Some Island residents say that local public safety officers aren’t held accountable for their actions
Imagine being beaten nearly to death by law enforcement simply for loitering outside of a building. This is what 20-year-old Roosevelt Island resident Anthony Jones alleges happened to him last month after an arrest without explanation by a Roosevelt Island Public Safety Officer. Jones spent seven days in Mount Sinai Hospital for broken ribs and significant blood loss. Now he is suing the Roosevelt Island Operating Commission.
“I was really traumatized from this situation; to this day I’m still afraid to walk to the store, I’m afraid to walk outside,” said Jones, an eight-year resident of Roosevelt Island, in an interview.
Jones’s allegation is not the first of its kind on Roosevelt Island. At a rally inside Good Shepherd Chapel on February 16th, Roosevelt Island residents told of dozens of stories of being beaten, brutalized, or bullied over the years by Roosevelt Island Public Safety Officers. They called for overturning the Public Safety leadership, starting with director W. Keith Guerra.
“Anthony Jones is just the catalyst to what has joined this community together in the demands we now have,” said Erin Feeley-Nahem, chair of public safety for the Roosevelt Island Residents Association.
Part of the problem, according to Matthew Katz, a former Residents Association president, is that Roosevelt Island is not under the jurisdiction of the NYPD. Instead, the tiny island community, which is leased by the State of New York to the City, is policed by the Roosevelt Island Public Safety Department, a privately-owned peace officer group operated by the Roosevelt Island Operating Commission.
Unlike police officers, the safety officers are only armed with mace and nightsticks. According to Katz, they do not have to answer to the NYPD, and have no one policing them. At one point, he said, the officers requested the use of taser guns, which was immediately shot down by the public.
The Department of Public Safety refused to comment on the specific case of Anthony Jones, because of the ongoing investigation. However, Director Guerra released a general statement about brutality, saying, “I want to reassure you that this office does not tolerate excessive use of force nor constitutional rights violations that put members of the public at risk.”
Some members of the community feel that, despite alleged boundary over-stepping and abuse of power, the Public Safety Department has been a positive influence in the community.
“There are a lot of good things that Public Safety does that we see all the time, and I think that they’re in a tough position,” said Ellen Polivy, the current president of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association.
But not everyone is convinced.
“The community is a safe neighborhood; we don’t need zero tolerance,” said Feeley-Nahem. “We fear more from Public Safety than from crime or gangs.”
In fact, in December 2012, a total of three crimes occurred in Roosevelt Island: one count of grand larceny and two counts of assault, according to the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation. There were also 11 counts of criminal mischief, even though safety officers responded to 101 incidents. Also, according to Roosevelt Island parents like Feeley-Nahem, young people are routinely harassed for trespassing. In December, 38 people were questioned for trespassing, but only four were actually charged.
In the case of Anthony Jones, however, no charges were filed. Late last month, Jones, represented by attorney Michael Lamonsoff, filed a claim against the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation and the Public Safety Department for “false imprisonment, excessive force, false arrest, battery and assault, violation of civil rights and Constitutional rights, personal injuries, suffering and medical expenses.”
According to the claim, Jones was lawfully waiting outside 546 Main Street on January 13th at 8:00 p.m., when he was “improperly detained, arrested, assaulted and battered.” The claim states that Jones was taken to a holding cell, where “he continued to be further humiliated.” Then he was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital, and upon treatment was allegedly released “without explanation and without being charged.”
“It’s about a history of continued constitutional rights abuses by the police, specifically false arrests, stops and beatings, searches without warrants and brutality,” said Lamonsoff, who is conducting an investigation into the Public Safety Department. “The problem really is that there is no accountability for these security officers, who have the same rights and duties as NYPD officers.”
In an interview, Jones himself described the incident in detail, stating that the officer initially started cursing at him when he was waiting outside his friend’s apartment. Jones said that he put his hands up, and the officer threw him to the ground and pulled out mace.
“All I asked was, ‘Is this necessary?’” said Jones. “Everything I did, I walked up to him so he could arrest me. There was no form of resisting.”
Jones described being slammed into the ground while already handcuffed, splitting open his chin, and being kneed forcefully in the back several times. Jones allegedly tried moving his head, but said the officer repeatedly slammed his face into the ground. He said that he was never told why he was arrested.
“The worst was the hospital,” said Jones. “I was handcuffed to my hospital bed for seven days, and the nurses and doctors were looking at me like I was a criminal.”
Assemblyman Micah Kellner is pushing for a bill that would create a Citizen Complaint Review Board that would oversee all safety officers statewide. The bill, Kellner said, would create an independent board, established by the State, that would have jurisdiction over the Roosevelt Island Safety Department. If passed, the CCRB could be set up and running within six months.
Donald Lewis, acting CEO of RIOC, wrote about the situation in his bi-weekly column in the WIRE, the local Roosevelt Island newspaper.
“We are all aware that a number of Island residents have expressed concerns regarding the RIOC Public Safety Department (PSD) and took part in a peaceful demonstration over the weekend at the Good Shepherd Plaza,” he wrote. “We are mindful of these concerns and have taken steps to address the same. These steps include: internal review, deciding to hire an outside firm to conduct an operational audit of PSD, and referral of recent incidents to the Office of the New York State Inspector General for review.”
At the rally on February 16th, hundreds of Roosevelt Island residents showed up in support of Jones. Several people spoke, sharing their stories of experiences with the police, including Adib Mansour, a soccer coach on Roosevelt Island, who recalled an incident several years ago, when he was arrested for trying to take pictures at a baseball game and allegedly trespassing. Mansour said that he is diabetic, and passed out from lack of food while in custody. In addition, he said, his 10-year-old son was left unattended on the baseball field.
Most poignant was the tearful account of Anthony Jones’ mother, Monica Vega, of her son’s ordeal.
“I will never forget how they nearly killed my son,” stated Vega, who said that she had to fight to even visit Anthony. “This officer is still working, getting a paycheck, while I am taking my son to doctor’s appointments three times a week. These officers are true criminals, and have to be replaced.”
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