Prosecuting Police Brutality

By Attorney Howard Friedman

Since I first began working on police misconduct cases in 1976 as a law student I have known that local prosecutors are reluctant to prosecute police officers for brutality. A lot has changed since then, starting with the federal criminal prosecution of police officers for beating Rodney King. Still, it is not news when a local prosecutor refuses to prosecute a police officer for beating a handcuffed prisoner. But I was surprised that the District Attorney in Queens, New York, has refused to prosecute a police officer for assaulting a judge from the Queens Supreme Court (a trial court in New York where he handles matrimonial cases). If a judge—along with other witnesses—cannot provide enough evidence to charge a brutal police officer criminally, police can beat people without fear of criminal prosecution.

Judge Thomas Raffaele witnessed a New York City police officer smashing his knee into the back of a handcuffed homeless man. The judge looked closely and saw that the prisoner was not struggling; rather, the police officer was out of control. The police officer left his prisoner and began attacking people in the crowd, including giving the judge a karate chop to the throat. The judge felt the police officer should face criminal charges for assault and battery. I would have expected that this would be the rare case where a district attorney would bring criminal charges. You can’t have a better witness than a judge. Yesterday, District Attorney Richard Brown said he would not pursue criminal charges against the officer because “after an extensive and thorough investigation” he had decided prosecutors would be unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the cop “intentionally and unjustifiably struck Justice Raffaele, and that the judge sustained physical injury.”

Judge Raffaele said, “At this point, given the way the officers lied to cover up what this guy did who hit us, I have to wonder if the same cover-up attitude extends to the detectives in the D.A.’s office.” I would go a step further and say that the cover-up attitude extends to the D.A., whose staff uses police officers as witnesses in every case. Prosecutors rely on police officers to obtain convictions. District attorneys also rely on support from police officers and their unions when they seek reelection.

When public officials fail to provide justice to people injured by lawless police officers, victims of police brutality have only one remedy—bringing a civil rights case against the officers. Prosecutors do not want to file charges against police officers. Police departments do not want to expose police brutality or challenge the word of their own officers. Police internal affairs systems rely on police officers to investigate fellow police officers. But in a civil suit, the victim of the police misconduct, represented by a civil rights lawyer, investigates the incident and presents it to a jury. I believe members of a jury will accept the word of a judge over the false testimony of police officers. Hopefully the city or town that has to pay the verdict or settlement for the officer’s misconduct will eventually protect the public by firing the police officer.


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