Jernale Henry says she was going out to buy some ingredients for a family dinner when she saw two “goons” in the hallway, looking menacing.
They were big guys, Henry recounted Monday, at a Civilian Complaint Review Board trial, and they made her nervous. Dressed in all black — black caps, black hoodies, black sneakers — they were just lingering by the doorway of the East New York apartment building where she was staying with a friend. She had never seen them before.
“I wasn’t going to pass them in the hallway,” Henry testified about the encounter, which occurred on April 13, 2013. “They were scary-looking.” And so she had tried to figure out what was going on. Henry called out to them. “Can I help you?” she said, but there was no response; the two men just stared. So she asked again. “Can I help you?” Still nothing.
Not reassured, Henry said, she retreated into the house to wait for the two men to leave. At that moment, the two men rushed her, pushing on the door as she and a friend, the owner of the apartment, Malik Saunders, struggled to close it. The two were quickly overpowered by the burly men outside, and the door flew open, sending Henry sprawling onto the apartment floor. In an instant, one of the men was on top of Henry.
Fearing that they were being robbed, another friend in the apartment dialed 911. The friend told the operator that two men had broken into the apartment, and they had guns.
It was only then, Henry says, that the two men pulled badges from under their jackets and identified themselves as police officers.
Then one of the cops, Detective Sekou Bourne, the one who had Henry pinned, began running his hands over her body and into her pockets, demanding to know what she’d been holding.
It was a lollipop, Henry told him. A blueberry cream lollipop. She was holding it when she opened the door. Knocked from her grasp, it was shattered next to them on the floor. Bourne, a narcotics detective, thought it was crack.
Henry explained that when the encounter began, she believed “we were going to be killed that night.” Saunders echoed her sentiments. “I thought we were being attacked or being robbed,” Saunders testified. “My daughter was there. This could have gone wrong in so many ways.”
On Monday, approaching two years on from the incident, Bourne and his partner, Sergeant Afzal Ali, were in a courtroom inside One Police Plaza facing charges from the CCRB. The question at hand was whether the two had the legal authority to enter the apartment without a warrant. Bourne is also accused of an unauthorized search and an unauthorized frisk, two separate charges that hinge on how thoroughly the officer examined Henry through her clothing.
Even after the occupants of the apartment realized what was happening, the whole ordeal continued to snowball. Backup from the NYPD rushed to the scene in response to the 911 call, expecting to find a home invasion — even a police helicopter showed up.
No arrests were ever made. No drugs were found on Henry, and as CCRB attorney Raasheja Page, who in the strange world of NYPD disciplinary trials acts as a prosecutor, put it: “Candy is not a controlled substance.”
In a proceeding that lasted nearly six hours, every moment of the encounter was dissected from all directions. Disciplinary trials at CCRB are the last stage of the civilian complaint process, which we described in our October cover story about Angel Martinez’s run-in with the NYPD. Disciplinary trials are reserved for the most serious of cases.
See also: ‘I Was Choked by the NYPD’
Illustrating the often muddled circumstances surrounding CCRB proceedings, the officers had a very different view of how the situation unfolded: Bourne said Saunders’s apartment had been under investigation for weeks as a potential “drug spot.”
Bourne said he and his partner hadn’t actually witnessed any transactions, but a source had told him that Saunders, who has several prior arrests and at least one conviction for drug distribution charges, was dealing out of the location. There had been previous reports of strange smells, he said, suggesting that the occupants may have been “cooking” drugs. That day, Bourne testified, the two officers were responding to a noise complaint.
Given what he knew about the apartment, Bourne said, he was on the lookout for any indications of drug dealing. So when Henry stepped into the hallway and addressed the two plainclothes cops, he thought she was offering them drugs. (Bourne testified that the phrase Henry used was what do you need? rather than can I help you?, though his partner corroborated Henry’s recollection.)
Bourne, who sports a full beard and a shaved head and was wearing a gray dress shirt at the disciplinary trial on Monday, said the candy in Henry’s hand was white, and about the size of an “eight-ball” of crack; he thought he needed to act fast when she withdrew into the apartment, fearing she might destroy what he believed to be contraband. He also disputed Henry’s account of how she ended up on the floor. Bourne says Henry “tripped on her own feet” when she “fled” back into the apartment. He also testified that he subsequently frisked her, to check for weapons, but that his hands never entered her pockets — an important legal distinction that would constitute a search rather than a simple frisk, which is permissible in more circumstances.
Bourne was involved in another case of mistaken identity in October. After approaching a seventeen-year-old he believed was smoking marijuana — it was actually a cigarette — Bourne was involved in a scuffle that ended when he punched the young man in the face, hard enough to knock him unconscious. The incident was caught on camera and reportedly led to an internal-affairs investigation.
Both Bourne and his partner, Ali, face charges of illegal entry, though both agreed that Bourne entered first. The CCRB recommended that Bourne face a loss of ten vacation days and Ali a loss of five, though any punishment will ultimately be decided by Police Commissioner William Bratton, who frequently ignores recommended punishments even when officers are found guilty.
No deadline has been set for a ruling, but it commonly takes months for the judge to make a final determination in CCRB cases.
When asked why he had followed Bourne into the home, Ali responded that “a police officer goes where his partner goes. I’m right behind him for his safety no matter what.”