No Cause for Arrest
The youngsters who were surrounded by New York City police officers and arrested for no good reason while walking along a street in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn nearly two years ago are being vindicated.
The city has agreed to settle false arrest lawsuits brought by 16 of the youngsters and will pay them from $9,000 to $23,000 each. The settlement papers are expected to be signed by the youngsters on Saturday, according to their lawyer, Michael Scolnick.
The arrests and prosecution of the young people — more than 30 in all — amounted to an outlandish abuse of police and prosecutorial power. Police officers swooped in and arrested everyone in the group, boys and girls and young men and women, ranging in age from 13 to their early-20s.
They were not just arrested while walking peacefully down a quiet street in broad daylight, but they were publicly bad-mouthed by police officials and the Brooklyn district attorney. In fact, the kids had done nothing wrong. They lacked even the normal exuberance you might expect from a large group of young people. They were grieving.
The youngsters had assembled in a park on May 21, 2007, and proceeded to walk toward a subway station. They were planning to attend a wake for a friend who had been murdered in what the police believed was a gang-related crime.
According to the police, the group went on a rampage on a residential, tree-lined block of Putnam Avenue. Top Police Department officials, including Commissioner Ray Kelly, said the kids were yelling, blocking traffic and climbing on top of parked cars.
The Brooklyn district attorney, Charles Hynes, told a radio audience: “They were not just walking on one car; they were trampling on all sorts of cars. It was almost as if they were inviting their arrest.”
The only problem was that this rampage never happened. No evidence was ever produced of the kids blocking traffic (there was hardly any vehicular or pedestrian traffic on the street), or of anyone clambering on top of cars. Witnesses who saw the kids, including one man who used his cellphone to take photos of some of them who were handcuffed on the sidewalk, said they had been orderly, quiet and well behaved.
The arrests took place right outside the first-floor windows of Greer Martin, a woman who spoke on the record a few days after the arrests, despite her reluctance to have her name printed in a newspaper, because she felt the police officers had abused their power. “I was shocked beyond shock,” she told me. “My windows were open, and it didn’t look like the kids had done anything wrong.”
Leana Mejia, a student at John Jay College who was among those arrested, said the cops were the ones out of control. “They cursed us and pushed the guys,” she said. “And then they handcuffed us. We kept asking, ‘What are you doing?’ ”
If the police or prosecutors thought the kids would plead guilty to some minor offense and go quietly on their way, they were mistaken. The kids fought back, asserting their innocence and refusing to acquiesce in their humiliation. The authorities stalled and some of the cases dragged on for months, some for more than a year.
The prosecutors had nothing. Because the rampage was a fantasy.
One by one, the cases were dismissed. In some instances, the prosecutors themselves threw in the towel.
Diana Rodriguez, an assistant D.A. in Mr. Hynes’s office, told me on Friday: “As to some individual defendants, we felt we could not prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. So there were some cases that we on our own moved to dismiss.”
Many of the youngsters sued, charging that they were falsely arrested and illegally held at a local precinct house, some of them for a day and a half.
In agreeing to settle the lawsuits, the city refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing. But it has agreed to pay from $20,000 to $23,000 to individuals who were held in custody overnight and subjected to prolonged exposure to the criminal justice system. Others, many of them younger, reportedly will receive $9,000 each.
When asked to comment on the case, Mr. Scolnick said: “My impression is that the bulk of our police officers do what they are supposed to. On the other hand, what I have been told by my clients is that their being stopped on the street merely for being on the street is about as common an occurrence in their lives as me getting up in the morning and brushing my teeth, and that’s pretty outrageous.
“I can’t imagine that 32 young white people walking down the streets of Scarsdale to pay their respects to a friend would have been arrested that way.”