Scary thugs throwing a man to the sidewalk

About one hour ago I was walking down Washington Place and at the corner of Avenue of the Americas, an SUV pulled up onto the sidewalk right in front of me. Two guys jumped out, maybe three, I was kind of in shock. The doors were open and the engine running. They threw a man onto the sidewalk and jumped on top of him. People all stopped and gathered a bit closer, unsettled and staring at the guys and at the SUV. More cop-like guys gathered in, none of them in uniform but most of them with walkie-talkies. Some of them got back into the SUV; I followed and asked through the window if they were police. They yelled at me and pulled away from the curb. As I was trying to take a cameraphone photo of the license plate, the SUV backed almost into me very fast and I had to run backwards. I did not succeed in getting the license plate number but it was a grey unmarked car.

Meanwhile, some of the guys dragged the dude in handcuffs, a young black man in fancy designer jeans, across the street. They made him kneel against the wall and he looked completely terrified but resigned. I crossed the street and was standing about 20 feet away, feeling that I should witness the scene and document it somehow or at least, make sure they were actually police. I know, like that would be reassuring if they were? I was not close enough to hear anything the guys were saying. Next to the man kneeling with his face to the wall was a black woman in a sort of hat or turban-like headgear, apparently his friend.

At that point, people on the street were starting to talk to each other and one older man asked me what had happened. I explained. One of the “cops” approached us and began yelling at me and a short man nearby who was just kind of standing there. Maybe about 30 feet away. He told us to move away “Or Else”. The short man said that he was just waiting for a friend. “I’ll give you till the count of three. One, two…” I said “It’s a public place, a public sidewalk. Are you a police officer? You can’t make us move, we aren’t doing anything.” He continued yelling and threatening us. I asked to see his identification, and said I was a journalist. He would not say if he was a police officer or not. At that point the short man was sidling away down 6th and everyone else was leaving. I felt that I had no witnesses anymore. I got out my camera to take a photo of the man who was right up in my face screaming and making me slowly back away. The guy was huge. He was not in uniform. A white guy with a mustache and dark hair, in a tshirt and … jeans? pants? and a baseball hat. I was having some pretty severe asthma and my heart pounding a million miles a second.

Dear readers. I am sorry to disappoint you, the man “arrested”, and myself, because I was terrified, and I started walking away at that point. I expect more from myself in a crisis. I stood up to the head of FEMA in Houston, and to Homeland Security goons, and to the Red Cross authorities, and to the police there, doing disaster relief work after Katrina. But in the face of a group of possibly armed men on the street at night, as I considered whether I was going to be thrown to the sidewalk and handcuffed, I lost my courage to stand up to authority and to be a witness. In part, I think, because I could not tell what the authority was. As I began to cross 6th the scary guy screamed at me, “That’s right just get away from here. Hey Girlie, I think someone forgot to finish shaving the rest of your head…” And I kept walking and couldn’t hear the rest of what he was saying.

I hope the guy and his friend are being treated with decency and respect by whoever has them in custody. No matter what they are accused of.

The guys who surrounded him were all white. I am sorry to bring up racial politics but I do feel I have to mention it. It’s not like I’ve forgotten the name of Amadou Diallo. That is part of why I stayed to be a witness.

I’m not sure what is scarier, the thought they were police, or the thought that they might not have been. I thought that as a visitor in NYC I was supposed to be nervous about being mugged by criminals. Instead I am now terrified of the police, who don’t seem to respect the people they are supposed to be protecting.

Is this just the sort of thing that happens regularly here? Or is this horribly unusual? I hope someone can pursue it and can tell the story of what happened at that corner, and I challenge the NY Police Department to explain this incident and the aggression and hostility I experienced while merely standing on the sidewalk a fair distance from the scene … No one could say I was obstructing an arrest… I and other people were intimidated into leaving. It’s not right and again, I challenge the Police to explain – if it was them. If it wasn’t, then they should know about it.

20 Comments so far

  1. Neil (unregistered) on November 15th, 2006 @ 6:59 pm

    Wow thats crazy! No one could fault you from leaving a dangerous situation. Did you jot down the plate number?

    Could it be bounty hunters, mafia, MIB?

  2. BDT (unregistered) on November 15th, 2006 @ 7:09 pm

    Sounds like a scene I witnessed a few times in Hell’s Kitchen. Van rushes up, 10 massive cops start throwing people to the ground and they’re gone inside of 5 minutes. Violent and confusing. I believe these were old NY Street Crimes Unit officers. That unit was disbanded after the Diallo mess in 2002 but I don’t doubt something similar has replaced it at this point.

    I once had a cop bang my head into a wall for asking questions like you did. The Sgt who eventually showed up wouldn’t even acknowledge my complaint. Glad you didn’t get the same treatment. Welcome to NYC, as long as crime is down and nobody gets shot, nobody cares.

  3. Mark (unregistered) on November 15th, 2006 @ 8:25 pm

    WTF!!! Somehow the suggestion of bounty hunters makes sense to me, though I think they take pains to identify themselves as BAIL AGENTS or some shit like that on their outerwear. But maybe that’s just on TV.

