Sunday, April 18, 2010

Incidents caught on camera increase department scrutiny of officers

Minutes after a suburban Chicago police officer was charged with striking a motorist with his baton, prosecutors handed out copies of a video showing the beating - taken by a dashboard camera on the officer's own squad car.

In California, after a transit cop and an unruly train passenger slammed against a wall during a struggle and shattered a station window last fall, video from a bystander's cell phone was all over the Internet before the window was fixed.

The same cell phones, surveillance cameras and other video equipment often used to assist police are also catching officers on tape, changing the nature of police work - for better and worse.

Some say cameras are exposing behavior that police have gotten away with for years. But others contend the videos, which often show a snippet of an incident, turn officers into villains simply for doing their jobs, making them targets of lawsuits and discipline from bosses buckling to public pressure.

"We tell our officers all the time you've got to assume that everything you do is going to be videotaped," said Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis. "Everyone has a cell phone and almost every cell phone has a camera."

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez said the video her office gave to the media on Tuesday shows police officer James Mandarino, from the Chicago suburb of Streamwood, hitting motorist Ronald Bell 15 times after a traffic stop last month.

In the video, Mandarino is seen firing a Taser at a passenger in the car and then striking Bell, who is on his knees with his hands on his head. Bell suffered a concussion and cuts that required seven stitches.

"It's a wonderful tool," Alvarez said of the video, which she says suggests that both men posed no threat to the officer.

Though police-behaving-badly videos have become popular staples of cable news shows and the Internet, Weis said he doesn't believe his officers are overly cautious out of fears they'll be videotaped - and their superiors are not advising them to be.

Quietly, though, some officers say the prospect of being videotaped makes them hesitate even if they know they should act.

"I've heard from officers who are sent to break up a fight in the street and see a group of people leaning out windows with handheld video cameras ... they go slower and are less aggressive," said Tom Needham, a Chicago attorney who has represented several police officers.

But University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman, who has studied police brutality, said videos are helping hold police accountable.

"My own view is that YouTube has done more to expose the reality of police abuse than all the blue-ribbon commissions combined," said Futterman.

A Chicago police officer who was arrested three years ago in the videotaped beating of a female bartender never would have been charged much less convicted if not for the video, Futterman said. Anthony Abbate initially was charged with a misdemeanor until the video played across the world.

Ronald Bell's brother, Stacey Bell, said he doubts the Streamwood officer would have been charged with felony aggravated battery and official misconduct without the video and his brother still would have faced charges of drunken driving and resisting an officer, which were dropped.

"I believe it would have been six witnesses against an officer and it would have been a different story," said Stacey Bell, who witnessed the alleged beating. The officer's attorney declined to comment.

But some caution that incidents caught on tape can misrepresent police work.

"The work of a police officer, even when done properly is ... not pleasant to watch," said Al O'Leary, spokesman for the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association in New York City. "We've had situations, circumstances where an officer doing his job by the book is caught on video is tagged as brutal. Sometimes the work is brutal but necessary."

In California when the Bay Area Rapid Transit officer slammed into a window with a suspect during a violent arrest, the cell phone video - viewed more than 160,000 times on one clip posted on YouTube - ended up exonerating the officer whose actions brought claims of excessive force, a union official said.

"It wasn't the suspect's head that caused the glass to break," said Jesse Sekhon, BART police officers union president. "When you freeze the video and enhance it you see it was the suspect punching it with his hand."

What's more, video viewers rarely hear the frantic 911 call for help, rocks hurled at an approaching squad car or the countless times police have been called to the same house.

In New York City in 2008, a man died after falling from a building ledge when police jolted him with a Taser. Video of the last few moments, including Iman Morales' fall, was posted on newspaper Web sites and played over and over again on local TV.

But before the cameras were running, "this guy was stark naked, running up and down the fire escape, he tried to get into a woman's apartment by tearing out the air conditioner, terrifying the woman," and swung a fluorescent light bulb at police before Lt. Michael Pigott ordered him shot him with the stun gun, said Tom Sullivan, president of the NYPD's Lieutenants Benevolent Association.

