To Protect and Serve–Themselves: a Call for Public Outcry Against the NYPD

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by Weintana Abraha

Courtesy. Professionalism. Respect.

The slogan is painted on New York City Police Department squad cars, self-declared promises to provide public safety and civic service. But in the wake of former NYPD Officers Franklin Mata and Kenneth Moreno’s  acquittal on charges of sexual assault, burglary, and falsifying records, a sad realization must be made: not only do the NYPD fail to fulfill their credo to the public, the public no longer has the power to demand it of them.

The disturbing Moreno-Mata affair goes back more than two years. In the early morning hours of December 7, 2008, Officers Mata (29) and 17-year veteran Moreno (41) responded to a cab driver’s 911 call about an intoxicated female passenger. Surveillance video from a bar near the woman’s East Village apartment show her being propped up and escorted into her building by the officers. They reportedly placed her in her home, left, then returned for a 20-minute stay. They left only to return once more, this time entering the building with the woman’s key.

Here is where the narrative starts to diverge. Mata, through his attorney, told investigators she consented to sex with his partner. Moreno initially admitted to “cuddling” with the half-naked victim in her bed as his partner stood by. He was later recorded admitting to having protected sex with her. However, he maintains that while the woman was inebriated, she came on to him.  The woman has a more horrifying, though incomplete, interpretation of the night’s events. Blacked out for at least part of the night, she admits to having only a partial recollection of what happened. Still one thing is clear to her: “I woke up to being penetrated from behind,” she reported to New York Daily News. “I was so intoxicated, I was dead weight . . . I couldn’t say or do anything.” Several witnesses who saw the woman earlier that evening support her statement that she was extremely drunk, telling the investigators the woman was not sober enough to even consent to sex.

After a three-month investigation, the officers were arrested in March 2009 and suspended (with pay) pending the verdict. Despite the infamy surrounding the case and near-universal disgust of the officers’ behavior, the two-month trial boiled down to he said-she said arguments due to a lack of physical evidence. The victim’s drunken state was used to discredit her testimony of the events while the defense simultaneously claimed she was sober enough to consent to what happened. After a week-long deliberation, the jury acquitted both Mata and Moreno of all but three official misconduct charges.

Juror Richard Schimenti said ultimately, there wasn’t enough evidence to prove a rape occurred. “I did think that they might have had sex, but that doesn’t mean that they did have sex,” he told The New York Times. “It was very hard to make a leap to charge people with rape when the principal person in the trial didn’t remember so many things.”

Now that the trial is over, the defense’s strategy continues to be blaming the victim’s actions and state of mind rather than the officers’ abuse of power. In a post-verdict press conference, Moreno claims the victim was “mistaken and confused . . . [that] she made the whole thing up.” Despite the criminal trial’s conclusion–Moreno and Mata have both been fired from the NYPD for their misconduct convictions; they each face up to a year in jail–this ordeal is far from over. The victim has a pending $57 million civil suit against Moreno, Mata, and the city, ensuring the allegations and mud-slinging will undoubtedly continue from all sides. Whether justice or even truth comes out of this whole saga remains to be seen.

The full facts of what happened that winter evening will probably never be fully known. But even if the physical assault the woman described didn’t happen, Mata and Moreno clearly used their position as an opportunity to lie and take advantage of a civilian dependent on them for her well-being. They then covered up their own wrongdoing. Even after all of this trauma and abuse of power, the NYPD has made no movement to change or even critique the internal politics and infrastructure that allowed this to occur.

It is not as if it is the Moreno-Mata affair is the first incident of police misconduct. Between 1992 to 2008, the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau has investigated at least 2000 officers; last year alone, more than 3000 complaints were filed with the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Time and time again, NYPD abuse and misconduct has been categorized as a few rogue or corrupt individuals rather than a systemic problem that excuses or minimally punishes harmful illegal behavior. It ignores arguments for better officer screenings and community relations training. Officers who do report their colleagues’ misconduct are branded as rats and traitors to the badge.

The public can no longer afford to accept the status quo. If the NYPD cannot or will not live up their promise of “courtesy, professionalism, respect,” communities must take actions to make them. Through the courts, the media, protests–whatever it takes to ensure our public protectors do not become perpetuators without real repercussions.


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