On the night of May 20, 2014, Charlene Jack says she was in her Brooklyn apartment when she heard a woman screaming. She rushed downstairs and found her sister, Patrice, trying to fend off three large men. Jack asked what was going on, and one of them men told her to “shut the fuck up.” She did not. As the men continued manhandling her sister, Jack kept asking them what they were doing. Then one of the men told the others, “I don’t give a fuck, cuff her, I’m sick of her mouth…Shut the fuck up, you Black bitch.”
That’s when Jack realized the men were NYPD plainclothes officers, according to a lawsuit she later filed against the three officers and the NYPD. The officers handcuffed both Jack and her sister Patrice, even though Jack says she was not fully clothed. When one of the plainclothes officers noted that she “has no clothes on,” according to the lawsuit, the other cop commanded him to “take her just as she is.”
After the Jack sisters were handcuffed, officers began to bang on the door of the apartment where another of their relatives was staying, Jack said. “Where are the guns?” they shouted. When an officer threatened to shoot, the occupants opened the door, and the cops handcuffed them and forced them to lie on the floor, guns pointed at their heads.
The officers ransacked the apartment but found no weapons. Nevertheless, five of the young men were placed under arrest and taken to the precinct, where police separately interrogated them about guns. One of the men was charged with possession of a weapon, while Charlene, her nephew and Patrice were charged with obstruction. The charges against them were eventually dismissed.
Jack’s lawsuit against the NYPD was ultimately settled for $70,000. It is not clear whether any of the officers involved in the incident were disciplined. All three remain employed by the NYPD, and since the incident, two have been promoted from police officers to detectives.
Despite a long history of documented abuses, virtually without consequences, the plainclothes units are a key factor in Mayor Eric Adams’ plan to combat violent crime in the city. It’s not clear how he plans to stop them from committing more violent crime than they solve.
Until last year, more than 600 NYPD officers were assigned to plainclothes “anti-crime” units. Unlike most police officers, who wear uniforms while on the job, officers in plainclothes units dress as civilians to avoid detection.
In June 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, then-Police Commissioner Dermot Shea announced that he would disband the department’s plainclothes anti-crime units, which had developed a reputation for overly aggressive tactics.
“This is a seismic shift in the culture of how the NYPD polices this great city,” Shea said at the time. “It will be felt immediately in the communities that we protect.”
Mayor Eric Adams pledged to “immediately” reinstate a new version of the plainclothes units, called “Neighborhood Safety Teams,” that will focus on arresting people who illegally carry guns. Bringing back a version of plainclothes units was one of Adams’ main campaign promises. The recent spate of high-profile killings, including the fatal shooting of 22-year-old officer Jason Rivera, appears to have added urgency to the relaunch of the units.
Keechant Sewell, the new Police Commissioner, told the New York Post that “plainclothes units work. They are able to be in places where they are not able to be easily recognized and if you use a surgical approach, use well-trained officers and know what their objectives are, you can get measurable results.”
But the stealth Sewell described as an asset can also pave the way for abuse. Historically, plainclothes officers have been involved in virtually all high-profile police killings. According to lawsuit data and CCRB complaints, they’ve used excessive force, conducted illegal searches to produce results, knowingly made false arrests, lied to prosecutors, and planted evidence.
Adams has pledged that the new units will be different. In January, he announced that members of the new Neighborhood Safety Teams will wear clothing identifying them as police officers, though they will still drive around in unmarked cars. On Tuesday, the New York Post reported that Neighborhood Safety Team officers will wear black vests or sweatshirts labeled “NYPD.”
Adams pledges zero tolerance for abuse in the new units.“Those officers who are abusing their authority, they’ll be held accountable. And if they continue, they’ll be removed from my department. So, you’re going to see a better style of a gun unit that’s going to zero in on gun violence,” he said at a November press conference.
Retired NYPD commander Corey Pegues says that’s unlikely. Pegues voted for Adams. The two men are friends. They even went through captain training together. But he worries that bringing back plainclothes will alienate people of color. “For the Black and brown community, bringing anti-crime back is like bringing back the boogey man,” he told New York Focus.
“I don’t want the ‘jump-out boys’ back out on the street,” he added, referring to the element of surprise in the officers’ interactions with civilians. “When police have uniforms on they act a lot different than when they don't.”
He noted that plainclothes were to blame for the racially discriminatory application of stop-and-frisk, as well as for killing Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, and Eric Garner.
