On a cloudy night in mid-December 2015, Justin McClarin was asleep in his basement apartment when New York Police Department Officers David Grieco and Michael Ardolino broke into his room. Grieco and Ardolino put McClarin in painfully tight handcuffs. When McClarin complained, the officers ignored him. Instead, they took McClarin outside and slammed him down on the pavement so hard that his shoulder became dislocated. The officers had neither an arrest nor search warrant. In a pending lawsuit from which this account is gathered, McClarin claims that they refused to give him a reason for his arrest.
Instead of taking McClarin to the hospital to treat his dislocated shoulder, Grieco and Ardolino took him to the NYPD’s notorious 75th Precinct. While he was restrained, officers at the 75th allegedly shot McClarin with a BB gun five times. The lawsuit also claims that the two officers knowingly lied to the district attorney, accusing McClarin of committing an undisclosed felony, leading to charges that were ultimately dropped. McClarin was released, but not before he spent six days in police custody.
McClarin’s lawsuit is seeking to hold New York City responsible for the alleged constitutional violations in part because of a pattern of the failure to hold police officers — in particular, the cops involved in McClarin’s case — to account. According to a database that tracks lawsuits, between 2015 and 2018, Ardolino was sued seven times, with one case settled, three pending, and three with unknown outcomes. The same data set lists 32 lawsuits that name Grieco, with 15 settled with cash from the city, nine pending, six with unknown outcomes, one verdict in Grieco’s favor, and one case dismissed with prejudice. The officer with the second-highest number of cases in the precinct has been sued 15 times. The suits have been costly for the city: The resolved cases against Grieco alone have resulted in more than $400,000 in payouts from the city to plaintiffs. (The NYPD declined to comment about the McClarin case and the officers’ records of lawsuits.)
Officers like Grieco and Ardolino have brought notoriety to the 75th Precinct. Based in East New York, a Brooklyn neighborhood stricken by poverty and a troubling history of racist neglect by the authorities, the 75th was the most sued precinct of New York City cops from 2015 to 2018, according to CAPstat, a website created by public defenders that tracks federal civil rights lawsuits against New York police. (CAPstat’s organizers emphasize that the website “is a demonstration project and does not represent the universe of data of police misconduct in New York City.”) The city has had to defend itself in 90 lawsuits brought against the 75th during that period, while the next most-sued precinct had 40 cases brought against it.
The lawsuits, though, are only part of the story. An Intercept analysis of newly available records from the files of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, known as the CCRB, shows that, in addition to the lawsuits, the 75th Precinct also leads the city in complaints of misconduct by the public. When it comes to serious allegations about police misconduct, the 75th Precinct has the worst record in New York. And the officers involved in the encounters rarely face consequences. Instead, in the years following substantiated complaints against them, officers in the 75th Precinct routinely got raises and promotions.
There have been 1,364 allegations of misconduct against the 75th Precinct logged with the CCRB. In contrast, the neighboring 73rd Precinct has 688; the 69th, also adjacent, has 418. The 104th and 102th Precincts have 170 and 182 complaints, respectively. Many other precincts have under 50. The 78th Precinct, which covers the tony neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, has only 46.
“In my practice, the 75th Precinct was not only one of the most prolific in terms of quantity of arrests, but also in violence, misconduct in all its forms, and routine constitutional violations.”
The records give a granular picture of allegations about police misconduct at the 75th Precinct — The Intercept found multiple cases in which officers from the 75th were accused of knowingly fabricating evidence, making a false arrest, or brutalizing residents — and the nearly complete lack of any accountability. The most severe disciplinary measures taken against police named in the complaints were docked vacation days, even when the CCRB recommended termination or suspension without pay.
Defense attorneys are well-aware of the 75th Precinct’s reputation. “In my practice, the 75th Precinct, covering East New York in Brooklyn, was not only one of the most prolific in terms of quantity of arrests, but also in violence, misconduct in all its forms, and routine constitutional violations,” Scott Hechinger, senior staff attorney and director of policy at Brooklyn Defender Services, a public defense group, told The Intercept. He added that despite the 75th Precinct’s notorious history, prosecutors continue to work with officers and the city continues to defend them in expensive lawsuits: “The cloak of absolute protection for cops is reinforced by all system actors.”
