N.Y. police are often accused of brutality, seldom punished City routinely settles lawsuits by citizens who allege mistreatment

September 17, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- On a muggy August morning, Sammy Velez, a transvestite with a crack habit, snatched a purse near Penn Station.

Tripping in his high-heeled boots, he couldn't make a clean getaway, so he threw the purse back.

But two police officers chased him in and out of traffic until Velez, hobbled again by the 3-inch heels, fell on West 36th Street near Ninth Avenue.

He curled up on the ground, he said, and raised his arms to protect a body weakened by acquired immune deficiency syndrome and weighing barely 100 pounds.

At some point between his flight and surrender, Velez's left eyeball was ruptured, and his collarbone and many facial bones were fractured.

Velez said he was pummeled by the officers, kicked in the face.

The officers suggested he hurt himself when he fell.

Late last year, the City of New York paid Velez $75,000 to settle his claim that police used excessive force in blinding his left eye.

But neither the New York Police Department nor the officers were held liable. The check came out of the city's general fund.

And the officers were not disciplined -- although one was denied the medal he had sought for dodging traffic to make the arrest.

Velez's case typifies the way New York City handles claims of police brutality.

It routinely pays out tens of thousands of dollars to people who say the police abused them, but the Police Department rarely formally investigates their allegations, and the officers almost always continue working without scrutiny or punishment.

While settling a lawsuit is not an official acknowledgment that abuse occurred, city Comptroller Alan Hevesi said he believes most settlements in police cases are "an admission of some wrongdoing."

But he said the settlements do not trigger any investigation or self-examination by the Police Department, not of individual officers nor of general patterns of confrontation with the public.

"There is a total and complete disconnect," said Hevesi, whose office disburses the settlements negotiated by the city's Law Department.

"Most of our cops are professional, decent, courageous, caring people.

"But there is a small percentage who are habitually macho and violent, and they have to deal with that."

The payouts for claims against the police add up: $27.3 million in the past year, up from $19.5 million in the previous year.

So do the number of brutality claims, which have tripled over the past decade, to 2,735 between June 1996 and June 1997, according to the comptroller's statistics.

Personal injury lawsuits against all city agencies have increased 60 percent since 1987, but those against the Police Department have climbed 80 percent during the same time.

Part of that is explained by the growth of the force and by the

increased presence of officers on streets.

But another part is explained by the weakness of the mechanism established to handle the public's allegations of police misconduct: the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

People who claim they were brutalized by the police are often so frustrated by the board's weakness -- it rarely substantiates claims and, when it does, the Police Department rarely imposes serious punishment -- that they sue to force the city to take their claims seriously.

Yesterday, responding to complaints that the board was ineffective, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani agreed to provide more ,, money for it and to hire more inspectors.

Pub Date: 9/17/97

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