Last week, the New York Times published a story about the arrest of 21-year-old Carnegie Mellon student Samantha Zucker, who was in New York City with a group of classmates to look for job opportunities. At about 3 a.m. on October 22, Zucker and her friend Alex Fischer were stopped by cops in Riverside Park and ticketed for trespassing. (The park was closed at that hour.) While Fischer had a driver’s license and was allowed to leave after showing it, Zucker had left hers back at the hotel. What ensued was a 36-hour period in which she was handcuffed, arrested, and held in the system, moved from various precincts to central booking and back again, while also being, in her words, mocked by the arresting officer, and finally going before a judge, who dismissed the ticket “in less than a minute.”
Jim Dwyer, who wrote the initial piece in the Times, followed up with another piece this Tuesday stating that Ed Mullins, the president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, had revealed that Zucker was held so long because of the NYPD ticket-fixing indictments in the Bronx. “No one wanted to get involved in making a change where a summons was involved because of everything going on in the Bronx,” Mullins told the Times. “She fell victim to it. That’s what I am being told.”
When we learned of the incident last week, we reached out to Zucker to give her the opportunity to tell her side of the story in a first-person format. (She also shared an earlier version of this material with the Times.) These are her words.
My name is Samantha Zucker. I am the 21-year-old college student the New York Times wrote about on Wednesday in the article “Dismal Tale of Arrest for the Tiniest of Crimes.”
I’ve been amazed by the flood of responses to the article. I had no idea it would pick up such momentum. I did not approach the Times to write the story. I initially approached Len Levitt of the blog NYPD Confidential with a recap of my horrific experience with Officer Durrell on October 22. He forwarded the story on to Jim Dwyer, who then approached me. With some reservations, I agreed that my story was necessary to share.
I had a million reservations about doing the article. I felt almost as much fear waiting to talk to Mr. Dwyer and waiting to see what he would write as I felt during my time in holding. Still, I knew that it was important for me to speak up; I needed to make it clear that I am not ashamed of what happened and I have no reason to be. I did not provoke Officer Durrell in any way and played by the rules I was taught would keep me safe. They didn’t work.
From my time spent in booking and from the endless comments and emails I have received since, I have learned that situations like this happen all the time. My story is not about one “loose cannon,” and I am not a fluke in the system. Simply firing Officer Durrell will not solve the greater problem. There are more fundamental and underlying changes that must be made.
There are a few unanswered gaps in Mr. Dwyer’s article that I would like to address. I acknowledge that Officer Durrell will of course have his side of the story, but from my standpoint and the standpoint of my friend Alex, he used his discretion poorly — very poorly. After being approached, I did everything in my power to right the situation; I cooperated fully, apologized, asked how I could fix it, and was told there was nothing to be done. Instead, the officer lied to me and gave hostile responses when I was simply trying to understand my position and my rights. My friend Alex was given a court summons for trespassing and will have to return to New York in January, despite my case being dismissed.
As for why Alex didn’t bring my ID, it was because he was threatened with disorderly conduct when he asked where I was being taken. Once I was placed in the cop car, my whereabouts were unknown to anyone who knew me. He and my friends on the trip handled the situation phenomenally, especially by tracking down my parents at 4 a.m. and giving them all the information they could find. Even if Alex had brought over my ID it would have made little difference. By the time Officer Durrell arrested me, he was no longer interested in who I was. I gave him my information, but he had no desire to verify it, even if that’s what he claimed to do. I have no record or fingerprints or mugshot in any police records that he could have referenced beyond what he looked up from the information I provided him. This case was not about a false identity issue. Instead of doing the respectable job of a police officer, he spent his night bullying me — making multiple comments about how I needed to get a new boyfriend, giving me a hard time when I asked for water or to use the restroom, and adopting a hostile tone anytime I asked about the process I was going through and my rights — and got paid to do it.
What I learned in my 36 hours in the police and holding system is how orchestrated the whole situation was. Women were put in my holding cell for the smallest of crimes — some not even crimes. The realization that false arrests are planned and purposeful haunted me.
After my arrest, I felt immense anger, confusion, and downright terror, and had no idea how to handle what I was feeling. Worst of all was the shame and having to come clean to my friends and teachers about what happened, having to take in their emotions and responses. No victim should ever feel shame.
Officer Durrell knew the system and exactly how he wanted to play it. I knew none of it. Every cop along the way, whether they act this way themselves or not, allowed my unlawful arrest to continue by not speaking up. If I went back to my university and pretended like nothing happened, I too would be perpetuating the system, which is why I found it so important to say something. Surplus arrests and the wasting of resources happen all the time, especially in poorer communities. Perhaps I’ve gotten more attention because of my race, economic status, and education. While that is entirely unfair, the best I can do is to take the opportunities I’ve been given and try to make a difference.
