The Complaint Files NYPD Unions Don’t Want You to See

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This story is co-published with THE CITY.

ProPublica is working with THE CITY, WNYC/Gothamist and The Marshall Project to report on how allegations of misconduct by law enforcement officers in New York are investigated and to examine and analyze police disciplinary records that have recently been made public.

Cops in an unmarked van allegedly stop a driver and invasively search him in the middle of a Staten Island street.

Officers, guns drawn, ransack a Brooklyn apartment — and even eat residents’ food, according to a complaint.

Police take down a man in a chokehold after a Brooklyn block party — and allegedly take turns punching him.

And there are allegations of foul-mouthed, sometimes vindictive intimidation galore — from threatening to shoot a family’s dog to warning “I will knock your f—–g teeth out in front of your daughter.”

These allegations and scores of others accusing NYPD members of everything from bullying to brutality are visible for the first time thanks to a new law scrapping the statute known as 50-a and opening police disciplinary records to the public.

Many of these claims were ultimately not substantiated by an independent city panel that reviews civilian complaints against individual police officers. But their existence and release provide rare insight into the vast number and variety of allegations against police officers, including those who have been the subject of multiple complaints.

THE CITY obtained hundreds of pages of detailed complaint reports via a Freedom of Information request to the Civilian Complaint Review Board before legal challenges temporarily shut down the flow of long-confidential documents.

On Sunday, ProPublica published a database showing the results of investigations into thousands of complaints against police. The database is the equivalent of a card catalog of complaints and includes the only the barest description of each allegation, such as “physical force.”

The records obtained by THE CITY contain the details of more than 250 complaints against 13 officers.

NYPD vehicles may be emblazoned with the phrase “Courtesy, professionalism and respect,” but the complaint reports show very different perceptions about individual officers encountered.

Six years after the chokehold killing of Eric Garner, for which former Officer Daniel Pantaleo was fired only last year, and amid a protest movement demanding an NYPD overhaul following many more deaths of unarmed Black people across the nation, the complaints convey pain, anger and frustration about officers’ alleged misuse of their life-and-death power.

THE CITY’s examination found themes of alleged misconduct spanning boroughs and precincts, recurring across multiple complaints.

Many of the officers whose records THE CITY sought had also been named as defendants in lawsuits alleging misconduct. In a number of instances, the CCRB decided an allegation is “unsubstantiated,” without enough evidence to prove the allegations or clear the officer, but the city later settled lawsuits alleging the same bad behavior. Typically, these lawsuits are settled without an admission of liability or wrongdoing by the officers involved.

Asked to comment about specific complaint reports obtained by THE CITY, the NYPD’s press office responded with a statement referencing ongoing litigation by police and other public safety unions to restrict the release of this misconduct information:

“The NYPD has for many years worked to increase transparency to gain the trust of the communities we serve. While we remain committed to increased transparency, we are equally committed to due process. While recent legislation repealed NYS Civil Rights Law Section [50-a], a federal judge issued a restraining order prohibiting the release of records of which allegations against our officers were found to be false, unfounded or unsubstantiated. We await the results of pending litigation.”

About 4,000 NYPD officers have at least one substantiated complaint and for those officers, ProPublica published summary information about both substantiated and unsubstantiated complaints.

In the greatest share of cases that both organizations gathered, the allegations were “unsubstantiated.” In others, officers were “exonerated” because the board finds an officer’s actions were permissible under the department’s policies. And in some cases, the weight of evidence shows an act did not take place, leading the complaint to be “unfounded.”

Unions that represent police and other uniformed officers are now in court looking to block the release of past unfounded, exonerated and unsubstantiated allegations. They sued this month after Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to put a database summarizing tens of thousands of complaints — as well as records and results from internal NYPD disciplinary proceedings — on an official city website.

THE CITY obtained the complaint reports from the CCRB before a state judge and then a federal judge this month imposed a restraining order that blocks many of the reports’ release while the unions press their case.

With the most serious misconduct allegations, the CCRB can prosecute cops in front of an NYPD deputy commissioner in a trial open to the public. Penalties range from admonishment to loss of vacation days to, in rare cases, firing. The police commissioner can reverse a guilty verdict but must provide a written explanation.

The process of investigating misconduct starts with a complaint filed by a citizen, which triggers CCRB investigators to try to track down witnesses, check for internal police records or surveillance video for collaborating details, and interview the cops.

Substantiating a CCRB complaint requires leaps over multiple hurdles. Staff investigators request records from the NYPD, which the department doesn’t always provide. A case is only substantiated once the CCRB itself approves it and that board consists of appointees, some chosen by the police commissioner.