Eight days later, Pigott - stripped of his gun and badge and demoted - committed suicide, leaving a note saying he was trying to protect his men. His widow, who is suing the police department, said the discipline humiliated her husband. The department declined to comment.

There is little chance that the videotaped scrutiny of police will slow. In fact, groups with video cameras follow police in cities all over the country, including Orlando, Fla., where George Crossley launched Orlando CopWatch in 2006.

"If we come up on law enforcement, the whole shift knows immediately," said Crossley. "They get on the radio (and say) 'Watch out for CopWatch.'"

Sgt Jerry Blash Who Filed Ben Roethlisberger Report Resigns

The Ben Roethlisberger sexual assault investigation has led to a Milledgeville (Ga.) police officer’s resignation.

According to, Sgt. Jerry Blash, the only police officer who interviewed Roethlisberger in the investigation, resigned Wednesday following the release of investigation documents to the public. Milledgeville police chief Woodrow Blue confirmed Blash’s resignation Friday.

Blash resigned amid reports that he made negative comments about Roethlisberger’s accuser near friends of the Steelers’ quarterback. In addition, photos released one week after the incident revealed Roethlisberger and Blash together smiling just hours before the sexual assault allegation was made.

Blue stated Blash was involved in the investigation until March 12.

Additional documents released Thursday revealed a 16-year-old told officials that Roethlisberger had made sexual advances toward a friend’s sister, but the woman declined the opportunity to speak with authorities.

The allegations against Roethlisberger continue to haunt the quarterback and the Steelers organization as well.

Roethlisberger could face punishment from the league and from Steelers president Art Rooney II for his actions. The team also could face a six-figure fine as a result of the behavior of Roethlisberger and former Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes.

Officer Sidney Garcia Accused of Punching CabDriver

An off-duty city police officer was arrested after being accused of punching a cabdriver in the face on the East Side, the police said.

The officer, Sidney Garcia, 42, was charged with third-degree assault on Friday evening, several hours after the driver of a yellow taxicab reported that he had been assaulted during an argument with five people late Thursday.

Officer Garcia was stripped of his gun and badge, and was suspended without pay for 30 days, as detectives from the Internal Affairs Bureau of the Police Department began an inquiry.

Appointed to the force on Feb. 28, 1994, Officer Garcia is currently assigned to the department’s Applicant Processing Division, where he handles the submissions of candidates to become police officers.

According to the police, Officer Garcia was with four other people on Thursday night when they tried to hail a cab at Third Avenue and 35th Street about 11:20 p.m. When a taxi pulled over, the officer and the others tried to get in.

“The cabby said no,” said a law enforcement official, adding that the driver apparently felt that having five passengers would violate the rules of the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

Words were exchanged as the five people got into the taxi, with Officer Garcia in front, the police said.

“Then, the off-duty cop allegedly hits” the driver in the face, said the official, who requested anonymity because the investigation was continuing.

The cabby drove away after the encounter. It was not until finishing his shift and returning to his garage, about 3:30 a.m., that he came across Officer Garcia’s ID card and shield inside the vehicle, law enforcement officials said. He then contacted the police.

The extent of the driver’s injuries, if any, was not immediately clear, and the police did not identify the driver by name.

Officer Garcia was arrested about 5:30 p.m. on Friday, the police said.

“Our rules restrict the number of passengers to the number of seat belts available,” Allan J. Fromberg, a spokesman for the Taxi and Limousine Commission, said.

“The number of authorized passengers would go on the rate card that’s in the vehicle, the card that goes next to the driver’s license,” Mr. Fromberg said, adding that the agency did not keep “crime stats” on events like assaults against drivers. He declined to comment on what led to Officer Garcia’s arrest.

The police would not say if Officer Garcia had previously faced disciplinary action in the course of his 16-year career.

Since 1984, on average, more than 100 police officers a year have been arrested.