I do not wish to be the poster child of police reform. I am not looking for media attention or a payout from the city. If I could undo that entire night, I would in a heartbeat. But I refuse to be the victim of the NYPD’s crime and to allow them to let me feel ashamed and responsible for what happened. I wholeheartedly believe that from the moment Officer Durrell stepped out of his car that night, there was nothing I could have said or done to make things go differently. I did not cause this. I made a silly mistake of forgetting my wallet, an easy thing to do. That should not warrant 36 hours in jail.
There have been a lot of negative comments toward the police because of my story. I’d like to take a moment to thank the many officers that understand their job and risk their lives every day. They are the ones who should be most ashamed of Officer Durrell and those like him. I understand that the NYPD strives for unity and works toward a sense of brotherhood, but brothers do more than cover each other’s backs. They help each other grow and pressure one another when they’re wrong. There’s a fine line between brotherhood and thuggery, and the NYPD is teetering on it.
It goes for everyone, cops and citizens alike — if something is wrong, act on it. Say something about it. Sweeping it under the rug just allows a monster to grow that is much harder to handle.
If my story outraged you, say something in more than just comments and emails. That’s a great start, and I appreciate the dialogue that has begun, however, it is not enough. If you want to do more than just scream online, write a letter to Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly or the representative in your city. Donate to the ACLU. Tell every police officer you know how much this upsets you. Most of all, speak up.
We asked Zucker some follow-up questions, as well:
Are you asking for Durrell to be fired, or would you like him to be punished?
I do believe Officer Durrell’s position should at the very least be examined and reevaluated. His behavior the entire time I was with him was irrational, hostile, and erratic. When telling the full story, multiple people have asked me if he was drunk or on drugs during the encounter. However, the fact that he seemed to get the final say scares me even more than his irrational behavior.
Do you have a lawyer, and will you attempt to press charges?
I do have an attorney, and I am discussing what a lawsuit would entail but have not made a final decision about what I want to do. Lawsuits are time-consuming and emotionally draining endeavors. I have heard from multiple strangers about their similar situations and lawsuits they won. I have no doubt that there is a case, but I don’t believe the financial burden to the NYPD is enough that it has any effect to stop this behavior.
What happened while you were being held? Can you give us an idea of the conditions?
The holding conditions at “the Tombs” were horrendous and the attitude of the corrections officers even worse. The cell I was in was about 20′ X 40′ and held anywhere from 9 to 40 women at a time. The cell contained a lot of wooden benches, three thin mats that were constantly fought over, and a swing door barely covering a toilet. There are no windows to allow you to see outside, just a small vent at the top they will open to let cold air in. The room is cleaned about twice a day by a man with a mop vaguely wiping the floor. The bench and mats are never cleaned, and no soap is available, while you eat with your hands. I inevitably came down with a cold immediately after the experience.
What had other women been brought in for?
The crimes of women in the cell ranged from selling drugs and charges of prostitution to petty shoplifting (one girl’s theft totaled $6.99) and swiping a Metrocard for a friend, which according to the MTA’s site is not illegal. Another girl was there simply for asking a stranger for a subway ride. For the most part, all were friendly.
The corrections officers however decided to throw themselves a party Saturday night in front of our cell and blast music despite people attempting to sleep. While our rights were posted on signs for us to read, they consistently refused to follow them and blamed our arresting officers for the current situation. When we asked for money for the pay phone, enough to have a single broken into quarters, we were told, “You should have thought about that before you got arrested.”
Did you know it was illegal to be in the park after hours?
I was unaware that the park closed nor did we see any signs stating as such. I would never enter a park like Central Park at night, but because of the narrow width of Riverside Park, it didn’t occur to us that it would be a problem, since we could still see the sidewalk we had just left.
Do you still feel ashamed about the arrest?
I’ve had incredible support since the incident, and while I know none of my friends or teachers would ever judge me for it, there is definitely a stigma attached with telling someone you were arrested and spent two nights in jail. Because I have a fairly positive reputation, I am given the benefit of the doubt by people who know me. However, I still feel as if I need to plead my case to them, and I absolutely feel as if the system treated me as guilty until proven innocent. A lot of people have jumped to side with the police, claiming I must be hiding something, and that’s hard to take in. I’ve never had someone off the bat decide they don’t trust me. It’s definitely changed how I will look at arrests and words like “alleged.”
What’s next for you?
While I feel passionate that there are wrongs in the police system, I have other dreams and aspirations I need to get back to. I have done enough to feel as if I have made a difference and did not let the incident go unmentioned. But it’s time for me to get back to my life. I am a graduating senior running two independent final projects this year while job hunting. I have a lot on my plate that I’m incredibly excited about. I’m not ready to give up a life I worked incredibly hard for to fight this battle.
The NYPD has not responded to our request for comment.
College Student Arrested and Held for 36 Hours for Being in Riverside Park Without ID
A Ticket-Fixing Scandal and a Charge That Needed Dropping [NYT]
Dismal Tale of Arrest for Tiniest of Crimes [NYT]