NEW YORK, August 4 – A New York man is clubbed in the street. Another rammed off his bike. Another beaten. Luckily, it’s all on film. Unluckily, police are the ones seen doing the beating.
The New York City Police Department (NYPD) encourages witnesses to shoot footage of crimes, but officers were less happy last week when the camera turned on some of their own.
In the first of three incidents, a hulking cop body-checked and sent flying a cyclist at a pro-bicycle rally known as Critical Mass.
In the second a policeman bludgeoned a man on the ground, held down by another of New York’s finest, the thwacks almost as loud as the man’s cries.
Passersby filmed and published both incidents, the Times Square bicycle body check alone getting 1.2 million YouTube hits.
Finally, a 28-year-old man named Walter Harvin claimed to have taken a bloody beating from police while handcuffed in the entrance to an apartment building.
This time, the action took place in view of a security camera and the film is now with police investigators, the Daily News reported.
Local media gave the furor saturation coverage, reflecting passions around the NYPD, an almost legendary body in a city famous for a violent past and complex patchwork of ethnic neighborhoods.
The NYPD insists it backs the work of video snoops.
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly last week announced New Yorkers will soon be able to send video and text directly to the traditional emergency 911 telephone number.
Taking a cue from security-conscious London, the city is also installing networks of surveillance cameras around the Wall Street financial district in lower Manhattan.
But some in the thin blue line are less enthusiastic when the lens turns on them.
All three incidents, which took place at different times over the last month and became public only last week, are being investigated. The policemen in question are reported to be on desk duty.
However, in each case the officers insist they acted properly during dangerous arrests.
The only criminal charges filed so far are against the men claiming to be victims.
Even the cyclist, a slender 29-year-old man decked by the American football player turned cop, has been charged with attempted assault, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.
Albert O’Leary, spokesman for the city’s main police union, says officers are right to apply "escalating levels of what we call necessary force."
That includes beating a man while another holds him down.
"The officer was using the baton as he was taught to," said O’Leary, of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. "It’s not attractive, but it’s legal."
And although O’Leary welcomes video to catch criminals, he warns against amateur footage becoming "a source of fraud and deceit" in allegations of police misbehavior.
Phil Weitzman, spokesman for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent watchdog, said videos are valuable, "but we very much keep in mind what recordings can’t do. They only show part of the story."
Not everyone is so forgiving.
Donna Lieberman, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, called the NYPD "one of the most aggressive police departments in the country."
Amateur videos shed rare light on an unaccountable force, she said.
"It’s hard to believe that these incidents aren’t happening a great deal more than the ones actually ending up on video."
New York used to be awash in crime and the NYPD’s reversal of that wave over the last decade is considered one of the world’s top policing success stories.
But a history of tension between the mostly white force and residents of predominantly black neighborhoods such as Harlem, reinforced by widespread allegations of abuse, continue to eat at confidence.
The Civilian Complaint Review Board registered 7,669 complaints in 2006, up from 4,251 five years earlier.
O’Leary says the public should understand that policing is rough.
"Using force is ugly, but if you don’t do that you’ll have a violent felon running around," he said. "We do things people in an office or store or hospital don’t have to do."