On a late January morning in 2015, Carletto Allen was sitting in a car parked in front of his house in the Bronx, when two men ran up to the car, guns drawn.
Allen thought he was being robbed, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit he filed in 2016. He tried to lock the door, but one of the men burst in and grabbed him, threw him on the ground, and jumped on top of him. A second man told Allen that they’d been looking for him, punched him in the face, and also jumped on his back. “I don’t have any money, don’t shoot,” Allen recalled saying, right before a car with police sirens pulled up. One of the men on top of him yelled, “He’s resisting!” and three more officers jumped on top of him. He went home that night with a broken hand.
“I felt someone punching me in my upper torso and face,” Allen claimed in the lawsuit. He added that he tried to yell for help but was rapidly losing consciousness. “I felt a blow to the back of my head and went out.”
The plainclothes officers who Allen said jumped him — police officer Jozsef A. Tass and Jeremiah Williams, a special detective with the 47th Precinct in the Bronx — did not identify themselves as belonging to the New York Police Department, according to his lawsuit, which was dismissed last year after a jury found that Allen, who did not have legal representation, could not prove the officers’ use of excessive force. According to reporting by The Appeal, Williams testified that he pursued Allen because he saw him smoking a “marijuana cigarette,” and that he found a gun on Allen, a claim Allen pleaded guilty to in state court and later disputed in federal court. Allen was later caught up in a hugely controversial mass sweep, and Williams testified against him at trial.
In the wake of sustained protests against police brutality in recent weeks, the NYPD announced that the particularly violent plainclothes unit has been disbanded. It was one of a series of reforms promised by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who have also floated ideas such as changing police priorities, reallocating funding, and speeding up disciplinary procedures in cases in which officers cause “substantial injury to a civilian.”
“You don’t need to protest, you won,” Cuomo told Black Lives Matter protesters on June 14. “You accomplished your goal. Society says you’re right, the police need systemic reform.”
Activists are wary that the promised reforms will do anything to address the NYPD’s culture of impunity. The officers from the plainclothes unit, for example, were merely reshuffled into other jobs, a move one activist recently described to The Intercept as a “shell game.” On Tuesday, New York’s City Council passed a budget that includes shifting $1 billion away from the NYPD, a move protesters and progressive lawmakers say is a cosmetic change that will do little to change the nature of policing.
“The reforms cooked up by the mayor and governor aren’t going to fix this,” said Alex S. Vitale, a professor of sociology and the coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College. “Both Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo, in particular, have cozied up to police and correctional unions across the state. Meanwhile, de Blasio is deferential towards them. … He could order the commissioner to clean house. To fire certain officers. He just doesn’t do it.”
The NYPD’s Risk Management Bureau, which is supposed to identify problem officers, ends up protecting bad cops, said Vitale, who is the author of “The End of Policing.” “It’s damage control. And there are well-documented cases of officers who are seriously out of control. Firing those officers is consistent with the defund movement. That’s not saying we need no officers; that’s saying, fewer officers and let’s start with the worst ones.”
Based on a history of official complaints and lawsuits naming him, Williams may be a prime example of where to start. Over the course of Williams’s 18-year career with the NYPD, 60 complaints, involving 21 separate incidents, were lodged against him with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent agency that investigates NYPD misconduct complaints, according to records obtained via a public records request following the recent repeal of 50-a, a controversial law that shielded officers’ misconduct records from public view. For comparison, 41 percent of current NYPD service members have never had a complaint lodged against them, according to the CCRB’s 2018 annual report. Twenty-one percent have had only one complaint, 3 percent have had five, while 9 percent have more than six.
Between 2008 and 2018, there were 11 lawsuits that named Williams (usually including other officers) alleging police misconduct like excessive force and wrongful arrest, according to CAPstat, a project that tracks NYPD misconduct claims. Williams has been accused four times of anally penetrating a suspect, according to CCRB complaints reviewed by The Intercept, as well as a federal lawsuit reported on by The Appeal. In a 2017 trial, Allen’s attorneys asked Williams if that conduct had earned him the nickname of “assman” in the neighborhood. Williams admitted that people call him “assman,” but disputed the moniker’s origins, The Appeal reported, citing court records. As recently as last year, he was accused in a CCRB complaint of using a chokehold during an arrest; that practice has been under intense scrutiny in New York since the 2014 killing of Eric Garner, yet it was not until last month that Cuomo signed a bill banning it.
The chokehold complaint, like 31 of the 60 allegations against Williams, were found by the CCRB to be “unsubstantiated,” which means that the board did not have enough evidence to reach a definitive conclusion, either way, according to the CCRB website. Only two allegations, stemming from the same complaint, meanwhile, were found to be “unfounded,” meaning the CCRB had enough evidence to say they were baseless. Williams was exonerated of three complaints, while five were found to be substantiated, including one related to a strip search. In 18 of the complaints, the complainant or the victim are listed as being “uncooperative,” which means that, after filing an initial complaint, the CCRB lost contact with the complainant or the complainant did not want to provide a signed statement.
For almost 20 years, Williams and other officers of the 47th Precinct have been accused of inflicting abuses on people in the Bronx, according to the records reviewed by The Intercept. But even the egregious actions Williams has been accused of may not fall under the vague “serious bodily injury” standard that de Blasio has identified as a target to crack down against.