Grieco, one of the officers at the center of the McClarin lawsuit, appears to be uniquely prolific in racking up CCRB complaints. In addition to all the lawsuits, Grieco has also had 49 allegations made against him through the CCRB. In only 11 of those cases did the board exonerate him of any wrongdoing. In comparison, 41 percent of current NYPD service members have never had any complaints lodged against them, according to the CCRB’s 2018 annual report. Twenty-one percent have had only one complaint, 3 percent have had five, and only 9 percent have had six or more.
Like other cops in the 75th Precinct, all the lawsuits and CCRB complaints appear to have had little impediment to Grieco’s career. In the fiscal year 2017, after 11 years on the job and two years after the incident with McClarin, Grieco was promoted to detective third grade. His salary increased $10,000. A year later, in the 2018 fiscal year, Grieco was again promoted, this time to sergeant, and got another raise for $20,000 more.
An Intercept analysis cross-referencing CAPstat salary data with CCRB complaints shows that this was a widespread pattern at the 75th Precinct. Rather than being punished when civilian complaints of misconduct against them were substantiated, police at the 75th routinely got promotions and raises.
It took the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police — and the global protest movement the killing sparked — for even a limited accounting of the CCRB records to become public. In the wake of the protests, New York repealed a controversial law known as 50-a, which allowed police to keep misconduct records secret.
With the law off the books, public-interest advocates, including the press, sought to make the misconduct records public through public records requests and, subsequently, in court — where police unions sued to suppress the information and a judge blocked the release of police disciplinary records until August 18. Eventually, the investigative news organization ProPublica released an incomplete set of CCRB data, which The Intercept used for its investigation. The ProPublica data set omitted both ongoing prosecutions — some of the worst cases — as well as those in which the board was unable to reach the complainant or secure their cooperation. (On Thursday, the New York Civil Liberties Union released a slightly broader data set with higher search functionality.)
Repealing 50-a was one of the few meaningful reforms backed by New York politicians who have long been averse to reforming the police. The recent widespread calls for the police’s funding to be drastically reduced gained little traction.
The newly released misconduct complaint records, however, when cross-referenced with pay and promotion data from CAPstat, starkly illustrate the limits of police accountability within the existing institutions. “We’ve tried reforms in the past, but the NYPD won’t follow the Constitution and aren’t deterred by criminal laws, let alone their own patrol guide,” said Hechinger of the Brooklyn Defenders.
In its analysis of CCRB data and lawsuits, cross-checking the information with officers’ pay history, The Intercept limited the data to cases in which the CCRB found the allegation against the officer to be substantiated and the misconduct extreme enough to recommend disciplinary charges — cases in which the cop in question faced termination, suspension without pay, docked vacation days, or “admonishment.” (Substantiated complaints with no disciplinary charges can lead to docked vacation days or more training, but the penalty applied is at the discretion of the police commissioner.)
The CCRB data paints a damning picture of the 75th. Fifty-five active police officers at the precinct have at least one complaint that was “substantiated with charges” on their record. Not only were none of these officers terminated, but, since 2000, police commissioners have not even applied the CCRB’s less harsh recommendation of temporary suspension without pay. Not a single one of the officers clocked fewer hours after the CCRB’s conclusion, according to CAPstat.
“We’ve tried reforms in the past, but the NYPD won’t follow the Constitution and aren’t deterred by criminal laws, let alone their own patrol guide.”
The NYPD declined to comment on The Intercept’s analysis of lawsuits and CCRB data on the 75th Precinct. Instead, Sgt. Jessica McRorie, a police spokesperson, pointed to years of reforms and trainings instituted for officers. “For years, the New York City Police Department has worked to refine its internal disciplinary system. Last year, an independent outside panel of former prosecutors and judges reviewed the system and found it to be fair and effective,” McRorie wrote in an email, adding that the department had also implemented further reforms recommended by the panel. “All of this advances the NYPD’s priority to make its internal disciplinary system as fair, effective, and transparent as it can for an agency privileged to manage a vast number of interactions with the public.”
