A Seven-Year Ricochet


While Vivian Rodriguez remains in stable condition at Bellevue Hospital with gunshot wounds she suffered on August 4 when the police raided a Williamsburg apartment loaded with stolen goods, she is only at the beginning of a long journey—not only of physical recovery but of battling for a judgment of responsibility and restitution. And if the past is any indication, she may also find herself embroiled in a round of renewed activism to demand policy reforms in the New York City Police Department. Changes (whether reforms or not) seem only to come at an egregious human cost, the kind paid by Eleanor Bumpurs, Anthony Baez, Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, and others. Whether the seven police-involved deaths thus far in 2003 will bring about change is yet to be seen.

Juberky Silverio (now Stevens), 31, is one of many shooting victims whose names are not so well-known. Like the 30-year-old Rodriguez, she was born in the Dominican Republic. Silverio, shot in the eye, is still seeking a full recovery that only several more surgeries (and the money to pay for them) can complete. She has sued the city for $100 million (as Rodriguez plans to do) and at present her case is in court-ordered mediation to try to reach a settlement before a December trial date.

On February 16, 1997, Silverio, then 25, was leaving a friend’s birthday party at 506 West 172nd Street with her brother, sister, and her sister’s boyfriend at 4:30 a.m. They took the stairs from the second floor, and as they reached the last step before turning the corner into the lobby, they heard three shots. She said, “Oh, my God.” Then she felt woozy.

According to the New York Post, police officers, who had been passing the building while searching for a missing person, saw Rafael Hernandez, 39, sitting on the stoop holding what turned out to be a BB gun. Silverio’s lawyer, Richard Gross, says, “The police claimed they told him to drop the gun, which is disputed by an independent witness. One cop fired one shot; the other fired eight. Hernandez was hit four times as he was retreating. Some shots were fired through a closed outer door; the inner door was ajar. There were numerous bullet holes in the door.”

From the stairs, Silverio says, she and her family couldn’t see the trouble coming to a head in the first-floor hallway. “I didn’t hear nothing, no argument in the street, nothing like that.” Full-metal-jacket bullets fired into the hallway smashed the Plexiglas vestibule doors and one struck her in the temple, blew out her right eye, and shattered the bone and tissue of her eye socket.

A beautiful woman then and today, who still suffers from feeling she doesn’t look normal, Silverio combs her hair over the right side of her face. “I was a happy person, always smiling,” she says. “I went out with my friends, had a social life and my job. I became much more quiet. I was feeling ugly. I put my head down.”

A resident of the Bronx who worked in a party decorations store, Silverio was without medical insurance. She received emergency treatment and 10 days of care at Harlem Hospital, but no reconstructive surgery. Arthur Miller, another of Silverio’s lawyers, said that Harlem Hospital refused to do reconstructive surgery because she was not insured and could not pay. The Health and Hospitals Corporation denied the charge. Owing to the publicity around this accusation, her initial plastic surgery and a prosthesis (a glass eye) were donated by doctors and staff at Our Lady of Mercy Medical Center in the Bronx. The doctors rebuilt the eye socket, and, with skin from her leg, restored the temple area. She now needs removal of scar tissue that has developed over time, and a solution to the problem of no longer having tear ducts.

Feeling disfigured after she recovered, Silverio restyled her hair and wore sunglasses. Even so, people stopped her, recognizing her from the papers, and she recalls her fear of working behind a counter again.

When Silverio was injured, she was the chief wage earner in her family and spoke little English. She was unable to work for a year. Her mother, Clara Ortiz, now retired, was a child-care provider, and she put up signs in their neighborhood seeking more clients. Her brother worked, and her sister went to high school. In 1998, Silverio began to look for employment. “I didn’t want to feel like I couldn’t do anything,” she recalls. “I made myself be strong.” Her former employer gave her a job and she became a manager. She went to school to learn English. In 1999, she met Will Stevens at a police precinct near her home.

Silverio’s mother had called the police that Christmas when she and a child she took care of were caught in the middle of a dispute between the parents. At the precinct, she and her daughter met officer Stevens. Later, he called several times to check on Ortiz, and began to speak with Silverio as well.

Stevens, 38, who previously worked as an engineer, has been on the force for seven years. He was intrigued by Silverio and, unaware of her story, found the woman with the half-hidden face a mystery. Recalling the shooting incident after getting to know her, he says, he felt “it was personal, because I was already in love with her. Inside me, it was churning because I began to realize how these things affect peoples’ lives in a really big way. It was so unfortunate, so tragic.”

The couple married on February 14, 2002. They have a beaming, powerfully healthy-looking seven-month-old, Mark Sebastian, who is also a survivor: Silverio gave birth to twins three months prematurely, and the tiny daughter died after only two days.

Stevens has patrolled with a partner, the kind of duty the officers were on when Silverio got hurt. Reluctant to talk about the causes of this kind of incident, Stevens says that he can speak only “as a husband.” He does understand, though, that “there are a lot of factors and there’s always pressures” that might lead someone to make “a mistake.”

