Three Schenectady police officers were arraigned Friday morning on misdemeanor charges of official misconduct stemming from their alleged failure to follow proper procedures during a December arrest.
The officers, Eric Reyell, 29, Gregory Hafensteiner, 30, and Andrew Karaskiewicz, 38, were cleared of allegations that they beat suspect Donald Randolph, their attorneys said.
Prosecutors from the state attorney general’s office called the charges a reminder that officers must obey the law themselves.
Defense lawyers and the police union head, however, called the charges “ridiculous” and “meaningless misdemeanors.”
Hafensteiner attorney Michael McDermott said “He feels relieved that he’s vindicated that as police officer, he did a good job. And now to be brought into criminal court for failing to file a form, is pretty disappointing.”
The three were arraigned in Schenectady County Court before Judge Karen Drago. All three pleaded innocent and were released on their own recognizance.
Not indicted and not being prosecuted are Daryl Mallard and Kevin Derkowski, who were also present at Randolph’s arrest. Reyell, Hafensteiner and Karaskiewicz are accused of failing to complete a “use of force” form regarding the arrest of Randolph. Reyell is also accused of failing to have his vehicle camera on during “events involving Donald Randolph.”
State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, in a statement, said the indicted officers broke the law. Cuomo’s office received the case after the Schenectady County district attorney’s office recused itself.
“While carrying out their critical mission of enforcing the law against others, police officers must also obey the law themselves,” Cuomo said. “Only through mutual respect between New York’s citizens and police, and respect of the law by all, can we keep New York safe.”
Mayor Brian U. Stratton and Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett issued a statement Friday afternoon reaffirming their position that the outside investigation was appropriate.
“With the conclusion of the Grand Jury investigation, the Professional Standards Unit of the Schenectady Police Department will immediately commence their administrative investigation into possible violations of department rules and regulations by all five officers,” they said.
Hafensteiner, Karaskiewicz, and Reyell, who had been on paid suspension, were all suspended without pay on Friday. Derkowski and Mallard were to remain suspended with pay pending completion of an administrative interview next week, at which time a decision will be made on whether they will return to duty.
Randolph alleged that one or more officers used excessive force and he was injured as they were arresting him for allegedly driving while intoxicated. Randolph’s family alleged that a half-dozen officers beat him while arresting him, and after Randolph tried to use a cellphone to call his girlfriend for help. Randolph was not seriously injured.
As a result of the accusations, five officers, including the three indicted, were placed on paid leave. They have been out since late December. By May, the city had already paid them more than $110,000 to stay home.
Also by May, the original charges against Randolph fell apart. Karaskiewicz, the arresting officer, never did sobriety tests and never saw Randolph driving, District Attorney Robert Carney said previously. Randolph ultimately pleaded guilty to misdemeanor aggravated unlicensed operation, not felony drunk driving, which was the original charge.
But Randolph’s accusations also went nowhere. The grand jury chose not to indict any of the officers on the accusations of excessive force, instead, accusing them of not following procedures.
The defense attorneys argued that the procedure accusations do not rise to the level of a criminal charge and should have been handled in-house. They will move to dismiss the charges, they said.
The officers appeared in court with the support of several fellow officers. Half the gallery was filled with plain-clothed officers and family.
Among them was Lt. Robert Hamilton, police union president. He blasted the charges afterward.
Hamilton said the officers were rushed back to the road after the incident and returned later to file paperwork. The use of force form was forgotten.
“One department form wasn’t filled out and they’re charged with a crime?” Hamilton said. “Don’t you see a problem with that?”
He also noted that for the charges to hold up, the officers would have had to have gained some benefit from their actions. Hamilton said he doesn’t see how they could have benefited.
“I can’t find any logic in this circus they put together,” Hamilton said. “The officers won’t be pleading guilty to anything. They should be apologized to.”
USE OF FORCE FORMS
Friday’s indictments also shed light on the use of force form procedures, as well as the in-car cameras.
The forms themselves were first required in July 2006. In the 16 months following, nearly 500 were filed, officials said in March.
November and December 2007 forms were released to The Sunday Gazette under a Freedom of Information Law request in March. No forms from the Randolph case were released.
The forms showed officers used a range of force, from “resistant handcuffing” to pointing a service weapon at a suspect.
Bennett, who has changed and updated several policies in his nearly 12 months on the job, said then he was satisfied with the use of force policy. However, he said he reserved the right to modify it in the future.
The U.S. Justice Department has had an ongoing investigation into the police department since 2002, looking into, among other things, whether officers used excessive force in the five years prior.
In a March 2003 letter the Justice Department recommended revamping a vague policy on the use of force.
The policy also followed a high-profile lawsuit by the New York Civil Liberties Union on the subject. An NYCLU Freedom of Information Law request was stymied, as no use of force form existed. Instead, the information had to be gleaned from vast numbers of incident reports.
Melanie Trimble, executive director of the group’s Capital Region chapter, has welcomed the forms. She admitted Friday they had doubts as to whether they would be used effectively.
Friday’s indictments allay many of those doubts, she said.
“We are gratified that the use of force report is proving to be an effective tool in rooting out police misconduct,” Trimble said after being informed of the indictments by a reporter. “We applaud the commissioner’s serious approach.”
She also discounted the idea that the forms could have been forgotten. “That is not something that a police officer is likely to forget when force is used,” she said.
Attorney Steve Coffey, representing Karaskiewicz, said his client didn’t fill out the form because he didn’t think he had to. The police knew Randolph was violent in the car, Coffey said. Coffey questioned how someone could be charged with a misdemeanor for failing to fill out a form.
“If you start indicting police on every occasions when they don’t fill out a form, then you’ll have a lot of cops in this area saying ‘This is what I’ll be charged with?’ ” Coffey said.
Reyell was the only officer charged with failing to turn on his camera. There were at least three police cars involved in the incident. None of the others were accused of not having their video running, including Reyell’s partner Derkowski, and Karaskiewicz, the initial arresting officer.
Assistant Attorney General Emmanuel Nneji told the court during Reyell’s appearance that the cameras are installed to collect evidence, protect officers and monitor professional delivery of service.
Nneji, however, also appeared to misspeak, saying Reyell transported Randolph. The indictment says nothing of that and officials have said earlier other officers actually transported the suspect.
The cameras have also been at the center of disputes with the Civilian Police Review Board over access. Many cameras simply weren’t working, officials said in February.
Bennett said then that he told every officer that they must immediately report any malfunctions “or face the consequences.” It was unclear if that communication came before or after the Randolph incident.
Reyell’s attorney, Cheryl Coleman, called the indictments “sour grapes.”
“They’re trying to save face and hope that everyone forgets about the big picture that they came away with egg on their face.”
Both Karaskiewicz and Reyell are decorated officers, coming on the force in 2001 and 2002, respectively.
Reyell was one of two officers awarded a citation for exceptional merit following a May 5, 2005, arrest of a man fleeing with a handgun. Karaskiewicz was one of eight who received department citations for helping many people evacuate the burning Hampshire House apartments on Oct. 15, 2005. They have also received other duty awards.
Hafensteiner was given the department’s exceptional duty award with another officer in connection with a Nov. 7, 2004, suicide on the Hulett Street Bridge over Interstate 890. Hafensteiner and the other officer climbed to the top of the fence and grabbed the man by his hands.
Six other officers, including Karaskiewicz, received commendation awards in that incident. The rescue attempt, however, failed as the man flailed his legs and fell to his death.
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Categories: Schenectady County