The Police Department and the Brooklyn district attorney’s office have begun separate investigations into allegations of police brutality after reviewing video that shows two officers repeatedly striking a young man inside a Jewish community center in Brooklyn, officials said on Monday.
Paul J. Browne, the department’s chief spokesman, said Internal Affairs Bureau investigators also referred the case to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent agency that investigates allegations of abuse of authority by the police. One of the officers, Luis A. Vega, has been placed on modified duty, he said.
The video, posted online on Sunday night by CrownHeights.info, shows Officer Vega punching the head and body of Ehud Halevy, 21, and another officer from the 71st Precinct, Yelena Bruzzese, battering Mr. Halevy with a baton for more than two minutes last week as he tries to fend off the blows.
According to a criminal complaint, the officers said Mr. Halevy had attacked them, causing one to suffer a sprained wrist, during an encounter on Oct. 8 in the Alternative Learning Institute for Young Adults on East New York Avenue in Crown Heights. Mr. Halevy was charged with a felony count of assault on police officers.
But the seven-minute video seems to contradict the officers’ account: It does not show Mr. Halevy striking either officer, though he does pull away from Officer Vega, using an arm to push off the officer and break free. The video was taken by a surveillance camera in the center’s lounge.
Rabbi Moishe Feiglin, a director at the youth outreach center, said he was disturbed by the video and the way the officers had treated Mr. Halevy. The rabbi said Mr. Halevy participated in the center’s program of educational, spiritual and counseling services for youths who are considered “at risk” in Crown Heights.
“It was very painful to see one of our members being treated like that,” Rabbi Feiglin said. “It seemed like a senseless beating and we felt compassion for this young guy being beaten like that. We all need to have more compassion.”
According to the criminal complaint, Officers Vega and Bruzzese responded to a 911 call of a dispute inside the outreach center about 5 a.m. The call was made by Trappler Zalman, a center volunteer, who performs security checks in the building. Mr. Zalman told the officers that he found Mr. Halevy “sleeping naked” on a couch inside the lounge. Mr. Zalman ordered him to get dressed and leave, telling him he did not have permission to be there. Mr. Halevy refused and argued that he had a right to be there, the complaint states.
In fact, Rabbi Feiglin said in a telephone interview on Monday, Mr. Halevy had permission to stay overnight at the center. He needed “a place to crash for a short period,” the rabbi said. Rabbi Feiglin added that it was unclear what had prompted Mr. Zalman to call the police, since Mr. Halevy had been sleeping in the lounge for about a month.
“We don’t know exactly why he called the police,” Rabbi Feiglin said, noting that the video does not include audio.
In the video, Mr. Halevy appears to be asleep, wrapped in a white bedsheet, on a black couch in the lounge. The two officers roused him, and all three engage in a conversation. Mr. Halevy stands, wearing a pair of sweat pants.
As the officers try to handcuff him, Mr. Halevy jerks his hands away, holding them behind his back. He backs up against a pool table. Officer Vega then assumes a boxer’s stance and punches him in the head. Mr. Halevy lands face down on a couch near the pool table, where Officer Vega delivers at least eight blows in quick succession. Officer Bruzzese appears to use her body weight to hold Mr. Halevy down on the couch, while Officer Vega punches him several more times, places him in a headlock and shoves his face into the couch. Officer Bruzzese repeatedly strikes Mr. Halevy with a baton.
A third officer, followed by at least 10 others, bursts into the lounge and helps drag Mr. Halevy off the couch and onto the floor. Once he is handcuffed, the officers stand him up and his hair appears wild and tangled; no blood or bruises are visible in the video.
Rabbi Feiglin said one officer used pepper spray on Mr. Halevy.
Mr. Halevy was charged with a felony count of assault on police officers and three misdemeanors: resisting arrest, obstruction and criminal trespass. He was issued violations for marijuana possession and harassment, court records show. He was jailed until Thursday, when his family posted his $1,500 cash bail or bond, Rabbi Feiglin said.
Jerry Schmetterer, a spokesman for the Brooklyn district attorney, said the office had opened its own investigation on Monday.
“We are investigating the conduct of the police officers in this arrest,” he said.
“This is a new low,” said Steven Banks, attorney in chief for the Legal Aid Society, which is representing Mr. Halevy. “You have to wonder when this is going to end. This is yet another instance of over-policing in which a situation could have been addressed without an arrest, let alone the use of force. This is yet another instance of the Police Department acting outside the bounds of what any reasonable person would think was appropriate.”
Rabbi Feiglin said he had not seen Mr. Halevy at the center in recent days and did not know his whereabouts.
The officers, according to the criminal complaint, said they told Mr. Halevy that if he did not leave, he would be arrested for trespass. Mr. Halevy, the officers said, then threatened them, saying: “Go ahead and try it. I am going to hit you.”
When Officer Vega tried to apply handcuffs, Mr. Halevy began to swing his fists and flail his arms, striking Officer Vega and Bruzzese “about the body,” the complaint says.
The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the union that represents police officers, declined to comment on Monday night.
Source: The NY Times