But even if — a big if — de Blasio and Cuomo’s reforms get the most abusive officers fired, it’s not clear how they’d change the larger culture that enabled the abuses in the first place. In the complaints against him, it appears that Williams never acted alone, as other officers are also named. His partners and other officers on the scene have been accused of engaging in abuses like restricting a suspect’s breathing, as laid out in a 2019 CCRB complaint that was never resolved because the complainant did not cooperate. When Allen’s hand was broken during his 2015 arrest, he showed an officer at the precinct his protruding bone, according to his lawsuit; yet, rather than discipline Williams for the unruly arrest, the department awarded Williams an $11,000 raise soon after. Of the 11 lawsuits against Williams, the two that have been publicly settled cost the city $95,000; the remaining nine are either still pending or have an “unknown” outcome, according to CAPstat. Despite having so many civilian complaints lodged against him, Williams has been rewarded within the NYPD: Between 2008 and 2018, he got 13 raises, and was promoted from police officer to detective, joining the plainclothes unit.
Asked about Williams’s record, the NYPD referenced New York’s recent appeal 50-a. “The Department is committed to transparency and long advocated for reforms to 50-a. Since the law was repealed just last week, the Department has received a significant number of requests for disciplinary records that it had been prohibited from disclosing,” the NYPD said in a statement. The department declined to make Williams available for comment, and De Blasio’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The complaints and lawsuits against Williams allege that he put his hands inside people’s anuses four times. This behavior, ostensibly used to search for contraband, is explicitly prohibited by the NYPD, whose patrol guide section on strip searches prohibits body cavity searches in an all-caps note, unless the officer sees a foreign object and obtains a search warrant.
In one 2007 complaint to the CCRB, which the board could not reach a conclusion on, a complainant described the incident by saying he felt “raped.” Indeed, the FBI defines rape as “the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”
The most recent of these complaints occurred just last September, when a Bronx man was approached by officers because they thought he had a bag of drugs, according to a complaint filed with the CCRB. According to Williams, who filed a report about the arrest with internal affairs, there was a brief struggle, during which an officer was pushed back and the man was arrested. The complainant claimed that Williams probed his anus during that arrest. The CCRB complaint mentions that the complainant’s sister went to the station house to complain about Williams, who she said held her brother on the ground by the throat, while another officer pressed his weight against his back. She said a “fat white cop” touched her breast and then she was arrested for “inciting a riot.” The CCRB did not reach a conclusion on the complaint, due to a lack of cooperation.
Diane Goldstein, a retired sergeant with close to 22 years with the Redondo Beach Police Department in southern California and member of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, said that cavity searches are “never” appropriate in the field. “You would never be allowed to conduct a body cavity search for drugs out in the field,” Goldstein said. “No gray area.”
Williams, along with other officers from the 47th Precinct, was named in a 2017 lawsuit involving sexual harassment.
The complaint stemmed from the 2015 arrest of Cameron Hanson, who was arrested along with his girlfriend after a fight. Hanson said in a lawsuit that when he was booked into jail, he was searched, and no drugs or weapons were found on him. Later, according to the complaint, a white detective came into his cell and said, “Whoever has it, give it up.” The detective tugged on the waistband of Hanson’s sweatpants, peering inside his pants. Shocked by the detective’s behavior, Hanson leaned away. The officer slammed him face down on the floor and ripped off his pants, underwear, and shirt, leaving him fully naked, while kicking and punching him, according to the lawsuit. Close to 10 officers joined in, and Williams and five others are named in the complaint.
Hanson was shackled. The officers claimed to have found marijuana on him, and he was charged with unlawful possession of marijuana, harassment, and attempted assault. All the charges were eventually dismissed. Hanson’s lawsuit against the city was dismissed in December 2018 after the parties reached an out-of-court settlement.
Other complaints about Williams accuse him of framing a civilian and using excessive force.
For example, Shawn Wint sued Williams and Sgt. Eric Florio for civil rights violations, alleging they stopped and searched Wint and found no drugs or weapons, so they cast around and found a cigarette butt on the ground. They claimed that it was weed and that it belonged to Wint, using it as a pretext to arrest him, Wint claimed in a lawsuit. They had mistaken him for a neighborhood man nicknamed “Sho,” who they thought had information about crime in the area. Once Wint was fingerprinted a second time, the officers realized he wasn’t “Sho” and told him so, according to the lawsuit. To paper over their error, they charged Wint with unlawful possession of marijuana. He had to appear in court eight times before the charges were dropped. Wint’s civil rights lawsuit is pending, with the defendants denying the substantive charges.
In a complaint stemming from a May 2019 incident, a man claimed that, after walking away from Williams and his partner, Williams said, “Why is that guy always walking away from us. The next time I catch him I’m going to slam him on the ground and plant everything I find on him.” The CCRB ruled this complaint “unsubstantiated” due to not having enough evidence.
Williams and other officers were accused of physical abuse against teenagers in a May 2007 complaint, also found to be “unsubstantiated.” The teens alleged that as they tried to call passersby for help during their arrest, an officer slammed one of their heads into the police car window so hard it shattered the glass, leaving a gash on his face.
Even with de Blasio and Cuomo’s promised reforms, Vitale is not optimistic the NYPD’s abuses will be curbed.
“Throughout their tenures both de Blasio and Cuomo have shielded police from accountability,” Vitale said. “While their recent support for repealing 50-A are laudable, the reforms they are currently proposing are unlikely to make a major dent in the culture of impunity at the NYPD.”