What does it take to discipline an NYPD cop?

What does it take to discipline an NYPD cop?

The officer who tackled tennis star James Blake is facing charges.

Former tennis star James Blake  was tackled by a police officer outside a Manhattan hotel in 2015. Two years later, the NYPD is finally holding a departmental trial for that officer.
Former tennis star James Blake was tackled by a police officer outside a Manhattan hotel in 2015. Two years later, the NYPD is finally holding a departmental trial for that officer. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Mario Tama

It’s clear by now that the sting to nab some credit card scammers in Midtown wasn’t the operation of the century.

Plainclothes NYPD Officer James Frascatore got the order to take down a suspect outside the Times Square Grand Hyatt in September 2015. He sprinted across the street, nearly got hit by a taxi screeching to a halt and tackled the surprised suspect to the ground and into handcuffs. Except the handcuffed man turned out to be former Olympian and tennis star James Blake, a biracial man waiting for a ride to a U.S. Open appearance.

Frascatore was placed on modified duty and Blake received quick apologies from Mayor Bill de Blasio and then-Commissioner Bill Bratton. But the famous athlete vowed to use his celebrity to bring attention to police misconduct and excessive force.

That’s when this celebrity tale came back to earth, because in NYC, police accountability can move slowly. It took two years after the incident for Blake to have his day in a trial room at 1 Police Plaza, where civilian oversight of police in NYC often goes to peter quietly out.

Like a trial, but not quite a trial

Such trial rooms are where law enforcement officers commonly face some punishment in New York, if district attorneys or federal prosecutors decline to pursue higher charges in misconduct cases. That has happened in prominent cases such as the fatal shooting of Ramarley Graham in 2012. That trial ended in January 2017; three months later the administrative judge recommended the officer be fired, and he quit.

The Frascatore hearing on Tuesday had a different feel. The stakes were lower in a bumpy arrest as compared with a shooting. There were fewer emotional supporters packing the room. In the place of Graham’s grieving mother, there was Blake himself speaking to reporters outside police headquarters, dressed in a well-fitted suit and tie, speaking calmly about his hope that a “bad apple” cop could be held accountable. A WNYC investigation had found 5 civilian complaints against Frascatore during a seven month period in 2013, before the Blake incident.

But some things were similar: The trial room on home territory for police at 1PP. And the mechanics of that court: no judge or jury, just an administrative judge who would listen to evidence and bring a recommendation to Commissioner James O’Neill, who could then take some time and do as he pleased. Potential punishments include docking vacation days or booting the officer from the force.

Blake says he wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than firing.

How do you build a case?

A first glimpse of the arguments was available on Tuesday, with little left to the imagination given that the encounter was caught entirely on surveillance video.

There was discussion about when exactly Frascatore identified himself as a police officer — when he put his hands on Blake, the officer said. He also said he told Blake he was in “safe hands” after the surprise takedown.

Frascatore testified that he’d been told before the operation that the fruadsters his team were after were possibly armed with a knife, perhaps a reason to come in hot. But the Civilian Complaint Review Board lawyer got the officer to admit that he had not mentioned a potential knife at all in his initial incident-related interview with the CCRB.

In fact, the first mention of knives came in an interview with the NYPD’s own Internal Affairs Bureau. Blake, Frascatore said, had been unarmed, cooperative, and had no bulges in his pockets. And Frascatore himself was able to take in an actual suspect in the Hyatt less than an hour later, without resorting to tackling or the “straight arm bar” he used on Blake. (Frascatore’s lawyer noted that was an indoor arrest, a different situation).

There was a lot of back and forth about how much force an officer is supposed to use in certain situations, what the patrol guide says on the subject and when officers should ID themselves. But the proceedings adjourned mid-afternoon, to continue on Wednesday with testimony from an expert in use of force.

Then the trial was expected to stretch at least “until next Tuesday,” said Stephen Worth, a lawyer for Frascatore. Another officer who had been on the scene would testify but was away for “training.”

Such delays are common in cases like these, but at some point the hearings will end and the decision will get to the commissioner’s desk, to render his sole judgement on this particular issue of conduct and practice for his police force. Just don’t expect final answers soon.

Mark Chiusano