Can the NYPD Spot the Abusive Cop?

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Mayor Bill De Blasio speaks at the 2014 graduation ceremony for the New York Police Department.

Darvell Elliott was near his Brownsville home one August night in 2010 when cops stopped him and said he matched the description of someone who allegedly robbed a man’s iPod and cellphone.

They handcuffed him and he expected to take a trip to the precinct but then the world went black. He came to in the hospital with his face “stuck to the sheet like Velcro.” Photos his attorney provided show his head covered with blood-soaked bandages.

He said it was a case of mistaken identity. Elliott would later allege cops tripped him and beat him after he hit the ground. The city agreed to pay $20,000 to settle the lawsuit and his criminal case was ultimately dismissed.

The arresting officer named in the lawsuit is a Brooklyn cop — Donald Sadowy.

“He thinks we’re the danger. But you’re the danger. You’re supposed to protect and serve us,” Elliott said a  year later. “We’re not supposed to be scared of you. We’re supposed to be safe around you.”

But time and again, suspects haven’t been safe around Sadowy. Records show he’s been accused of excessive force in multiple lawsuits during the six years he’s been making arrests. Yet he continues to make them. And it’s not just him.

WNYC easily found a dozen other cops who appear to use force more often than most and who have been the subject of numerous lawsuits.

Records also show that a relatively small number of cops generate the most civilian complaints — and the department routinely ignores recommendations on how to discipline the worst of them. All of which calls into question just how seriously the NYPD polices its own.

“I think there’s been a really systematic failure of accountability on the part of the NYPD,” said Sam Walker, a retired criminal justice professor from the University of Nebraska-Omaha who recently served as an expert witness in the stop-and-frisk trial.

He said the department does have multiple personnel databases that keep information on things like civilian complaints and disciplinary histories for its 35,000 officers. The department also monitors cops who are accused of excessive force.

But Walker says it’s not enough. He says the NYPD puts a lot of energy into spotting crime trends and should put similar resources into finding problem cops.

“If you could devise a system to identify them and identify them early, you could prevent a lot of inappropriate actions out there on the street,” Walker said.

And you could save at least some of the more than $100 million the city spends each year to settle lawsuits against the NYPD.

There’s no way to check how often the NYPD disciplines individual cops, because disciplinary files in New York state are confidential. There are, however, public records that show that cops with numerous red flags have been allowed to stay on the street.

That’s certainly the case with Donald Sadowy. Court records show he was sued at least 10 times in little more than two years.

“If there are 10 lawsuits — lawsuits — there’s something wrong here and if this person has not been reprimanded and controlled there’s something wrong,” said Candace McCoy, a professor at the Graduate Center and John Jay College at the City University of New York.

Court records also show there have been problems with some of the criminal cases in which Sadowy was the arresting officer. He gave conflicting testimony in a criminal case in 2012 – saying he found a gun in one place in front of a grand jury, and telling a different story in a sworn affidavit for a search warrant. As a result, prosecutors started reviewing his cases in Brooklyn and dismissed at least one because of what they called “credibility issues.”  

The NYPD and the officer’s union declined to answer questions about Sadowy’s record. He didn’t return a message left at the 73rd  precinct, where he works. The city’s Law Department, which represents officers in lawsuits, also declined to comment.

While 10 lawsuits might be a high number, especially in such a short period of time, McCoy said it raises a larger question that extends beyond Sadowy: “What is the cutoff? What is the exact number beyond which you take this person off the street?”

There’s no simple answer. For one thing, a lot of misconduct never results in a lawsuit. And on the flip side, lawsuits often name some officers who might have played a minor role in an incident.

So departments around the country look for combinations of indicators to spot patterns of questionable behavior. Many, for example, also look at cops who regularly charge people with resisting arrest.

“There’s a widespread pattern in American policing where resisting arrest charges are used to sort of cover – and that phrase is used – the officer’s use of force,” said Walker, the accountability expert from the University of Nebraska. “Why did the officer use force? Well, the person was resisting arrest.”

WNYC’s analysis of criminal court records shows that less than two percent of police officers in the NYPD have 10 or more resisting arrest cases since 2009. Sadowy has more than 20.

Historically, the department has done more to crack down on corrupt cops than abusive ones, said Robert Kane, director of the criminology and justice studies program at Drexel University, who spent several years studying officer misconduct in the NYPD.

He says cops like Sadowy are on the street because the NYPD wants them there.

“I would only expect that officer to be taken off the street if the organization didn’t value the aggressive behavior in which that officer typically engages,” Kane said.

The problem with aggressive policing policies is that they can lead to outright aggression in individual cops, he added.

“If some officers might take this too far and they get videotaped, or their cases end up in court, or they generate a complaint by people on the street, I wouldn’t call them bad apples per se. I would say that perhaps they’ve just taken this a little bit too far,” Kane said.

In New York City, citizen complaints go to the Civilian Complaint Review Board. The board’s chairman, Richard Emery, said complaints are an important indicator.

“It may be that some complaints do not have a basis, and they’re put out there by people who are simply lying or making them up. But it’s also the case that many people who could complain legitimately don’t,” he said.

CCRB Records show that 40 percent of the 35,000 officers on the force today have never been the subject of a citizen complaint. Another 20 percent have only one. Yet about a thousand cops have 10 or more complaints. One has been able to rack up 51. The name of that officer is confidential, as are the names of any officer who is the target of a CCRB complaint.

“If an officer has a pattern of a lot of complaints, let alone substantiated complaints, that officer is certainly worth watching and even warning and certainly retraining,” Emery said.

Yet — at least until now — the department hasn’t seemed too interested in using the board’s trove of records to spot problem officers.

“They’ve had access to it but they never asked,” Emery said. “The problem is (that) in the past, the New York City Police Department has not viewed the CCRB as anything but an irritant.”

He’s hopeful that’s changing under Commissioner William Bratton. The CCRB is also working on their own early warning system to look for patterns of behavior and flag possible problem cops.

The NYPD did not respond to multiple requests for an interview for this story. Bratton has started a massive department-wide retraining on the use of force and spoken out about the need to get rid of bad cops.

“There are some officers in the department unfortunately who should not be here,” he told reporters a couple of months ago. “They’re brutal, they’re corrupt and we’ll work very aggressively to deal with that.”

As for Officer Sadowy, an eleventh lawsuit was filed against him just last month.