BEYOND THE LETTER OF THE LAW
On May 17, George Capsis was arrested for slapping a policeman. He was cycling down Bleeker Street when a police van pulled into the bike lane in front of him. The van door opened and George said to Officer Rich, “The police shouldn’t break the law.” He replied, “We can break the law.” The two officers, becoming increasingly aggressive, pinned him to the van and shouted at him to get off his bike. In a moment of madness, George slapped Officer P. In retaliation, he punched George. Pushed to the sidewalk, George was arrested. He was taken to Beth Israel and treated for a fractured elbow and cut cheek and then escorted to the 6th precinct.
Perched on a table in the shape up area in front of the arraignment desk, I had the ambulance team from Beth Israel on my right treating my bleeding cheek and in front of me, a changing gaggle of police officers and detectives trying to understand and confront this old man in glasses who had slapped a police officer; I was the event of the evening.
Over and over I heard versions of “You don’t hit a policeman,” and indeed, as I found out later, it is a felony. At my age, I quickly scan The New York Times obituaries to hopefully discover someone older than me – I rarely do. So now, I really don’t give a damn and I dispassionately listened to one intellectually challenged cop who delighted himself with discovering what he thought was the ultimate put-down, “You’re off your meds.” His delight at his cleverness caused him to repeat, “You’re off your meds, you’re off your meds” and I offered that he could only repeat it three times and if on cue, he came up with another lame insult, which I counted off and ended with “OK that’s three.”
In writing this, the word “nightmare” keeps welling up, but as I say, I was not involved. It was as if I was a detached observer, yet I tried to remind myself that this could have serious consequences, the first of which was that my wife, Andromache, was sitting watching TV expecting me to momentarily return with Sullivan Street Bread.
I asked for a phone to call her, and the Community Affairs officer pleaded to have me call my son or a neighbor instead. Then Officer “Repeat and Repeat” pushed a cell phone in front of me saying, “Somebody wants to talk to you,” and I heard, “This is Deputy Inspector Brandon del Pozo. What happened?”
It was a once in a lifetime miracle – the commanding officer of a police station asking to speak to a perpetrator. When he asked, “What happened?” I calmly told him that I had slapped a police officer and realized in that instant how impossible it was to justify it. How could I tell a police commander who must gain and hold the respect of his 200 officers that I hit the cop because he personified the arrogance of arbitrary power?
Then I heard del Pozo calmly saying, “I just got back from a bike ride and I am on vacation, but let’s get together next week when I get back and talk about it.” Indeed, next week my wife and I sat down with a police commander and when he left more than an hour later, he was a new friend.
If you google Brandon del Pozo and read his academic credits, the first question you ask is, “What made this guy become a cop?” and then you come to the conclusion that he will be the youngest Police Commissioner in the history of New York City; he is only 37.
Del Pozo grew up in Brooklyn with a Cuban father and a Jewish mother and is obviously naturally smart, very smart. He went to Stuyvesant High School – the last class in the old building on 15th Street and First Avenue. I went to Stuyvesant for a year but could not cut the math and left involuntarily – (I know how tough a school it is).
When I asked if he would write for WestView, he volunteered that at Dartmouth, he wrote for the school paper and perhaps assuaged his emerging need for command in the Reserve Officers Training Corps. I was surprised to learn that one of his early assignments in NYPD was as an intelligence officer in Amman, Jordan. I had only one very questionable bottle of wine, so I offered ice coffee and coke and Brandon countered with feigned outrage, “You offered wine?” He is getting his doctorate in Philosophy at the City University of New York; I studied Philosophy at Columbia – the coincidences seem to mount.
This was a very important meeting because as I write, I am scheduled to go before a judge in June. A DA will read off the complaint that I struck a police officer and the judge will say, “How do you plea, guilty or not guilty?” and I will have to say “guilty” and accept the penalty.
Yet here the commander of the officer I struck, and I kept asking myself, “why?” Sure, Internal Affairs (IA) interviewed me the night or morning of the incident and later, more IA detectives questioned me. So I knew that Officer P was in trouble. You just don’t smash your fist into an old man with glasses and del Pozo gently explored the subject of my bringing a civil suit with scrupulous neutrality.
He continued, “I went before 44 men in my command to say, that although anyone who hits an officer should definitely be arrested, hitting someone your age in the process of making that arrest does not constitute the best judgment,” and he that he had taken Officer P off active duty and thought that he might want to apologize.” I sat calmly, amazed, here was the hard arbitrary edge of government – the police – volunteering a larger softer view of justice –unprecedented.
In the long frustrating fight to save a hospital from the money oiled greed machine, I could not get a single politician to say, “Sure, they got the money but no, it is not fair,” and here was Brandon del Pozo saying, “Sure, you should not have slapped a cop, but he had no business hitting you.”
He related an incident. He faced an angry, drunk crowd with a bull horn last Halloween as the belligerence escalated. Taking courage from the unfolding hatred of the police, a ring leader shouted into his bull horn. Then, waving his hands, he knocked the bullhorn against his gums, cutting them.When he took the bull horn away and revealed the wound, he saw the eyes of the of his aggressor go soft, he had realized what he had done in his moment of anger, and was apologetic.
He explained the class struggle. In the ghetto neighborhoods, residents see cops as having good pay and security, and in rich neighborhoods, like the Village, the cops feel they are looked down on and there is resentment among them for this.
Brandon is the first police officer, the firstbearer of a political portfolio that knows the black and white letter of the law butalso sees the gray of justice.“I’m sitting here with you today because a police precinct can still alienate its constituents by doing things that are perfectly legal,” he said that day on my patio. “So we have a burden of good judgment that goes beyond simply what’s legal to do. I want our residents to know that when they have an issue with our judgment, we don’t just circle our wagons. We take it seriously.” I wish the other government officials in the Village did too.