“Every one of those cases, an unarmed Black man was killed by officers in plainclothes,” he said. “When you have 600 people in plainclothes in the streets, thousands of contacts, eventually something is going to happen. My fear, with Eric Adams being my friend: if something tragic happens, the blood is going to be on his hands.”
Pegues is especially perplexed by the rush to bring back plainclothes to seize guns, noting that in the years the units were disbanded, the NYPD confiscated a record number of firearms.
“There haven't been that many seizures since the 1990s,” he said. He worries that if plainclothes happen to seize the same or fewer guns in the coming years, they'll be deemed a failure—“and then the pressure to succeed comes down.”
“They took more guns off the streets in uniform,” he concluded. “If it's not broke, don't fix it.”
Recipe for abuse
Clearance rates for gun crimes are based on arrests, which means that the initial arrest still clocks in as a win for law enforcement even if the district attorney ends up dismissing the case months later. A case built on faulty evidence of guns might never lead to a conviction, but it is still considered a “cleared” case. In the meantime, suspects can face grueling interrogations and pretrial jail time before the case is ultimately dropped.
Adams has pledged to hold abusive police accountable, telling a skeptical activist he must have been “living under a rock” when he questioned the Mayor’s commitment to stopping NYPD abuses. Adams promised that plainclothes officers would be forced to wear body cameras.
Pegues doesn't think body-worn cameras cut it. “It's not like you can't shoot someone with a body camera on,” he said.
Christopher Dunn, Legal Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), said it would take an unlikely major shift for the NYPD to start to impose discipline on its rogue cops. He noted a report NYCLU released in December, showing that since 2000, just two percent of officers were disciplined following a Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) investigation. In three out of four cases in which the CCRB recommended a certain level of discipline, the NYPD overrode that recommendation.
While the lack of accountability for abuses is a department-wide problem, records suggest that it may be particularly acute for officers who have worked in plainclothes units.
The NYPD does not publicly disclose which officers have worked in plainclothes units, but New York Focus identified more than 200 officers who were accused of misconduct while working in plainclothes units, through an analysis of data from CAPstat, which tracks civil rights lawsuits against the NYPD, and NYCLU’s database of CCRB complaints against individual NYPD officers. The data is far from comprehensive, not least because the CAPstat database is mostly limited to lawsuits against the NYPD filed in federal court between 2015 and 2018.
In total, New York Focus identified 206 individual officers who were named in civil lawsuits against plainclothes officers. Each of those officers was also the subject of at least one CCRB complaint during their career. In total, those 206 officers were the subjects of 2,942 complaints. The CCRB found evidence to substantiate 253 of those complaints. A significant number of the complaints related to inappropriate use of force; 183 of the 206 officers had been accused of inappropriate use of force at least once.
A handful of officers have racked up dozens of CCRB complaints over their careers. Gary J. Messina has 95. Henry A. Daverin has 55. Anthony R. Ronda has 54. Officer Eric Dym has 50 complaints against him. And Mathew C. Reich has 100 complaints.
CAPstat currently lists 73 lawsuits filed against plainclothes officers. According to the database, 41 of those lawsuits have been settled, which has cost the city at least $1,228,000. Another 28 lawsuits remain pending, while two have been dismissed with prejudice and one has resulted in a victory for the defendant.
Adams has said that their records of complaints will be one factor in determining which officers will comprise the new unit. Asked whether officers who previously served as plainclothes will be part of the new unit, the NYPD told New York Focus to ask the mayor’s office. Asked the same question, Adams’s office referred New York Focus back to the NYPD.
Lies and arrests
In multiple lawsuits reviewed by New York Focus, plainclothes officers escalated encounters by failing to identify themselves as police (which they are not legally obligated to do). After the ensuing violence, officers in several cases charged suspects with resisting arrest or obstructing government business, even though at the time, the suspects didn’t know they were dealing with cops.
One night in 2015, Vito Amaltifano was waiting outside a Brooklyn apartment for his son’s mother. He was on edge—there had been three shootings in the area recently—so when a construction truck screeched to a halt and four men jumped out and charged at him, he thought he was being attacked. He ran inside the building.
The four plainclothes chased him up to his son’s mother’s unit and slammed him through the door, where they proceeded to pepper spray him and fracture his face in four places as his son and son’s mother watched. Later, an officer signed a statement falsely claiming he’d seen Amaltifano fling a baggie of weed in a closet while another claimed he’d tried to fight them off. Amaltifano sued, and the city settled the case for $178,000. But all the officers involved still have their jobs, and have received standard raises since the incident.
