Why sue? A current civil rights lawsuit bringing back old painful memories

The March 5, 2011 NYT’s headline reads, “Policing in Public Housing Leads City to Pay Plaintiffs.”

But wait. Wasn’t I once peripherally involved in a similar case?

Many years ago, I was chosen as a juror for a civil rights trial in New York’s Supreme Court. The case was pretty simple: a man who lived in City public housing had been falsely arrested and abused by certain Housing Police, and had filed a lawsuit against the City.

The trial on which I served as a juror took place before 1995, when the three separate city police divisions—NYPD, Transit Police and Housing Police—merged into one uneasy entity.

Before the merger, we savvy citizens evaluated the police hierarchy thusly: NYPD was the class act; Transit Police were people who weren’t smart or good enough to make the NYPD; and Housing Police were infamous for being one jot up from street thugs.

I remember that Transit and Housing were gleeful about that merger since they got to cloak themselves in the cachet and glory of NYPD. NYPD, understandably, was not at all happy.

The first witness in that trial was the plaintiff. He was a very small, middle-aged, well-dressed and agonizingly dignified man. He related his story, about how one night several considerably larger housing cops—I think they were all white, and he was not—pulled him into their precinct with an incoherent excuse and sadistically abused him, threatened him, pulled his pants down. Ugly stuff.

As he told his story tears came down his cheeks. But he did not sob.

After his direct testimony, before the cross, we the jury were sent back to our hang-out room. After quite a while the judge presiding over the case came in without his robe, sat down at the table and told us that our work was over. The City (who defends municipal services in such lawsuits) had decided to settle.

The judge explained that we should not feel overlooked. The fact that we had been there, in the jury box, listening to the plaintiff, had settled the case. “The lawyers for the city,” he told us, “were watching your faces when the plaintiff testified and they saw your sympathy for him and your anger at what had happened to him. That’s why they settled. They settled because you were there.”

A great lesson about the role and power of juries and a gracious thank-you from a wonderful judge.

So why is abuse from housing cops still happening? That’s not a rhetorical question. I don’t have the answer or, rather, the answer is too complex to go into here.

Let me praise, though, the two excellent non-profit civil rights clinics—the Legal Aid Society and the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense fund—and the major law firm of Paul Weiss, who represented the plaintiffs.

Still, it shouldn’t be happening now, again, always. Ever.

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