Vivian Rodriguez, wounded August 4, 2003, in a police raid

Less than a month after Silverio’s shooting, on March 3, 1997, then police commissioner Howard Safir announced a controversial plan to switch the entire NYPD force from full-metal-jacket bullets to hollow-point bullets. Hollow-points, also known as dumdums, expand in jagged pieces inside the body and do more widespread damage than the full-metal-jackets, which have more penetrating power but tend to ricochet as they did the night Silverio was hit. The NYPD cited the fact that seven bystanders had been hit the previous year by full-metal-jackets that passed through walls or other people.

“There is no evidence that I’m aware of that hollow-points are more lethal,” Safir said then. Hollow-points had already been in use by housing authority and transit cops since 1990. While Safir gave figures for the distances the two kinds of bullets would penetrate in a target, according to the New York Daily News, he refused to release the NYPD’s study on hollow-points.

Safir’s statement set off a full-fledged public debate, particularly among the mayoral candidates in the 1997 campaign. As Newsday reported in advocating the switch at the time, candidate Reverend Al Sharpton said of the hollow-point bullet, “It’s a walking death penalty.” Candidate Ruth Messinger said, “It’s worth an experiment to find out.” Candidate Fernando Ferrer said it “shouldn’t be used in New York City,” and candidate Rudolph Giuliani said, “I’ll take another look at it. . . . It’s not a done deal until I finally approve it.” He did.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board also recommended the switch, which did not actually take place until 1999, not long after the fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo, in which police fired 41 full-metal-jacket bullets, 19 of which hit him. Vivian Rodriguez was shot this month by a 9mm Glock handgun, and presumably a hollow-point bullet, that grazed her right forearm and entered her right abdomen.

One of the delaying complications of Silverio’s case is that Hernandez, the man stopped with the BB gun, was charged with causing her injuries via “transferred intent,” according to Gross, meaning that his actions are viewed as provoking the shooting. Hernandez was tried and acquitted, and, according to Gross, after his acquittal, filed suit. The two cases were later joined. As Vivian Rodriguez has been charged with receiving stolen property, she will face a similar situation in pursuing her suit.

According to the New York City Law Department, the city is “the most commonly sued entity in the state, and probably in the entire nation,” with “roughly 48,000” pending cases and 8,200 new suits begun during 2002. (Due to the blackout, the NYC Corporation Counsel was unable to provide the number of suits pending against the NYPD by press time.)

An NYPD spokesperson says the department has no numbers yet for 2003 on police-involved shootings; however, four men were killed in the first two days of the year: Jamal Nixon, Anthony Reid, Allen Newsome, and John Lagattuta. Since then, Ousmane Zongo and Melvin Sylvester have been fatally shot, and Alberta Spruill died from cardiac arrest when a flash grenade was lobbed into her apartment during a botched no-knock raid. The department says that in 2002 there were 12 fatal police-involved shootings and 11 in 2001.

Numbers are down from earlier decades—according to an Amnesty International report, the average of fatal police shootings in the early 1970s was a shocking 63 a year—but recent incidents leading to citizen deaths are still disturbing. And these numbers do not include cases like Spruill’s, where no gun is involved.

“We don’t play the numbers game,” said Brooklyn councilmember Charles Barron. “Tell that to the mother of a child who has been killed. The police are out of control, whether it’s 10 shootings or 10,000. They are out of control with the stop-and-frisks, out of control with racial profiling.”

Barron is calling for an independent state agency to investigate police misconduct “whether it’s discourtesy, brutality, or murder”—and for police found in the wrong to be prosecuted. “There is no agency that addresses police brutality that is independent of the police,” he says. “The police have to be shown that they’re not above the law.” He is also calling for a residency law, requiring officers to live within the city, and says the NYPD should “get rid of hollow-point bullets.”

“I think there are a few people in the [police] department who are either poorly trained, or just doing a bad job,” said Gross. “The vast majority are doing a good job, and the city has one of the best departments in the country.” Asked if he’d seen any difference since the Bloomberg administration came in, Gross said, “I think Bloomberg’s more receptive to acknowledging when there is a deficiency, as opposed to Giuliani who would give a knee-jerk response to these kind of incidents.” Barron is less complimentary. “Giuliani was so bad,” he said, “and we’ve been so Giuliani-ized that we think anybody who comes in is so much better.”

How does change come about? Silverio’s shooting is a case in point, and there are several others. Michael Stewart’s death in 1983 helped bring attention to the dangers of hog-tying a person in custody. In 1984 Eleanor Bumpurs, who had a history of mental illness, was killed in her home while wielding a knife in fear when police came to evict her. According to Barron, her death did result in new guidelines for handling cases involving mental health issues. After several incidents, use of the choke hold was banned in 1985 except in extreme cases, but the 1994 death of Anthony Baez from injuries resulting from a choke hold and other force was a reminder that vigilance must follow change: Baez, 29, died from choke hold injuries, although police said he’d had an asthma attack. And Amadou Diallo’s 1999 death and the resulting protests shined a light on the activities of the NYPD Street Crime Unit.

No judgment against the city can give Juberky Silverio back her eyesight in both eyes. With luck, perhaps her face—and her self-esteem—will be further restored. Her case may be decided without any further look at police procedures, the bullets currently used by the NYPD, or the training of officers who will be on our streets. But what should she tell her son about going out to a friend’s birthday party?