Ex-Officer Details Beatings, Break-INS By New York Police -- People Were Randomly Attacked, Commission Is Told
NEW YORK - At the start of his testimony yesterday before a city commission investigating police corruption, former patrolman Bernie Cawley was asked why his fellow officers called him "the mechanic."
"Because I used to tune people up," said Cawley, 29. "It's a police word for beating people up."
Were these suspects he was tuning up? a panel member asked.
"No," he answered. "I was just beating people up in general."
So began the third day of hearings by New York's mayoral commission on police corruption, an investigative panel formed in response to discovery last summer of a police-run drug-selling ring in Brooklyn.
With a rapt and horrified city listening, clean-cut former members of New York's finest have testified about randomly breaking into apartments; stealing drugs, money and cocaine; lying to grand juries; "tuning up" people with leather gloves packed with lead; and generally breaking more laws than they ever enforced.
On Monday, the panel heard from Michael Dowd, a former officer in Brooklyn's 75th Precinct who said he accepted $8,000 a week for protecting a drug dealer. On the second day of hearings scheduled to end next week, the commission heard a police internal-affairs investigator describe how superiors thwarted his attempts to unearth corruption.
Perhaps the most sensational testimony, however, came yesterday when Cawley, a burly Bronx native, recounted how, in four years on the force, he randomly attacked people with his nightstick, flashlight and leather, lead-loaded "sap" gloves on about 400 occasions just "to show who was in charge."
Cawley was arrested in 1990 for selling stolen guns and then agreed, while in jail, to tell his story to the commission. Yesterday, he spoke at length about breaking down apartment doors looking for drugs and money, driving to neighborhood bodegas to buy scales to measure stolen cocaine, and running down fire escapes with garbage bags full of narcotics, semi-automatic rifles and thousands of dollars in cash stolen from apartments of drug dealers.
At 2 a.m. one day during his rookie year in 1986, he said, seven cruisers from his precinct gathered outside a drug-infested apartment building. Nightsticks raised, he recalled, officers stormed inside without a warrant.
"We just started beating people," he said. "One lady came down the stairs with a radio in her hand. We smashed the radio with a nightstick and then threw her down the stairs. Anybody in the hallways or courtyard pretty much got beaten."
On another occasion, Cawley said, he and two other officers spent a Fourth of July detail drinking on duty, then decided to visit a Bronx brothel. The three men, in uniform, broke down the door, chased away the paying customers and then each grabbed a prostitute and retreated to a different bedroom.
Asked whether he ever was concerned that such activities would get him in trouble, Cawley described how citizens who tried to file complaints at the precinct office were harassed and told that "typing" their complaints would require a three-hour wait.
"Who's going to catch us?" he asked. "We're the police. We're in charge."
Milton Mollen, a judge for 24 years and former deputy mayor who heads the five-member, city-appointed commission, said he did not think the tales of brutality and corruption were indicative of actions by the entire New York police force.
"In any group of 30,000 people, you're going to find a certain percentage who are corrupt, abhorrent or even brutal," Mollen said after yesterday's testimony. "The overwhelmingly majority of police officers are honest."
But Cawley and Kevin Hembury, a former colleague of Dowd, testified that in crime-plagued precincts in the Bronx and Brooklyn in which they served, an overwhelmingly majority of their fellow officers were participating in some kind of illegal activity.
Hembury said police commonly carried "throwaway" guns, weapons stolen from criminals, that could be left at the scene of a crime and "used as evidence against perpetrators."
He said officers at his Brooklyn precinct would raid apartments of drug dealers "10 or 20 times a week" in 1991 and last year, dividing among themselves any money they found and reselling drugs and weapons they stole.
Over the years, he said, they grew particularly inventive in their methods of sneaking up on drug dealers, using taxis and one time borrowing a city ambulance to arrive at a crack house undetected.
His superiors, he said, were "quite aware of what was going on."
Cawley said he and his partner would go "doin' doors" as many as five times a night, selling drugs they found to another officer. Every time a drug dealer was arrested in one of their illegal apartment raids, he said, they would lie and say the dealer had been arrested on the street.
Cawley testified that once he and fellow officers raided and harassed residents of a particular apartment building so much that someone in the building retaliated, dropping a milk crate filled with concrete blocks from the roof onto a passing police cruiser, seriously injuring the officer inside.
"They hated the police," Cawley said. "You'd hate the police, too, if you lived there."
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