Andrew Case, a former CCRB spokesperson, said suspensions are exceedingly rare. He once oversaw a complaint by a man who was beaten from behind by an officer with a baton with so much force, it ruptured his spleen. The officer barely faced consequences. “He got 10 vacation days docked,” Case said. “That’s their idea of what discipline should be.”
Not only did officers in the 75th Precinct with substantiated charges go undisciplined, but they also continued to make more and more money — both from raises and by harnessing NYPD’s infamous use of overtime pay. (As an example of overtime bloat, cops collectively raked in some $115 million in overtime pay in the first two weeks of the George Floyd protests.)
Every officer from the 75th Precinct who had complaints that were “substantiated with charges” got multiple raises in the years following the conclusion of their CCRB investigations, according to The Intercept’s analysis. More than half got raises the same year the CCRB substantiated complaints against them. Almost all of the officers in question also racked up thousands of dollars more in overtime pay than they had earned the year before complaints against them.
Take Grieco, who is known by the nickname “Bullethead.” In 2014, the year after the most serious CCRB complaint against him was substantiated, Grieco made $50,279 in overtime, up from $24,706 the year before. In 2015, he made $74,125 in overtime, nearly doubling his income over his salary of $78,026. Then came the promotions.
The Long History of the 75th
Today’s troubled 75th Precinct is not a historical aberration; the precinct has a long and sordid history of abuse, misconduct, and even criminal activity. In the 1980s, a group of detectives collaborated with drug cartels, taking bribes, running crack and cocaine, and robbing cartel rivals. One former officer, who helped plot to murder the wife of a rival drug dealer, served 13 years in prison and another detective served eight. Other officers who were involved served no time. The case prompted the formation of the Mollen Commission to study police corruption and misconduct — with damning results about corruption and abuse, in particular everyday brutality against the people of East New York.
Yet police in the 75th have carried on the patten of abuse at alarming rates. And, unlike the cartel case, many officers faced no consequences for their criminal activity. In 1992, two men were arrested for the murder of a 16-year-old girl, despite the absence of any physical evidence that they were involved. The two men, Everton Wagstaffe and Reginald Connor didn’t face murder charges, but were convicted of kidnapping in the case and served 23 and 15 years in prison, respectively.
In 2015, Wagstaffe and Connor were fully exonerated after DNA evidence cleared them. The state Appellate Division found that cops had withheld critical evidence — and then lied about it. Wagstaffe and Connor sued the city on the basis that they had been framed for murder by the cops. Eventually, they settled for a $25 million payout at the public’s expense.
The city never admitted any wrongdoing. Of the four officers named in the suit, two remain on the police force, one has since passed, and the fourth retired and is celebrated among NYPD for being featured in the book “The Making of a Detective.” None of the police officers ever faced any consequences.
“What I think police officers did to Reggie is tragic,” Conners’s lawyer, Emma Freudenberger, told The Intercept. “And there are how many Reggie Connors who are sitting in prison because police aren’t held accountable for following the rules?”
Given this decadeslong history and the absence of consequences for the police involved, advocates have little faith in the reforms championed by powerful New York politicians like Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. While de Blasio doesn’t have the authority to discipline rogue cops, Case, the former CCRB spokesperson, said, he does have the ability to hold the police commissioner accountable — but that’s unlikely to happen. “The police commissioner serves at the pleasure of the mayor. If the mayor wanted to replace him, he could,” Case said. “I don’t think de Blasio wants to do that. He’s trying to please the cops, but they never liked him.”
Hechinger agrees that the incremental reforms being proposed by politicians are unlikely to work. “If we don’t take decisive action knowing what we know now,” he said, “we will send the loud and clear message of continued impunity to the 75th and all precincts through the city.”