In 2010, plainclothes officers followed Vincent Longo as he walked his dog home with a friend. When they got to his porch, one of the officers grabbed his arm. Longo quickly ran inside and shut the door. When he looked outside, he saw one of the men pointing a gun at him.
Thinking he was being attacked by a gunman, he ran to the other side of the apartment building. The officers broke in and chased him, threatening to shoot his dog. Longo finally realized they were police when they tossed a black police radio in his apartment. When he looked outside, dozens of officers had massed in front of the building, guns drawn. He crawled onto his fire escape to surrender.
At the station, he was charged with attempted criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree—he’d briefly pushed away the muzzle of the gun when he still thought he was being attacked by random gunmen—as well as reckless endangerment, attempted robbery, and criminal possession of a controlled substance. The cops named in the lawsuit, which is pending, still have their jobs.
In 2017, Justin Baker and his friends were hanging out in a basement apartment in Brooklyn when they heard noise and heavy footsteps thudding towards them. Thinking they were being robbed, the friends dispersed. Baker ran outside. He was followed by police, who threw him on the ground and beat him. They searched Baker, found no contraband, but still arrested him and took him to the precinct.
There, a strip search also failed to find contraband. Nevertheless, he was charged with possessing a criminal weapon, forgery devices, stolen property, a controlled substance, and marijuana, as well as obstructing governmental administration. The Brooklyn DA’s office initiated legal proceedings against him, but then dropped all charges after investigating the case.
In 2012, Charles Mingo was taking out his trash when two plainclothes officers stopped, frisked and arrested him. Later, one of the officers claimed he found a handgun on him with 28 rounds of ammunition. His bail was set at $25,000, and he spent six days at Rikers. The charges were dropped two months later.
The same year, Eugene Moore was riding his bike after ordering takeout, when he was stopped by plainclothes officers from the 67th precinct, including an officer involved in the Mingo case. They allegedly found a bag nearby (not on Moore’s person) with what appeared to be a gun inside and arrested Moore. Later, the officers’ testimony was inconsistent—Detective Gregory Jeanbaptiste claimed he’d seen a gun inside Moore’s box of takeout, then changed his story when it became apparent he’d require “x-ray vision” to see it, as Moore’s lawsuit puts it. The judge called the testimony “extremely evasive.” Moore nevertheless spent a year at Rikers before charges were dismissed.
A 2014 New York Times investigation revealed that the same officers in Moore’s case had been involved in multiple cases against defendants they arrested on false gun possession charges, including by planting guns. A judge in a case where a gun was found in a nearby trash can observed, “Supposedly this defendant doesn’t see the police coming, but elects out of nowhere to take the object out of his pants pocket and dump it in a garbage can?” The New York Post found that at least six defendants had been embroiled in the precinct’s scheme. The city paid Moore a $125,000 settlement. Detective Jeanbaptiste retired without facing any disciplinary action. The other officers involved in Moore’s case are still on the force.
“There will be fire”
In November, Black Lives Matter co-founder Hawk Newsome warned that if the NYPD brings back plainclothes units, “there will be riots, there will be fire, and there will be bloodshed.” It wasn’t a threat, Newsome later said, just the likely outcome of a return to policing that tramples the rights of poor people in the city without accountability.
“These police officers do not get punished, they get promoted,” Newsome told New York Focus. “I don’t think people understand how these officers treat regular, hard-working citizens. They treat kids like garbage. They’ll hassle kids just playing basketball.”
Unlike uniformed officers who respond to 911 calls, he said, plainclothes officers monitor communities to try to identify potential criminals, which inevitably leads to profiling young people who look a certain way.
Activist Jose LaSalle, who founded the South Bronx Copwatch Patrol Unit, has had his own run-ins with the cops, who he said tried to frame him for a felony after he filmed an incident in 2016. “It’s a party!” they gloated on a tape LaSalle secretly made. LaSalle was awarded $860,000 in a lawsuit.
Both LaSalle and Newsome said that the officers in plainclothes units have antagonized the community by driving recklessly in residential neighborhoods and profiling Black and Hispanic youth. Since the plainclothes units were disbanded, they said, the same officers have continued to patrol the neighborhood, now in uniform, with a similar attitude.
“They never left,” LaSalle told New York Focus. “They are very aggressive. They have no courtesy or respect for anybody. If someone asks, ‘Why are you stopping me?’ they get very upset.”
“You’re supposedly targeting gang members or people carrying guns. Don't know who's a gang member? You’re going to be stopping every Black and Hispanic kid in the community.”
“Adams is not in the streets,” LaSalle said. “He don’t see what we see.”