a melee that ended in the injury of at least eight Acostas, ages 12 through 62, and the arrest of five. Four, including grandmother Margarita, are now facing charges of assaulting officers, obstructing justice, and resisting arrest. But their claims of police misconduct have prompted ongoing investigations by the police Internal Affairs Bureau and the Civilian Complaint Review Board. The family is gearing up to sue the city for brutality and false arrest.

Five officers have claimed their own injuries, including an ankle sprain, bruises, and bites. “It escalated when one of the officers was pushed, possibly pricked, although that may have been accidental,” says Coan. Told of the family’s photos, he says, “it would be good for us to have them.”

The Acostas deny assaulting police and say the interaction never had to get so hostile. Says Elena, 35, “[The officer] didn’t ask no questions. No, ‘we’ll give you a ticket’ or nothing. He says, ‘I’m the law. Shut up or I’ll arrest you.’ ”

Says the family’s civil lawyer, Matthew Flamm, who litigates police brutality cases, “They justifiably were offended by the police conduct. Every single police case I handle comes from disrespect that civilians took from police. Given the offense the Acostas took, it’s no surprise the police showed them who’s boss.”

Although all but one of them had spotless records, according to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, the family say they were treated like thugs. While the details of the incident are unique and complicated, some Acosta supporters say it speaks to wider tensions between the area’s sizable Latino population and local law enforcement.

Flamm says, “I have a feeling, if it was me, a white guy, the police would have said, ‘Hey buddy, turn the radio off.’ Because this was a family of color, they were treated differently.”

One recent evening the Acostas reenacted their side of the story for a reporter.

Elena claims the cop who unplugged the radio ordered another officer to arrest her after she confronted him. “My mother says to me, ‘Go inside, forget about it,’ ” says Elena.

Her mother, Margarita, who looks all of her 62 years and is about five feet tall, stepped between the officer and her daughter. Elena, who is not much larger than her mother, turned and started up the stoop.

Margarita insisted it was “el capitán” himself—describing a white man in a white shirt and gold-ornamented cap—who unplugged the boombox. Later, she and other members of the family identified him from his color photo on the 72nd Precinct’s Web page as Captain Dominic Gentile. He also appears in some of the family’s snapshots from that night and is cited in the criminal complaint against Elena. Gentile did not respond to queries the Voice relayed in a phone call and a visit to his station house last week.

Police got past Margarita, and Elena says she was seized on her way up the stairs by the back of her shirt. “I fell onto the sidewalk,” tumbling over the stoop’s railing, she says, and breaking her left elbow. Hospital records and her cast confirm the break.

From there events dominoed quickly. A large number of officers suddenly appeared, the family says at least 20. One of the photos shows 12 cops surrounding one person who is down on the ground. Another shot, of part of the nearby intersection, captures half a dozen NYPD vehicles.

As Elena fell, Margarita, who continued to struggle toward her daughter, had her shirt torn entirely off, leaving her in just a white lace bra, according to the photos.

Margarita’s son Jose, 40, was inside the apartment. “I heard a commotion and looked out the window,” he says. “I came outside. I got dragged from the top of the stairs,” of which there are seven, concrete. “As I hit the stairs, I get cuffed.” His knees were scraped raw in patches the size of eggs. His front right tooth, on the top, was knocked out from the root. (Family members discovered the tooth later, on the sidewalk next to bloodstains, and snapped pictures.)

“The only thing I could see before I hit the stairs was my mom, stripped, with four or five cops on her. My sister [Elena] was already down with four or five cops on her,” says Jose. He is the one family member with a criminal record, which includes a number of petty crimes from the 1980s and a prison stay of 12 years for selling drugs.

Told of the family’s allegations of police misconduct, the NYPD’s Coan seemed to question Jose’s sincerity when he said, “We’re dealing with someone who’s been through the system and has a lot to lose in a conviction.” He would not elaborate. But the Acostas filed a CCRB complaint once before, when it might have been in Jose’s interest to keep quiet. In policing a February fistfight following a fender-bender, Jose claims, cops wrongly descended on and manhandled him while letting the other driver off. Jose received a conditional dismissal, effectively ending the matter without jail time, but he pursued his grievance on principle.

Margarita does not hide that she protested Jose’s treatment July 4. “They had me in handcuffs. I had two police at my back. I try to get out,” she admits in heavily accented English. “I’m screaming, ‘Don’t hit my son!’ They’re screaming, ‘Shut up, fucking bitch.’ ” Jose, who is of modest height but burly, says, “I was in a choke hold, and they were beating me senseless.”

He points out, as the family repeatedly stressed last week, “They never asked us to lower the radio in the first place.” The NYPD’s Coan says officers were in the area investigating illegal fireworks and probably approached the Acostas on their own, not in response to a noise complaint.

The charges against Elena state that Captain Gentile “requested defendant to lower defendant’s music and that defendant did jump on [Gentile].” But in a transcript of Elena’s arraignment, the assistant district attorney says that police “[g]ot to the location and there was a radio playing loud music. The officer turned the radio down.”

The Acostas deny that they attacked cops, despite the claims of six officers—Melville Maurice, Joseph Belise, Peter Smith, Dennis Canale, Yen Chu, and Gentile—in court papers.