In other instances, complaints never even get to be considered by the board because they are withdrawn or because witnesses decline to cooperate. Still other cases the CCRB labels as “administratively closed,” with no further explanation.

Even though the CCRB did not amass enough evidence to prove some cases, the reports obtained by THE CITY indicate patterns of allegations against individual officers who have been the subject of multiple complaints before the CCRB and in the courts.

Aggressive Stops and Searches

Allegations that police abuse their authority are by far the most common complaint in the records ProPublica amassed on the nearly 4,000 current NYPD officers with at least one substantiated case against them.

Many of those incidents involve stops and searches, where officers have to have some reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before making a stop.

The CCRB found four officers in an unmarked police van had no basis to stop a 44-year-old white man in 2014 on Staten Island for an alleged moving violation while his daughter was in the car with him. Although the officers were ultimately found to be not guilty of misconduct charges, the allegations were similar to those that would surface in other incidents.

Detectives Mathew Reich and Philip Vaccarino, along with then-Sgt. John Ryan and an unidentified officer, exited their vehicle and two of them approached the car, according to the complaint.

When the driver asked for permission to reach into his glove compartment to retrieve his license and registration, Reich ordered him out of the car and dragged him by the shirt to the back of the vehicle and told him to put his hands on his head, the complaint claims.

The driver explained that he wouldn’t be able to comply because he recently had tendon surgery on his hand, a dislocated shoulder and spinal problems, he told CCRB investigators.

“I will knock your f——-g teeth out in front of your daughter,” Reich allegedly responded, according to the driver’s account.

Reich patted down the driver and found pill bottles prescribed to him.

“Why are you so nervous?” Reich told the trembling driver, according to the complaint report. “I know you’re hiding something.”

Reich patted the driver’s genitals from outside his pants before “shoving” his hands between the man’s thighs “as if he was looking for drugs hidden between [redacted]’s butt crack,” according to the complaint.

When the officer found nothing on the driver, he began searching through his car, according to the complaint.

By the time Reich had finished searching “every compartment inside the car,” another unmarked police van with roughly half a dozen officers had arrived.

As Reich was heading toward his own vehicle, the complainant said he asked for the cop’s name and shield number.

“I want something,” he said, raising his voice to make sure the officer could hear him.

“(Reich) turned his head back to look but gave no response and continued walking to his car,” according to the complaint.

The driver was then allowed to leave, with no summonses issued or arrests made.

While the CCRB found that Reich and the other cops involved abused their authority by stopping the vehicle, the board concluded that the evidence was insufficient to determine whether Reich threatened the driver, frisked him or refused to identify himself.

The board recommended that charges be brought against Reich, Ryan and Vaccarino for the stop. The CCRB’s Administrative Prosecution Unit, which handles the agency’s most serious cases, brought the charges before an NYPD judge in a trial at 1 Police Plaza. The judge found the three officers not guilty.

The officers had been the subject of previous complaints. The CCRB complaint reports obtained by THE CITY typically show a higher number of complaints for each officer than in the records obtained by ProPublica, because the complaint reports include allegations in cases that did not culminate in a board decision.

Between 2006 and 2016, Ryan was the target of 32 allegations in 16 complaints carried through to a CCRB decision. The CCRB substantiated one charge, was unable to substantiate 19, exonerated him on 10 and declared two to be unfounded.

Vaccarino was the target of a total of 33 allegations in 14 complaints between 2009 and 2016. The CCRB substantiated three charges, was unable to substantiate 13, exonerated him of six and declared two to be unfounded. For nine charges, the complainant was uncooperative.

Reich declined to comment. A man reached at a number listed for Vaccarino hung up after a reporter asked to speak with Vaccarino about misconduct complaints. The Detectives’ Endowment Association, the union representing detectives, did not respond to a request for comment about Reich or Vaccarino. A man who answered a phone number associated with Ryan, who had been promoted to lieutenant, hung up after a reporter identified herself.

The head of the union representing lieutenants said he was unfamiliar with Ryan’s case. “It’s really difficult to comment without knowing the details,” said Lou Turco, president of the Lieutenants’ Benevolent Association.

Retaliation

A trend that emerges in the CCRB complaints is cops allegedly retaliating against individuals who file or even threaten to file complaints against them.

Take Reich — who also was involved in the Staten Island search.

Between 2005 and last year, Reich was the target of 93 allegations in 29 complaints. The CCRB substantiated seven allegations, was unable to substantiate 56, exonerated him on 12 and declared two to be unfounded.

