Troy Police Under Investigation for Pattern of Civil Rights Violations

A January 25, 2014, police riot in a bar in Troy, NY, was documented on video by numerous indoor security cameras, street-level surveillance cameras, and cell phones. They show Troy police enter the Kokopellis night club as it was closing. After an argument with a patron, Roshawon Donley, an officer pushed and then punched Donley. Other officers joined the first in then beating Donley with batons.

As most remaining patrons rushed for the exit, another group of officers began beating them with batons, many to the back and back of the head as they fled. At least a dozen patrons are seen in videos being struck with batons by police, some to the head. As such, these mostly white officers were randomly using deadly force recklessly and randomly against a crowd comprised almost exclusively of people of color.

Using surveillance footage to identify the man, police arrested Karif Burns weeks after the incident. The video shows him grabbing the baton of an officer who was beating him, seemingly trying to prevent the continuation of the deadly force against him used by an officer. For this, he was charged with attempted burglary.

But the January 25 police riot was the tip of the iceberg. A letter to the Department of Justice, signed by the pastors of the Troy African American Pastoral Alliance, the director of the Center for Law and Justice, and this author identified this as a pattern of brutality and civil rights violations.

A rundown of some of the documented and publicly known cases of police violence in Troy include:

  • In 2008, multiple Troy PD officers, including William Bowles and Jeffrey Hoover, repeated beat with fists, batons, and flashlights Jamel Dewitt and Marquese Devon Hill. The officers claimed Hill’s criminal record was reason enough to beat him so brutally, even though he was unarmed and not actively resisting.
  • In 2010, Troy PD officers were beating Shakim Miller while James Foley recorded the incident with his cell phone. Troy Officer Pollay attacked Foley, causing numerous serious injuries, including broken bones. Foley later sued the officer, winning a $90,000 settlement. Troy Police Officers Christopher Pollay, Charles Castle, Joseph McNall and George Anderson were all involved in this case. During the case, Troy Police Chief Tedesco acknowledged a pattern of misconduct and requested an investigation.
  • Also in 2010, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute student, Nicholas Nigro, was filming from his front porch a violent arrest arrest of Luis M. Lluberes by Troy PD officers Brandon Cipperly, Charles Castle, William Fitch and Justin Ashe. ”He was down on the ground and they were taking turns hitting him three times in the back of the head,” Nigro said. ”One of the officers also bare-fisted punched him in the face and people were yelling at them to stop.”
  • In 2011, John Larkins was thrown to the ground, tasered, and arrested. While cuffed inside a police cruiser, he was pepper sprayed. The officers involved include Justin Ashe, Derrick Comitale and Martin Furciniti. This was a result of a false arrest at a hospital on charges for which he was later acquitted. This use of force was ruled justifiable by internal investigators, and Troy Mayor Rosamilia pledged “vigorously defending against [the open complaint filed by Larkins].”
  • In 2012, Brian Houle was severely beaten at his home by Troy PD Officer Kyle Jones following an argument between the two on Facebook. The officer arrived at Houle’s house in uniform, on duty, and in a police cruiser. Despite receiving numerous injuries following the unauthorized entry of the officer onto Houle’s property, the internal investigation ruled this was an acceptable use of the officer’s authority and physical force.
  • In March 2013, Jordan Novak was thrown into a police cruiser by Troy PD Officer Isaac Bertos. Novak was charged with a felony for denting the police cruiser and other malicious charges.
  • In July 2013, Officer Bertos attacked Robert Washington, beating and using a Taser on him. Washington was maliciously prosecuted with a felony and other crimes for this, for which he was recently exonerated.
  • In August 2013, Troy PD officers punched and kicked Samuel Ratley and Malcolm Watson during a video-documented altercation. Watson claims the violence was initiated by the police, and the video shows escalating aggression from the officers.
  • In October 2013, Hudson Valley Community College student, Archie Davis, was accused of jaywalking and using offensive language, for which (yes, again) Officer Bertos tackled, punched in the ribs and eye and Tasered him. Davis is suing the department. Bertos joined the force in 2009, and has now been named in at least three excessive force lawsuits.
  • In December 2013, Lawrence Nesmith was beaten by Troy PD Officer Sean McMahon in a holding cell at the Troy Police Department. City officials have defended the actions of the officers involved despite community demand for further investigation and for public release of the surveillance footage of the incident.

This week, the US Department of Justice responded to the call for an investigation. Working in conjunction with the the FBI, Troy PD files on most or all of the above cases (and perhaps others) were collected.

During a February 2014 Public Safety Board meeting, Police Chief Tedesco claimed all use of force incidents are documented and investigated. If this indeed the case, the FBI and DOJ are likely to find in this paper trail a significant pattern of offensive and criminal use of force against residents of and visitors to Troy, NY, and particularly among people of color. Importantly, this paper trail will document a criminal degree of supervisory complicity in these civil rights violations, covering them up, impeding discipline, and ultimately condoning these and future abuses to the civil rights and bodies of residents of and visitors to Troy, and particularly among people of color.

While this is a positive step forward, what is the best assurance of lasting change is a community-level, autonomous and yet fully authorized independent investigation into this pattern of brutality, the Troy PD use of force policy and related investigatory processes, and into these individual cases.

A Categorical Denial of Public Oversight of Police

Certifying Brutality

In the weeks since Roshawon Donley and others were brutally beaten by Troy Police officers, Troy city and policing officials have taken many opportunities to speak about the events. Routinely, they have described the officers’ actions on the scene as necessary, within department policy, and lawful. As shown in the video below, Police Commissioner Magnetto went so far as to say that were the same situation to happen again, he would wish for police to respond exactly as they did — by beating at least half a dozen patrons with baton strikes, including blows to the head.

A Department of Justice report from 2011 explains the current trends in use of force policies in US municipal and other law enforcement departments. “Most agencies do not allow baton use until the subject threatens the officer by assuming the boxer’s stance.” Policies informed by current research in use of force outcomes, criminal and civil case law classify baton strikes to the head and other areas of the body as deadly force. A model DOJ use of force policy states unequivocally that “deadly force is not limited to the use of firearms” and includes baton strikes to the “head, neck, sternum, spine, groin, or kidneys” and lists this use of force among ramming with a car and firearm use. The DOJ makes clear, “A subject who poses no imminent threat will not be struck with a baton or impact tool … During non-deadly force incidents, officers will use reasonable care to avoid striking suspects on the head, neck, sternum, spine, groin, or kidneys, as these strikes may constitute deadly force.”

It is rather clear that Federal standards for municipal and other policing differ widely from the activities officials in Troy wish to certify and advocate as standard practice. They echo a common sentiment among police. A US Department of Justice report found that about half of police agree, “Always following the rules is not compatible with getting the job done.”

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