Marisol, 39, who is the sister of Elena and Jose, says, “I had my hair in a bun, which a cop grabbed,” pulling her down from the stoop. Edgar—a 16-year-old relative, who is 5’6″ and slender at 120 pounds—says he was pulled from where he sat on the top step, punched in the head, and pushed to the sidewalk. He spoke with a half-inch scab under his right eye.

The reenactment seemed too vivid for Darrell, 12, Elena’s younger son. As family members called on him to tell his part, his eyes filled, though he jutted his jaw. His mother put an arm around him and said he didn’t have to speak, but he plowed ahead through tears.

“I saw the cop. My grandma asked him what he was doing. He grabbed my mother.” Five feet tall and a rail-thin 90 pounds, he says he jumped from the stoop to his mother’s aid. “I tried ripping the officer’s hand off my mother, because she kept saying, ‘My arm, my arm.’ I said, ‘Let go of my mom.’ An officer grabbed me and swung me against the gate.” Darrell gestured to the metal gate in front of the brownstone next door.

“They threw me against the floor,” says Darrell. “My brother [Orlando, 14] went up and said, ‘Why are you pushing my brother around?’ They grabbed him and pushed him into the gate. They grabbed me and grabbed my brother, and we got bounced off the back of a car.” A family friend rushed over and whisked the two boys away. From the sidelines, Darrell says, “I saw them punch my cousin [Edgar, 16] twice in the face. They had him on the floor. I saw a female officer beating on his back with her knuckles. My uncle [Jose] was already on the floor. They had handcuffed him and started beating on him.”

Darrell became more upset as he spoke, until mother Elena intervened and sent him away.

Elena, Marisol, and Jose, their nephew Edgar (whose father, the eldest of the adult siblings, was not home that night), and Margarita were all cuffed and driven to the 72nd Precinct. The family say they pleaded to put a shirt on Margarita before she was taken away, but police refused. A snapshot shows three male officers placing a handcuffed Margarita, in her bra, into a police van.

Marisol claims that cops later quizzed her unclothed mother on whether she was “a table dancer,” perhaps in jest. She says one officer used an anti-Hispanic slur and said, “They have to pay us a lot of money to get us to come in and work with you lowlifes.”

Coan of the NYPD says the officers acted professionally. “There was probable cause to make the arrests,” he stressed.

A 28-year-old man who lives one block over from the Acostas, on 46th Street, called internal affairs. He said, “I heard a lot of police sirens. I walked over there and saw a group of cops circling one individual. Other cops were pushing people away from the scene. One of them had a can of mace in his hand, and he said, ‘I don’t care, I’ll spray anyone.’ ” He said he knew the Acostas not by name, but on sight: “I seen them and said hi to them, like once in a blue. We all there our whole lives.”

The arrested were treated at Coney Island Hospital, where internal affairs investigators met them to take statements and photographs. Except for Marisol, who was ultimately not charged, the others were arraigned and released by the next evening. The family then took their own photographs of their injuries, recording the deep purple bruises covering Margarita’s upper arms, various welts and bruises on all, and reddened areas on young Darrell’s face and back.

The Acostas became more outraged last week, when they discovered that the original internal affairs detective had abruptly closed their case without ever following up with them. In a telephone conversation that Marisol invited a reporter to overhear, the detective said, “Our unit only investigates broken bones or stitches, serious physical injuries like that.”

“How about my sister’s arm? That was broken,” Marisol countered.

“If your sister has broken bones. . . . What you need to do is call IAB again,” said the detective, ending the call. When Marisol called the bureau again, she was told a closed case could not be reopened. She tried again, and this time someone agreed to open a new case.

Said a skeptical Marisol, “We’re doing everything we’re supposed to, but they’re not.” She said the family’s financial health is also in question, since Margarita may lose her longtime school guard post if convicted—standard policy, according to the Department of Education human resources office. An aide working with developmentally challenged students, Marisol said she was lucky not to be charged.

Community Board 7 member David Galarza, a longtime Sunset Park resident and activist, says police have a long way to go before they justify their July 4 crackdown on the Acostas. Cops have been “criminalizing everyday behaviors of people in our communities,” he says. “It’s like the ticket blitz, criminalizing people for sitting outside or playing dominoes. We don’t have backyards for people to hang out in.”

Galarza said the 72nd Precinct alienated local Latinos two summers ago, after Officer Joseph Gray killed a pregnant Maria Herrera, her toddler son, and her young sister. Gray was driving after hours of heavy drinking with colleagues outside the station house and at a strip club. The NYPD conducted an internal probe based on allegations that cops had tried to cover up Gray’s drunkenness, but last October concluded there was no wrongdoing.

“In my opinion, the 72nd Precinct should be bending over backwards to improve relations with the community,” says Galarza. Citing complaints not only from the Acostas but also other Latinos, he says, “It seems they’re going in the opposite direction.”

Gentile was transferred from Chelsea to command the 72nd following the scandal of the Gray killings. This June, police commissioner Raymond Kelly announced a “major investigation” into the improper classification under Gentile of a quarter of the Chelsea precinct’s felonies as misdemeanors. The downgrading created the false impression that crime had fallen 7.42 percent, when it had actually soared by 15.7. But there is no indication that Gentile will seek to drop the felony charges against the Acostas.

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