For 14 allegations against Reich, the complainant was uncooperative and in one case unavailable to investigators. In one additional case CCRB could not identify the victim.

When THE CITY contacted Reich on Thursday and asked about the record of complaints against him, he declined to comment, saying: “I’m sorry. I can’t. I apologize.”

The seven substantiated allegations put Reich in a select group, among the highest numbers of substantiated complaints of any officer in the city, the records provided to ProPublica show.

In one March 2007 report, the person who lodged the complaint described driving in his car in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, when one unmarked van cut him off and a second pulled up behind him.

Reich and several other cops allegedly jumped out with guns drawn. One cop pulled the driver out of his car, slammed him up against the hood and allegedly squeezed his testicles while frisking him, the complaint charges.

The cops searched the car and then let the driver go without an arrest or summons, the complaint states. The driver told the CCRB he believed he was being harassed by cops in the 67th Precinct because he’d filed previous complaints against them.

Reich was accused of pointing his gun, performing an illegal vehicle search and refusing to reveal his badge number. There were three witnesses, but the CCRB was unable to substantiate the allegations and closed the case.

Similar allegations came out of another incident, in the 101st Precinct in Far Rockaway, Queens.

In 2011, a Queens man, Reginald Anderson, filed a complaint with the CCRB and then a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that he’d been repeatedly stopped by cops in the precinct and harassed after he’d lodged several complaints against them.

In one incident, Anderson alleges in his lawsuit, Lt. Gary Messina pulled his van over on 115th Ave. “solely as an act of retaliation.”

In the related CCRB complaint, Anderson claims that Messina told him he’d been pulled over because police believed there was “scrap metal” in the back of the van. He says Messina then demanded to search the vehicle, but Anderson declined his request.

Anderson alleges that Messina ripped open the van’s rear door anyway and searched the interior. He asserted Messina found nothing and that there was no arrest or summons.

Anderson’s lawsuit detailed this and three other alleged incidents of harassment by 101st Precinct cops. That suit was ultimately dismissed by a judge, but the CCRB substantiated the complaint that Messina had performed an illegal stop and search.

The only resulting punishment as the lieutenant was given “instructions” on proper conduct.

The year after Anderson filed his complaint, Messina was promoted to captain, and in 2017 received another promotion — to deputy inspector.

Between 1987 and 2015, Messina was the target of 80 allegations in 27 separate misconduct complaints carried through to a CCRB decision, records show. The CCRB substantiated six charges, was unable to substantiate 36, exonerated him on 29 and found nine to be unfounded.

Reached by phone on Friday, Messina declined to discuss his CCRB record, referring a reporter to the NYPD’s public affairs unit. The unit was sent a detailed list of questions regarding Messina but did not respond.

Escalation of Incidents

Police are trained to de-escalate tense interactions to avoid unnecessary use of force. Yet numerous complaint reports allege officers overreacted to misunderstandings or slights with physical violence or by pulling their gun.

Members of the public lodged more than 7,600 allegations of excessive or unnecessary use of force against the officers in the ProPublica database.

Detective David Terrell has faced multiple allegations of hot-headed behavior, including four accusations that he used a forbidden chokehold during an arrest. Between 2003 and 2016, Terrell was the target of 85 allegations in 34 complaints. The CCRB substantiated four allegations, was unable to substantiate 21, exonerated him on eight and declared nine to be unfounded. For 36 charges, the complainant was uncooperative and in the case of three allegations was unavailable to investigators. In four cases, the complaint was withdrawn.

David Terrell served in Brooklyn’s 77th Precinct, where a confrontation with a bus driver resulted in a complaint against him. Scott Heins/Getty Images

In August 2006, a bus driver said she encountered Terrell as she was trying to return her vehicle to base after work. A confrontation unfolded when she tried to drive around his unmarked brown Nissan Altima triple parked in the 77th Precinct in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, her complaint with the CCRB states.

When she blew her horn, the complaint charges, Terrell emerged from the car and yelled: “What the f—k are you blowing the horn for? Can’t you see I’m talking in the goddamned car?”

She managed to pull around him but then he began to follow her and soon pulled her over. According to the complaint, Terrell said cops were going to arrest her because “she had a smart mouth.”

He allegedly told her to retrieve the bus permit from the back of the vehicle. But when she exited it to do so, Terrell pushed her against the bus, pulled her arms behind her back and she fell to the ground, the complaint alleges.

When she fell, she said, she urinated on herself. Terrell then placed his foot on her back as she was face-down on the ground and was “choking (the driver) such that she couldn’t breathe,” the complaint alleges.