    Don’t blame yourself for not being a hero. You did five times more and went five times farther than anyone else would have.

    I would really hope someone follows this up.

  4. Dhaval (unregistered) on November 15th, 2006 @ 11:01 pm

    In the game of cops & robbers there are no real victims and there are no real heroes, either. Sorry to all those who will now proceed to ream me a new one, but that’s the way I see it.

    To get involved in one of these is asking for trouble and I would stay away personally, but your journalistic duties or curiosity made you go further which is admirable and noteworthy.

    Was it too aggressive? Was it warranted? Were they cops? That all is very difficult.

  5. Liz Henry (unregistered) on November 16th, 2006 @ 10:11 am

    Ah! A reader on another blog gave me this link:

    “June 27, 2003: At the recommendation of the CCRB, the New York City Police Department issued an interim order revising Patrol Guide procedure 203-09 (Public Contact-General). The revision clarifies an officer’s affirmative obligation to provide upon a civilian’s request his or her name, badge number, or other identifying information.”

  6. minnie (unregistered) on November 16th, 2006 @ 1:03 pm

    you could call the police station and file a complaint. possibly totally pointless. but if more people did that then the police would know that the other citizens of their city are concerned witht the law as well.

  7. Chris Trent (unregistered) on November 16th, 2006 @ 1:22 pm

    wow, that is quite a story. welcome to new york! ;)

  8. Bill (unregistered) on November 16th, 2006 @ 6:25 pm

    Thanks for sharing this story with the community. I understand how you felt about the situation and you have to make that call.

    I don’t know how I would handle myself in a situation like that yet, but the fact that it happens in this town turns my stomach.

    I’d really like to know if it was the NYPD or the Federal government.

  9. dead (unregistered) on November 17th, 2006 @ 8:04 pm

    the police will never be nice or respectful to you in a situation like that. that is just the harsh reality. we’re living in a police state.

  10. h (unregistered) on November 18th, 2006 @ 2:08 am

    call the CCRB and file a report; they have access to 911 records and can subpeona all nearby stores to provide video footage.

  11. Liz Henry (unregistered) on November 18th, 2006 @ 10:45 am

    Thank you, H! I had made a complaint to the police themselves the next day – but the CCRB process might be better. So now I’ve submitted a complaint 2 different places. I don’t think that helps the guy who was dragged off, but at least it gives a data point.

  12. STREET66 (unregistered) on November 18th, 2006 @ 12:00 pm

    That’s quite a story. You’re excellent for capturing it an hour afterwards – your hands must have been shaking as you typed. Hindsight is 20/20, and it is hard to think on your feet. If you want something from someone, it is useful to offer something they might think of as valuable to them, even if you may not possess it. i.e. You could have told one of them something like “That man you’ve handcuffed was talking with two police officers down the street who I happen to know. I also recognize one of your associates, and I’d love to publish a story. Can I give you my card?”

  13. jen (unregistered) on November 18th, 2006 @ 2:05 pm

    my boyfriend & i were over from london for 5 weeks in the summer and saw something similar in bushwick (now i guess you’ll probably say that’s just waht happens in bushwick!) …

    We heard this weird groaning / yelling outside our apt one night, my boyfriend goes to the window to see a nice looking people carrier stopped in the street, doors open, a few guys around another guy who was on the sidewalk shouting ‘get off me get off me leave me alone’.. they don’t hit or kick him or anything like that, just drag him (he’s holding on to the curb edge at one point) into the back of the vehicle, close the door & speed off.

    We were totally freaked out, also wondering if it we’d be more or less comforted if they were cops. It was all a bit too reminiscent of George Orwells 1984!!

    As it was so dark, & it happened so fast, we couldn’t have given any positive id of anyone involved, had no number plates to offer, and wondered how anything questions could possibly be answered by anyone at the nypd or elsewhere.

  14. Erin (unregistered) on November 18th, 2006 @ 7:26 pm

    Maybe the guy didn’t want to disclose whether he was a cop because he was working undercover. Maybe he was part of some sting and was worried about his true identity getting out.

  15. Julian Bennett Holmes (unregistered) on November 21st, 2006 @ 7:48 pm

    Any response from the NYPD?

  16. Liz Henry (unregistered) on November 21st, 2006 @ 11:27 pm

    No response other than automatic reply and assignment of a complaint number. I filed formal complaints with the department and also separately through the Citizen Complaint Review Board.

  17. Noah (unregistered) on November 29th, 2006 @ 9:52 am

    Liz did you ever hear back on this?

  18. Inspirex (unregistered) on December 2nd, 2006 @ 12:20 am

    ok….this is real crazy…any updates on this so far?

  19. Liz Henry (unregistered) on December 2nd, 2006 @ 3:26 am

    No – I only got the standard email automated reply from both sources.

  20. Michael (unregistered) on December 2nd, 2006 @ 11:52 am

    I forwarded this story to the Mayor’s office right after you posted it – looks like they ignored it as well. Unbelievable.

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