The bus driver was arrested. During the ride to the precinct, she says, Terrell sat beside her in the backseat and tapped her forehead several times with his police radio, stating, “Say another f——-g word, you f——-g b—-h.” She filed a complaint with the CCRB, but she later declined to cooperate with investigators and the case was closed.

A heating oil delivery driver crossed paths with Terrell when his truck was blocking traffic on a road in Morrisania, The Bronx, as he pumped fuel into a building.

In a February 2012 complaint, the driver alleges that Terrell came up behind him, shoved him and said: “Who the f—k you think you are blocking the block like this? You think you can just f—-ing stop here and everybody has to wait for you?” The driver asked Terrell to calm down, enraging him further, the complaint states.

“Don’t you tell me to f—-ing calm down,” Terell allegedly shouted, ordering the driver to unhook the pump.

As this was unfolding, passersby were yelling at the cop to leave the driver alone, according to the complaint report. The driver said he finished the job and left, but Terrell followed him, turning on his lights and siren pulling him over.

The complaint alleges Terrell pulled the driver out of the truck and handcuffed him, stating, “Is this what the f—k you want, to go to f——-g jail?” He then took the cuffs off and gave the driver a summons for disorderly conduct “with a smile on his face,” the complaint states.

When the driver asked for Terrell’s name, the cop gave it to him, saying, “Make sure you get the spelling of my name right,” according to the complaint.

The driver filed a complaint, but he later decided not to cooperate with the CCRB’s investigation and the case was closed.

THE CITY called two numbers listed for Terrell and got only busy signals. Paul DiGiacomo, president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, said that Terrell was targeted for complaints by a specific gang because he was very “active” in making arrests.

“They were making complaints against him to get him transferred,” DiGiacomo said. “He was very educated on what they were doing. He saved a lot of lives.”

The union president argued that “criminals weaponize” the CCRB complaint system. Terrell — who’s been sued 20 times in the last decade — has told the New York Post that he has been targeted for aggressive policing by what he called a cottage industry of law firms that specialize in suing cops. In a recent article, Terrell stated that 18 of the 20 lawsuits against him had been dismissed.

Asked about the detective’s record of civilian complaints, Terrell’s attorney, Eric Sanders, responded: “Who cares if he gets complaints? He’s an active cop. The more you interact with criminals, the more complaints you get.”

Regarding the bus driver’s interaction with Terrell, Sanders said, “He doesn’t have to answer for that to anybody.” As for the allegations by the oil delivery driver, Sanders responded: “Who cares? It doesn’t matter. He’s in good standing and it means nothing. I know you guys want to make a big deal about these things but they mean nothing. If they mean something, the department fires them.”

“Complaints are part of business,” he added.

DiGiacomo did not address questions about the other detectives named in the CCRB complaints, including Reich and Vaccarino.

Another of the newly unveiled complaints alleges that Detective Waliur Rahman, an officer in Brooklyn’s 77th Precinct in 1995, pointed his gun at the head of a driver who was pleading to stop his car from being towed.

“Comp[lainant] feels it was not necessary for P.O to threaten his life,” the report summarizes his statements to investigators. “Compl[ainant] thinks P.O judgement was very bad.”

The account was corroborated by a nearby security guard, who gave a written statement about the incident, records show. The CCRB found the case substantiated, but it made no disciplinary recommendations to the NYPD, records show.

Between 1995 and 2018, Rahman was the subject of 32 allegations in 18 complaints.

The CCRB substantiated the gun-pointing charge, but was unable to substantiate 11 other allegations, exonerated him on 13 and declared three to be unfounded. For two charges, the complainant was uncooperative. Two more charges were withdrawn.

Rahman did not respond to messages requesting comment at three phone numbers associated with him.

Invasive Home Searches

Some complaints examined by THE CITY revolve around allegations of invasive searches.

One cop, Sgt. David Grieco, turns up in multiple complaints of illegal searches, involving allegedly unlawful frisking of individuals, illegal vehicle searches or simply barging into people’s apartments without a warrant.

Between 2007 and last year, Grieco was the target of 69 allegations in 31 complaints. The CCRB substantiated 12 charges, was unable to substantiate 27, exonerated him on 11 and declared four to be unfounded. For 10 charges, the complainant was uncooperative and in four charges unavailable to investigators. One case was closed “due to litigation.”

Grieco, who boasts of being nicknamed Bullethead, has been featured in the Daily News for attracting numerous police misconduct lawsuits.

The Sergeants Benevolent Association did not respond to a request for comment. No one responded to a message left Thursday on a voicemail for a phone number listed for Grieco.

Grieco drew repeated complaints in two Brooklyn precincts where he worked, the 75th in East New York and the 67th in East Flatbush.

As one complaint from 2017 put it, “Bullethead is known for entering homes without warrants.”

In one case, the CCRB said it couldn’t substantiate the allegations of illegal entry. But in a lawsuit involving the same situation and officer, the city ended up paying a settlement.

Vanessa Scott of Brooklyn filed suit naming Grieco and several other cops, alleging that in January and then again in February 2016, they forced their way into her Cypress Hills apartment.

In the second incident, Scott told the CCRB that when the cops showed up, they arrested her and her sons. She said the cops took her house keys while she was being processed at the precinct, and when she returned home, her half-brother told her a group of cops had come to the house and searched it top to bottom for four to five hours.

She says all charges against her and her sons were later dropped.

The CCRB deemed all the “entry of premises” allegations against Grieco and three other cops unsubstantiated. A year later the city — without admitting wrongdoing by the cops involved — settled the suit for $52,500, records show.

A similar incident allegedly occurred shortly after midnight on Jan. 11, 2012. The complainant, a 40-year-old Black man, said cops banged on the door of a home in the 75th Precinct, demanding that they be let inside.

When the owner opened the door, Grieco and several other cops allegedly barged in and started going room to room. When the owner asked to see a warrant, one of the cops said, “We don’t need one.” The complaint alleges another cop threatened to shoot the family dog.

Two young men staying in the home were taken out in handcuffs. Relying on three witnesses, the CCRB substantiated a charge of illegal entry against a patrol officer. It deemed unsubstantiated an additional charge against Grieco for threatening to damage property.

In another incident ultimately deemed unsubstantiated, the CCRB found evidence that Grieco and fellow officers had a warrant — only for a different address from the home they allegedly busted into.

The complaint claims that early on the morning of April 13, 2018, officers with guns drawn bashed their way into a Brooklyn apartment and ransacked the place.

The complaint alleges that the cops wound up “breaking things” and even ate residents’ food.

Two occupants were arrested on unspecified charges that were later dropped by the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, the complaint states. One occupant had prior interactions with Grieco and told the CCRB he believed the raid was meant to harass him.

An NYPD internal affairs investigation later discovered that the warrant was for a different apartment building in a different precinct.

The CCRB substantiated a threat of force charge against Grieco but was unable to substantiate the charges of property damage, refusal to obtain medical treatment and refusal to show a warrant. At the CCRB’s recommendation, Grieco was given “instruction” on proper police procedure.

Violent Arrests

Complaints abound of arrests involving violent force, including chokeholds, which have been prohibited under NYPD policy since the 1990s and made illegal July 15, in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed.

An unnamed person filed a complaint against Sgt. Henry Daverin and several other officers, alleging they illegally beat up Horrell Bennett during a violent arrest after a block party in East New York on June 28, 2014 — just weeks before Garner’s chokehold killing on Staten Island.

The CCRB deemed the complaint “unsubstantiated,” but the city settled a federal lawsuit brought on behalf of Bennett and another man, Nicholas Jones, both of whom are Black, about the same case for $30,000, according to court records.

According to Bennett, at 9 p.m. Daverin ordered him to move his motorcycle, which Bennett claimed was parked legally.

Bennett told Daverin that he had been drinking at the party and was unable to comply, according to the lawsuit and CCRB complaint. A dispute ensued, and Bennett alleges that Daverin and the other officers put him in a chokehold and repeatedly punched him.

Bennett was charged with resisting arrest, but the case was later dismissed, according to the lawsuit. The city’s Law Department denied all allegations in the suit. Daverin, who has since been promoted to lieutenant, did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails seeking comment. Turco, of the lieutenants’ union, said he did not have enough information to be able to comment about complaints related to Daverin.

Between 2012 and last year, Daverin was the target of 58 allegations in 23 complaints. The CCRB substantiated four charges, was unable to substantiate 26, exonerated him on 14 and declared four to be unfounded. For five charges the complainant was uncooperative and in three charges unavailable to investigators. One case was withdrawn and in another the victim was listed as “unidentified.”

In one substantiated case, Daverin oversaw a home search of a man on parole on May 21, 2016, in Brooklyn. The unidentified man said the officers “destroyed the walls and scattered food and items all over,” according to the CCRB report. They also allegedly “tore down some of the sheet rocks from the walls.”

The substantiated case resulted in punishment known as a “command discipline,” according to CCRB records.

That means a loss of up to 10 vacation days.


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